Within 2km of a station, south east England has golf courses with room for 500,000 homes

Get a lot of houses on that, Tiger. Image: Getty.

Last summer, Alasdair Rae at the University of Sheffield wrote a blog post showing that about 0.54 per cent of the UK is golf course. It’s not much: Rae described it as roughly the same area as Greater Manchester; although in comparison it is roughly twice as much space as urban parks (0.27 per cent of the UK), and more than four times as much as the amount of continuous urban fabric (0.13 per cent).

As Rae points out, the amount of space given over to golf courses has come up several times in the UK media, including on the BBC, in the Financial Times and the Independent, amongst others. These discussion often revolve around the environmental impact of golf (generally negative, though I found little research on it) and whether golf is the best use of that space.

On the environmental side, golf’s apologists, such as commentator Peter Alliss quoted in the BBC article above, claim that much of a golf course acts as a “sanctuary for wildlife” and that they use less pesticides and fertiliser than a farm. However, farms produce food – and anyone who believes that golf courses are in any way natural has simply lost sight of what natural, untouched land actually looks like. And while a golf course can serve as a sanctuary for some wildlife, so too can a park – with the crucial difference that parks can also be enjoyed by the vast majority of the non-golfing public,

My interest here is not in the environmental debate, but rather questions about the most appropriate land use. With that in mind, I’m taking a look at the amount of land given over to golf close to train stations in London, South East and East England, the three region of the UK with the highest house prices, reflecting the high demand for housing in the London commuter belt and other cities in these areas.


I’ve arbitrarily selected a 2km radius from each train station, where it would take roughly 25 minutes of walking at a moderate pace to travel from the edge of the circle to its centre if travelling in a straight line.

Overall, there is some 191m m2 of golf course land within 2km of a train station in London, the South East and East of England. That’s some 47,218 acres, or 19108.5 hectares. That’s enough for 573,255 new homes at a very low density of just 30 homes per hectare. At a higher density, such as 80 dwellings per hectare terraced housing, that’s some 1,528,680 homes. There is 7.7bn m2 of land and water within 2km of a train station in London, the South East and East of England, and 2.47 per cent of it is golf course.

If we lower the radius to 1km, there is still 41m m2 (10,184 acres, 4,121.3 hectares) of golf course within a single kilometre of a train station, enough space to build 123,639 low density suburban houses, or 329,704 higher density houses. Certainly not enough to solve the UK’s housing issues, but it could still make a big difference.

Golf Course Map

The following map highlights in bright pink all golf course land within 2km of a train station. If the radius of two or more train stations overlaps, the train station with more passengers takes precedence, to avoid double counting of space. You can see a full screen version here.

This chart shows the ten stations with the greatest percentage of their surrounding area devoted to golf. These percentages are of all surface area, including the stations themselves, waterways, roads, etc. The actual percentage of usuable land devoted to golf is therefore at least slightly higher in all instances.

None of these stations have particularly high passenger volumes, with only West Byfleet and Elmstead Woods having more than a million passengers in 2016–17. Longcross, where the surrounding area is more than a quarter golf course, had less than 15,000 passengers last year and has no evening or weekend service.

 

I’m more interested in stations with both high passenger volumes and significant proportions of golf course nearby, some of which I have highlighted on the map above. For example, Maidenhead (below left) had over 4.6m passengers in 2017, and has a large golf course located right next to the station. Maidenhead will also be the western Crossrail terminus from December 2019, so those numbers are likely to increase drastically as commuters move into the newly built homes in the area.

Likewise 7.1 per cent of the area surrounding Richmond, the 35th busiest train station in the UK with 11.7m passengers in 2016–17, is golf course. The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead have published plans to build some 2,000 homes on the golf course site, though Richmond Park Golf Course is likely to stay a golf course for the foreseeable future.

I am not suggesting all golf courses should be concreted over and replaced with housing or offices. Rather, I am suggesting that the use of this land for golf does not make sense, given the many other possibilities. Access to urban green space is associated with improved general health and wellbeing (World Health Organization 2017), but it is difficult to see how a golf course – restricted to paying members or ticket holders – can have the same positive impact as a public park that anyone can visit.

Perhaps more councils should follow the example of Lewisham, which closed the Beckenham Park course in 2016 and converted it into a park to save money and provide more benefit to the majority of non-golfing local residents, although it is still visible on the map above.


Technical Notes and Data Sources

Golf course data is from the Ordnance Survey OS Open Greenspace dataset. Unfortunately it is not divisible by UK region or local authority, so I matched golf course coordinates to Regional Full Extent Boundaries data for London, the South East and East of England. I got train station coordinates from Doogal, a fantastic resource for British geographical data, and passenger numbers from the Office for Rail and Road.

As always, code is available on GitHub.

This article was originally published on Evan Odell’s own website. It appears here with his permission.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.