The Guardian promotes call for London’s golf courses to be ‘redeveloped’

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir August 30, 2021 08:27

The Guardian newspaper has promoted a call by an architect for many of the 94 golf courses in Greater London to be redeveloped.

In an article entitled ‘London golf courses could provide homes for 300,000 people, study says’, the newspaper quotes Russell Curtis, an architect, ‘design advocate’ appointed by London mayor Sadiq Khan and the author of ‘Golf Belt’, a study of how London’s golf courses ‘could help address the housing crisis’ and that ‘courses on public land could be used ‘in a more creative way’ to ease housing crisis’.

Greater London’s 43 publicly owned golf courses take up just under 1,600 hectares (3,950 acres) of land, adds the paper, and this could house the 300,000 people mentioned in the headline.

‘The borough of Enfield alone contains seven courses, but the council receives just £13,500 from Enfield Golf Club each year to rent its 39-hectare golf course – less than the typical annual rent for a two-bedroom flat in the area,’ it adds.

Curtis states: “The redevelopment of golf courses is always presented as a binary choice between beautiful green fields or concrete, but there’s a model in the middle where you could provide new homes and social infrastructure while achieving biodiversity gain.”

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t explain how you can build homes on a golf course without concreting over them or how you can build housing over a green space and achieve a ‘biodiversity gain’ at the same time, beyond saying the courses could also be turned into ‘allotments, [undefined] biodiverse green space, sports facilities [which is what a golf course already is] or urban farms’.

“I’m hoping a discussion might come out of it that involves the clubs as well,” Curtis says. “It’s quite difficult and emotive because it’s not just about planning but about ownership and – let’s be honest – about class too.”

The article also quotes Guy Shrubsole, who says that municipal golf courses should be repurposed by councils and converted into ‘public parks and nature reserves, with open access for all’.

No details are given on how local authorities would afford the conversion or make up the shortfalls from losing revenues from golfers, which is currently used to fund the maintenance of the green spaces.

This is not the first time in the last year that The Guardian has covered this topic. In November 2020 it published a piece entitled: ‘A few reclaimed golf courses won’t stop the Arctic melting, but it’s the sentiment we need’. The argument was that golf courses ‘transform the native landscape into rolling greens’, which, stated the author, is bad for the environment because ‘publicly accessible green space [is] precisely the sentiment we need in the fight for climate action’.

One problem with these arguments is that they ignore research into the environmental benefits of golf courses.

For example, last year Australian scientists who studied the biodiversity of green spaces in Melbourne for three years said that golf courses contain flora and fauna that barely exist in neighbouring non-golfing green spaces.

‘The results surprised us,’ they wrote. ‘Golf courses contained the greatest diversity and abundance of beetles, bees, birds and bats of all the green spaces we studied. We found ground-nesting native bees that do not occur in much of the urban landscape because it is dominated by built surfaces and exotic flowering plants.

‘The minimum number of bird species we saw on a golf course was always higher than the maximum numbers at other green spaces. We found much more evidence of birds breeding. There was also a diverse array of insect-eating birds, which are in decline in many parts of Australia.

‘Some golf courses supported all ten bat species known to occur in this part of metropolitan Melbourne. Bat activity was ten times greater than in nearby areas of housing. Golf courses also supported twice as many bat species considered ‘sensitive’ to urbanisation.’

The scientists said there are many reasons golf courses support far more than the typical ‘urban-adapted’ fauna seen in cities. A key factor is the complex vegetation structure in the large parts of golf courses such as the rough and out of bounds areas, they added.

These areas of long grass and dense, often native, shrubs have little to no human intervention. ‘These conditions are rarely found in urban parks and residential gardens, which typically have highly managed vegetation. The relatively high proportion of native plant species, many indigenous to the area, is also very important,’ they wrote.

‘This complex vegetation is critical habitat for a wide array of animals such as small insect-eating birds, larger reptiles and ground-dwelling mammals.

‘Greater leaf litter accumulation and lower soil compaction mean these areas have healthier soils with more biological activity. These soils can also absorb stormwater more effectively, reducing the risk of urban flooding.’

Another reason is that golf courses have many more large, old native trees. These mature trees are critical to the breeding success of hundreds of animal species as they contain hollows, which are rare in urban areas. Because golf courses often prevent other uses, old trees can be left standing longer than is tolerated in other parts of the city.

Another important factor is the exclusion of dogs and ability to control other mammals, which protects vulnerable fauna.

