Should fairways give way to highways?

Australian Jason Day hitting his tee shot during the US PGA Championship in Wisconsin on Sunday. Golfing bodies hope his win will inject new life into the sport.
Australian Jason Day hitting his tee shot during the US PGA Championship in Wisconsin on Sunday. Golfing bodies hope his win will inject new life into the sport. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Sydney looking into converting golf courses to ease demand for housing and public parks

Visitors who glance out the window when flying into an Australian city often see huge patches of vacant green land in some of the most crowded urban areas.

But many of these green spaces are not parks or wildlife reserves; they are golf courses. Some of them cover prime real estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars or more. Australian cities have some of the world's largest amounts of land devoted to golf courses, but there are growing calls to convert the land into public parks or housing.

Several Sydney councils are considering plans to close courses on public lands to ease the demand for housing and provide playgrounds, picnic areas and walking and cycling trails.

The move has largely been welcomed by planning experts as a way to "share" the city despite warnings about the potential loss of some of the green space.

"It is not a bad idea to investigate other uses, especially if you have a space which is a public asset and which seems to be fairly lightly used," Professor Peter Phibbs, an urban planning expert at Sydney University, told The Straits Times.

"It's case by case. Some courses are still heavily used and may not suit recreational experiences and are doing a good job in terms of providing mediation of water and a good level of exercise."

In Sydney, 91 public and private golf courses cover about 38 sq km, but some are little used or are exclusively for members. This has prompted some districts such as Botany Bay, south-east of the city, to consider transforming the courses into public recreational grounds.

"Sydney has more golf courses within the metropolitan area than any other major city in the world," the mayor of Botany Bay, Mr Ben Keneally, told Fairfax Media. "They are wonderful, open spaces that are little used… I think it would make more sense to allow more people access to these beautiful spaces."

But golfers expressed their displeasure at the proposal, saying the sport provides a healthy outdoor activity, particularly for the elderly.

Other critics warned that converting golf courses could eventually see them being re-zoned for use as residential blocks, thus losing some of the city's most prized open spaces.

"The only reason these gems exist as open space is because they were once set aside as golf courses," said commentator Miranda Devine in Sydney's Daily Telegraph. "Remove their useful purpose and eventually we will lose the land."

In a report outlining its vision for the area, the Botany Bay council proposed creating a "massive new park" by converting the local Eastlakes golf course, an 85-year-old public course just a 10-minute drive from the city centre.

"This proposal is sure to be controversial - but… a major new park will benefit thousands of residents and restore public access to the wetlands," the report said.

"While the wetlands were once broadly accessible, they are now the hidden gem of our city, largely locked up within golf courses and commercial estates."

Other councils have been considering similar moves, particularly as land values have soared in Sydney's booming property market. The residential land value of courses near the city could reportedly be worth as much as A$2 billion (S$2 billion). 

In April, a course in Strathfield, about 14km from the city centre, sold a parcel of its land, covering a clubhouse and practice fairway, for A$52.5 million. The land will be converted by developers into units and townhouses.

The popularity of golf has reportedly waned in Australia in recent years, with about 1.2 million playing in 2010 - a 5 per cent drop from 2001. But Golf NSW, the state golfing body in New South Wales, says the number of rounds played has grown and that there are growing numbers of social players who do not belong to clubs.

Golfing bodies will no doubt be hoping that the spectacular victory of Australian Jason Day in the United States PGA Championship last weekend will help to inject new life into the sport.

"Golf is not for the 'privileged few' and is cheaper to play in Australia than in many countries around the world and, in particular, the Asia region," the association's head, Mr Stuart Fraser, told The Straits Times.

"A round of golf at Eastlakes midweek can cost as little as $A25."

Prof Phibbs also noted that a round of golf in Australia tends to be cheaper than in many other countries and said that the sport is largely in keeping with the nation's egalitarian ethos.

He said the courses have environmental benefits, but that some could consider converting from 18 holes to "nine holes, with a larger public recreational element".

"I think it is a trend that will happen," he said.

"There is an opportunity to reduce the number of courses - the economics will do that. But if you are a golfer, it is a wonderful experience. It is almost a rural experience in the middle of the city."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'Should fairways give way to highways?'. Print Edition | Subscribe