Should cities be turning golf courses into parks?

Look at all that empty space: the Mid Surrey Golf Course, Richmond-upon-Thames, c1990. Image: Getty.

One of the odder subplots of the coronavirus crisis has been that it’s given Britain’s tabloid newspapers a whole new way to feel outraged towards the population of Britain. The papers have been filled with stories about the “selfish” people flouting lockdown rules and flocking to the parks and beaches to take advantage of the unusually warm spring weather. In the early weeks of the crisis, fears that the social contact this entailed would spread the virus led many councils to close their parks altogether. 

All of which felt a little harsh towards those who live in flats or shared properties, and so are rather more in need of such spaces than those with their own gardens. So in early April, author and Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole started a petition under the headline, “Don’t close parks – open up golf courses so there’s more space to exercise safely”. 

Shrubsole’s argument – which seems to have been inspired in part by a viral tweet from Sunday Times reporter Rosamund Urwin – is simple. For reasons of both physical and mental health, people need access to green space. If the park system isn’t big enough to provide that without pushing people to stand too close to one another, then why not make better use of that other system of vast, manicured green spaces on the edges of our cities?

The petition is extremely unlikely to actually become policy. It’s had nearly 7,000 signatories – not bad, but a figure that’s dwarfed by the estimated 1.5 million golfers in the UK. Many council-owned golf courses are already, de facto if not de jure, open to the public. (I’ve walked across several.) As for the many private ones, while the government probably could find a way of compelling landowners to allow the public to access their land, finding it doesn’t seem likely to be the priority during this crisis. There isn’t a button that ministers can press that would magically turn golf courses into parks.

But the petition – and the enthusiasm for what might be termed golf course reclamation among Twitter users – has highlighted questions about whether a sport that relatively few people play is really the best use of urban land. A 2017 study Shrubsole conducted for Friends of the Earth found that golf courses take up 10 times as much land in the UK as allotments. (These, for non British readers, are collectively owned plots of land, which individuals can use for small-scale farming. Bafflingly, it's only golf courses, not allotments, that qualify for agricultural subsidies.)

Every golf course in London. Image: John Murray/CityMetric.

In a piece of research for CityMetric two years later, John Murray calculated that, within London’s orbital M25 motorway, there are 189 courses covering 76.4 km² (29.5 mi²). In other words, 3.3% of all land in and around London – one acre in every 30 – is given over to golf. Given not just the overcrowding of the city’s parks, but the overcrowded and expensive nature of its housing, it is not clear that this is the best way of using a scarce resource.

London isn’t the only city where golfers can effectively buy access to better green spaces. The Trust for Public Land’s Park Score index, which evaluates park access and quality in cities across the US, has given Los Angeles a score of 46 out of 100 (New York City gets 77). Yet the city is dotted with manicured golf courses and exclusive country clubs which, as Malcolm Gladwell once raged about in an enjoyable episode of his podcast, even benefit from a protected tax status. In 2017 the Los Angeles Times noted that “less than half of L.A. County residents have easy access to a park”. But the rich ones? They can buy their way in.

The pandemic has already led numerous cities to reconsider how they allocate land to different modes of transport, for example by converting roads into walking space or cycle lanes. None have yet discussed investigating more radical land reform policies, that might bring some of those private green spaces back into public use. But maybe they should.

Britain’s parks are still open, by the way: on 18 April, local government secretary Robert Jenrick stepped in, to explicitly tell councils that "people need parks". Perhaps the tabloid press would consider turning its attention to Britain’s selfish golfers, instead.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


The future is here: Register now for Barcelona’s New Economy Week

Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

“BNEW will be the first great event for the economy’s global recovery that will allow the redesigning of the productive fabric,” says Pere Navarro, state special delegate at CZFB. “It is an honour to have the participation of renowned professionals and attendees from all around the world.

“As we are not in a position to do a proper ‘in person’ fair, we decided to adapt by creating a disruptive and useful event in this way to relaunch the economy.”

The conference will encompass five interconnected events incorporating real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones. More than 8,000 professionals from 91 countries from all over the globe will take part virtually. A further 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the five events in person. Over 200 speakers will take part physically, while the rest will give their talks via a digital platform especially created for the unique event. An advanced digital networking platform – using artificial intelligence – will cross-reference the data of all those registered to offer a large number of contacts and directly connect supply with demand.

The conference will also be simultaneously broadcast in high-quality streaming on six channels, one for each of the five interconnected events and an additional stream showcasing Barcelona’s culture and gastronomy.

BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.

Some 36 companies are sponsoring BNEW, and 52 start-up companies will take part and present their highly innovative products and services. A further 128 firms will participate in BVillage, a kind of virtual stand where they can show their products and schedule meetings with potential clients.

Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

Readers can register for BNEW for free via this link using the discount code BNEWFREE.