Golf Courses are the Ultimate Resilience Banks 1

Monday, August 17th, 2015
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Content warning: serious golfers may find the following article offensive.

Mark Twain once said that “Golf is a good walk spoiled.”

Regardless of whether or not you agree with that assessment (personally I walk for relaxation, and one or two clubs have mysteriously slipped from my grip), what is true is that there are an increasing number of golf courses closing around Australia (or being propped up by the local Council/rate payers). During the 1980s and 1990s there was a rash of new golf courses developed throughout Australia, largely as part of the real estate boom. The problem has been that not that many people actually play golf, and now these money-losing golf courses are being converted into something else.

A recent article in Business Insider talked about a closed golf course in Japan where they are going to cover the vacant fairways in solar panels. Given Japan’s land constraints and high demand for more renewable energy, this makes at least a little sense. As the author pointed out though, this might not be the best use in other countries and this prompted me to put this emerging trend into the context of community resilience.

You only have to look at a few neighbourhoods to realise that most of us have a local golf course that is relatively close and is surrounded by existing urban infrastructure. Many of our older courses were built on fertile agricultural ground that once served our younger cities. When such a course becomes available for development it represents a unique opportunity to shift that neighbourhood toward better “food resilience.”

Food is the unsung hero of sustainability and climate resilience – our food represents the largest share of our personal ecological footprints (more than our homes or cars), and our fresh food supply is at the greatest risk of a changing climate, whether it be from weather-driven disaster, extended heat events or shifting rainfall patterns. Rather than give in to the temptation to rant about the distinct lack of focus on sustainable food resilience policy in Australia, let’s look at a market/developer-led trend that could turn this all around.

At present, most of our fresh food comes from great distances away, carrying with it the associated transport emissions, agricultural energy intensity, exposure to climatic weather events and lack of connection with our own food. It’s that distinct disconnect with our food supply that seems to be driving a new development trend out of the US called Development Supported Agriculture (DSA). To cater for a rising demand curve for clean, organic, non-GM tasty food, developers are creating ‘agrihoods’ where instead of surrounding a golf course, new housing is integrated with agriculture. Customers are paying premium real estate prices for access to clean food, ‘rural lifestyle’ and ‘food education’ for their children, all within reach of the city.

Neighbourhoods are prioritising community access to food and food education image source: Willowsford Farm, Virginia, US

Neighbourhoods are prioritising community access to food and food education
image source: Willowsford Farm, Virginia, US

The concept of converting golf courses into something more productive isn’t a new one, although it is relatively recent. For a great primer on the topic, have a read of Could Placemaking Become the New Golf? Repurposing Obsolete Courses on the Sustainable Cities Collective site.

The predecessor for Development Supported Agriculture was Community Supported Agriculture, where one can purchase farm produce direct from the farmers, distributed through a logistics chain (which isn’t a supermarket). This builds what amounts to an online community based around a fresh food source, and farmers have a direct customer base that they can work with. It cuts out the big man.

The unique twist with DSA is that it brings this community together physically as well, activating a raft of challenging and exciting community design directions. Whether we’re converting an existing golf course, creating a new neighbourhood or even refurbishing an existing one (think of all the unused space in your neighbourhood), the principles all hold true and deliver a suite of value-adds that we’re only touching the edges of at present.

There are five core principles of DSA:

  1. Preservation of farmland through limited development and continuity of previous farming uses
  2. Agreements between developers and farmers (development provides farm infrastructure, farmers provide farm products to residents and the local community)
  3. Low-impact development techniques, sustainable architecture, and careful ecological/environmental planning
  4. Establishment of wildlife corridors and animal habitats, promotion of native plant species, and protection of water quality
  5. Utilisation of an open-source development model that provides a framework for master-planned farm communities and integrated local food systems

If you find yourself in the enviable position of being able to help craft a community or even campus master plan, consider the following opportunities that a DSA approach might offer:

  • Significantly lower costs to develop the site (‘ground’ vs. ‘fairway’)
  • Reductions in stormwater management infrastructure and costs (integrate with landscape)
  • Reduced waste to landfill and associated costs (increased farm-to-plate food proportion, reduced packaging waste, organic waste back to farm)
  • Improved food resilience and reduced exposure to climate-driven risk
  • Improved connectivity between people, land and food
  • Improved social capital and health (reduced shopping time, improved diet, improved social interaction)
  • Unique selling point

For an example of DSA have a look at Willowsford Farm in Virginia, US. It’s not necessarily a demonstration of how to infill a golf course with a DSA model, but it does touch on many of the principles, amenities and benefits that a DSA model can bring. There are more than a thousand such developments registered in the US alone.

And fear not; if you’re busy like me and can’t see how you’d find the time to ‘farm,’ it can all be done for you. Most DSA developments include an onsite farmer as part of the deal – they manage the farm and share/sell produce to the community. So you can walk around the corner to go and cuddle the chooks and pat the sheep without giving your whole weekend to gardening, or you can manage your own plot if you choose. Personally I’d choose weeding over throwing golf clubs any day, but that’s just me.

Image via Willowsford Farm, Virginia, US

Image via Willowsford Farm, Virginia, US


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  1. Bridget Kelly

    Interesting article Digby. I was part of the construction boom in the 90's that built Golf Course Estates in Western Canada. I always felt a bit guilty about using such lovely land for an elitist activity, but as a young consulting engineer, you do what the client asks for… I'd love to see some of them being converted back to community use as gardens or solar farms!