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.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.