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Forewarnings – and maybe farewell warnings – on the future of urban fairways

Langara Golf Course in Vancouver, B.C., is a classic example of the problems posed by urban golf courses.

DARRYL DYCK

The drizzle falls steadily as a handful of golfers trudge through the Langara Golf Course in south Vancouver, their umbrellas bobbing amid the manicured grass as they push their carts along.

In the distance, past the almost-empty greens and the trees lining the course, are the towers that have sprung up nearby, as well as a crane at work on another – part of a massive wave of development that has hit the neighbourhood around this city-owned golf course in the past five years.

Bill Small, a retired receiving-room worker who spent 20 years at Langara College next door, surveys the scene from under his own giant umbrella. He plays golf twice a week, mostly here when he can, but it’s too wet even for him today. Instead, he is walking the chip trail that surrounds the course.

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“This is like a jewel in the middle of the city. Why don’t they just keep it as a golf course?” Mr. Small asks.

Vancouver’s mayor recently suggested repurposing at least some of these 49 hectares for other park uses. The idea has outraged golfers and sparked a debate that has sprung up in cities across Canada, as local governments already struggling to find space for housing and public parks look to the large swaths of city land set aside for golfers as a potential solution.

“This is 15 per cent of Vancouver’s parkland sitting behind a paywall,” says Charles Montgomery, the author of Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design and an advocate for urban planning that maximizes people’s quality of life.

“If we care about using our city’s assets to benefit the maximum number of people, using 120 acres to benefit 137 people a day is crazy.”

Apartment buildings around Langara Golf Course in Vancouver illustrate the competition for land between sprawling recreational land and the need for more housing.

DARRYL DYCK

In some areas, such as Calgary and suburban Toronto, private golf courses have become a thorn as well, as owners push to capitalize on their land by building lucrative housing developments.

In Oakville, Ont., city council has been struggling for several years with the historic Glen Abbey Golf Club, which the owner, ClubLink Corp., affiliated with the giant real-estate company Morguard, wants to demolish in order to build 3,000 new residences.

“Cities everywhere regret when they give up green space. With the pressure of modern-day society, we need open public space,” said Oakville Councillor Nicholas Hutchins, whose colleagues voted unanimously on the Glen Abbey measures.

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When development proposals surface, city councils then have the tough task of deciding whether to approve those new projects, often in the face of energetic opposition by local residents who may not love golf but do love having the open space.

In Calgary, three privately owned golf courses have closed in recent years to make room for residential development, prompting petitions, protests and heated debates at city hall.

When the private owner of the Harvest Hills golf course, located in the north end of Calgary not far from the airport, proposed replacing the course with more than 700 units of housing, nearby residents complained that the change would take away green space, hurt wildlife habitat and decrease property values in a neighbourhood that had been originally designed with a golf course. City council approved the project in 2016.

Not far away, the owner of the Hamptons Golf Club, also privately owned, proposed repurposing part of the course for new housing, which was met with a similar reaction. Neighbours complained about the loss of green space and the influx of new residents. A city-council report summarizing the public feedback quoted one resident who said it would set a “bad precedent” to allow a developer to buy a golf course “and turn it into whatever they like as long as they will make profit.”

The city is reviewing the nearly two dozen golf courses within its boundaries.

But whether that space needs to be preserved for a golf course is another debate.

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As any number of experts, reports and media accounts have documented for several years, golf is on the decline. The number of rounds people play has gone down steadily, even while the number of courses increased because of new housing developments that were built with golf courses as a key feature.

In Vancouver, rounds played dropped by 19,000 – or 11 per cent – between 2013 and 2016 on the city’s three 18-hole courses, Langara being one of them. The city makes almost $10-million in fees from golf, but spends $6.5-million to run the courses. And it is currently facing a $3.5-million bill to do major fixes, primarily on the drainage problems at the Langara course.

Toronto city staff, currently undertaking a review of its seven municipally owned golf courses, noted in January in the call for a review that rounds played there had declined 15 per cent between 2007 and 2016, down to 160,000 rounds. Expenses are exceeding revenue.

“The struggle golf is having is that the next generation wants something that gives quick feedback,” says Ian Andrew, a consultant based in Brantford, Ont., who specializes in golf-course design.

Some operators are trying to boost golf by creating courses that are quicker to play, removing some of the standard obstacles, such as sand traps. He believes that, just the way skiing was stagnant for a while and then went through a boom, golf will also make a comeback.

His caution: Cities should be careful about giving away golf land, whether for development or other park uses, because that’s an irreversible decision.

Langara’s course, he points out, still gets 47,000 rounds a year. “That’s a lot of recreation. It’s still successful.”

In another era, someone such as Craig Jorgensen, a 27-year-old working in construction administration, might have been a golfer. He might even, someday, have taken out a golf-club membership as a perk of his employment.

But he’s one of the many in Vancouver who are in favour of at least one of the city’s golf courses being used for something more accessible.

The sport demands too much space to be a good fit for the middle of a densifying city, he said.

“I really think [the Langara course] needs to be repurposed,” says Mr. Jorgensen. “I spend a decent amount of time in that area and there is nothing to do there except golf, which has to exclude people to function.”

Here’s a roundup of what’s happening across the country.

Vancouver: The mayor has asked the park board to consider repurposing part of the land that Langara Golf Course sits on for other uses, noting that the city needs an international-standard track and more accessible park space for the booming population in the area.

Calgary: The city is conducting a review of the 23 golf courses within its boundaries after three privately owned ones in recent years were pitched for housing redevelopment, which led to nasty confrontations at city hall.

Winnipeg: The city did a review of golf-course management in 2010, debated the idea of getting rid of some golf courses during the 2014 civic election campaign, and heard in mid-2017 that the courses had made $500,000 less than expected in the 2016 year. Some councillors called for the city to reassess whether it needs all of the courses it is now running.

Toronto: City staff recommended in January that Toronto do a review of city golf, which consists of seven courses, two of which are managed by contracted operators. The staff report noted there are more than 100 public courses available in the metropolitan region and that the city courses don’t bring in enough money to cover maintenance, even though revenues are around $5-million.

Hamilton: The city briefly considered whether to sell golf course lands for housing development but decided against that in early 2017. However, managers are still searching for ways to attract more people to the city’s courses, noting that they are facing stiff competition in the area.

Oakville: City council has made strong moves to prevent the redevelopment of the Glen Abbey golf course into a mix of residential and commercial spaces. That comes after other courses in other suburbs around Toronto have been converted or pitched for redevelopment, amid fierce public opposition.

Kingston: The city voted last fall to shut down its only course, Belle Park Fairways, after it was unable to attract more players or generate more money in past years.

Brantford: The city considered in 2016 whether to sell its Northridge and Arrowdale courses but decided in the end and after much public opposition to keep them.

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