Golf courses also provide a large expanse of dark vegetated habitat in an otherwise illuminated landscape. This habitat is critical for nocturnal animals, as well as many birds and invertebrates. ‘Artificial light at night is emerging as one of the most pervasive threats to urban wildlife,’ they stated.

‘Large refuges of dark habitat in cities are unique and ought to be protected. However, this may be at odds with increased human activity, particularly if night lighting is needed to satisfy safety concerns.

‘The potential for golf course managers to improve the habitat that sustains biodiversity is also great. Ways to achieve this include tree planting, direct seeding of native grasses and wildflowers, and regeneration burns. Many course managers are eager to do this, although they have to proceed cautiously because it can affect the speed of play.

‘Some urban golf courses support threatened species and communities, but all are biodiversity refuges in what can be a hostile urban landscape. We need to consider this when contemplating alternative uses.

A US study of golf courses in Minnesota, also last year, found that they offer major benefits to their local environment, particularly surrounding temperatures, pollinating, retaining stormwater nutrients and biodiversity.

Believed to be the biggest ever study conducted on the environmental impact that golf courses have on their communities, the researchers demonstrated that properly managed golf courses provide the greatest amount of cooling among land uses, are more supportive of pollinators than urban residential or industrial areas and retain more nutrients from stormwater runoff than suburban or urban residential areas.

Correspondingly, the conversion of golf courses to residential or industrial use would sacrifice associated environmental value afforded to communities and could result in reduced biodiversity and increased temperatures and nutrient transport to surface and groundwater, they added.

In addition, 40,000 members play at London’s 94 golf clubs and up to 160,000 others use the courses on a pay-as-you-play basis.

Matthew Draper, the club, county and membership senior manager at England Golf, said: “Golf positively contributes to the financial, environmental and social wellbeing of the communities in which it is played.

“The sport provides people with a myriad of physical and mental health benefits, with courses allowing access to open green spaces, time away from the day-to-day stresses of work and life, a social community and a gentle source of exercise that is enjoyed by over 3 million people, of all ages and ability, on a monthly basis.

“Analysis shows that a high percentage of golfers are reliant on the sport for their physical activity in comparison to other sports, especially in densely populated areas.

“Furthermore, golf courses provide a natural habitat to wildlife and plant life and, with governing bodies recognising and emphasising the importance of sustainability, have a role to play in positively impacting the environment and the communities in which they sit.”


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir August 30, 2021 08:27
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  1. JD September 7, 11:39

    We need to Fight back hard against these anti-,golfing morons and their spreading of misinformation to suit their own hidden agendas! With nonsensical logic and comments like ‘urban developments are better for the environment than golf courses”!! Since when are concrete jungles good for the environment! If it wasn’,t for golfers and golf courses which are usually used and shared by local communities such as dog walkers and horse riders and ramblers – these green spaces would go the way our parks and playing fields have gone or become almost extinct. As a kid I knew I could go to various parks and kick a ball around or play some outdoor activity for free – so many of these have now gone forever. We must Not allow these anti-golf propagandists to continue to proselytise their untruths and hatred in service of Developers so that these sites are protected for the benefit of future generations! Once gone they will be gone forever!

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  2. Jason September 1, 09:29

    So reduce green spaces and replace with housing, cars, pollution and potentially put people out of work? Damage the natural wildlife that golf courses work hard to promote and provide an outlet for people to work rest and play. Agreed they should be a little more accessible but as the London health clubs, tennis clubs etc do not worry about what they charge etc etc then maybe they could consider giving back some of their space? This does not and will not solve the housing crisis in London when you consider the amount of empty houses and spaces in London already. Obviously just my opinion.

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  3. MFdS August 31, 13:54

    Why some people insist in arguing against evidence. Golf is a sustainable ecosystem. Period!!!

    Reply to this comment
  4. Property & Leisure August 31, 07:32

    Hard to believe that the elite Private Golf Club, Enfield Golf Club is paying only £13,500 pa in rent, when the muni course next door at Trent Park is paying at least 10x that amount to the same Landlord, Enfield Council. If true then Enfield Council should certainly be considering alternative uses, including residential development as they certainly should not be subsidizing Private Members Golf Clubs in this day and age!

    Reply to this comment
  5. JGurr August 30, 11:47

    Why not redevelop the football stadiums! While you’re at it send teams into Afghanistan to build homes, instead of giving them priority over those here who have been waiting for years!

    Reply to this comment
  6. FMA August 30, 11:12

    A classic example of a newspaper supporting something that it knows won’t impact or bother the vast majority of its readership.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Pringle August 30, 11:06

    A city the size of London needs some green space to clean some of the smog
    Has the world gone crazy

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