Moore Park golf course
Sydney’s Moore Park golf course is three kilometres from the CBD

The Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, Clover Moore, drove a curve ball into the gallery last week with a proposal that the 18-hole Moore Park golf course be halved in size and the spare land used for community uses:

Across the world, golf courses are slimming down to a modern nine-hole format. I’m open to working with the state to investigate options for reducing the size of the golf course at Moore Park and returning some of that land to the community.

Ms Moore pointed out that an additional 60,000 people were expected to move into the neighbouring area. The Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust, which controls the golf course, doesn’t agree with the Lord Mayor. Nor does the Centennial Park Residents Association even though residents might be expected to benefit from repurposing part of the golf course for community uses; but then many residents probably live there precisely because they play golf or enjoy a view of the course.

Golf courses seem an obvious and inevitable target. With population growing rapidly in the inner city, these huge areas of green space set aside for the exclusive use of a relatively small number of players, many of whom don’t live locally, look like an historical anomaly. In many cases the land was originally provided as a government grant. All those hectares of fairway could be repurposed for alternative uses that might benefit many more people, especially local residents.

Of course there’s a swag of arguments for keeping Moore Park golf course just as it is. For starters, all that green provides eco-system services; it’s part of the city’s heritage (the course is over 100 years old); and it’s a public access course providing active recreation – as well as opportunities for social interaction – for large numbers of players, many of who wouldn’t otherwise get much of either.

It improves the visual amenity of the area; it generates a quarter of the revenue needed for the upkeep of Centennial Park; and its low utilisation rate (player hours per hectare) is little different in principle from most sporting facilities. Moreover, displaced golfers might have to travel further afield if Moore Park were reduced in size or closed down, thereby adding to car use.

Clover Moore isn’t the only politician talking about re-purposing golf courses. The City of Botany proposes that the 18-hole Eastlakes golf course on land owned by Sydney Water be turned into 65 hectares of parkland. The Mayor, Ray Kenneally, told the Sydney Morning Herald:

With urban consolidation and the desire of more and more people to live closer to the CBD, there is an increasing population that wants places to enjoy Sydney’s great beauty. The Botany wetlands are beautiful, but they are a hidden gem. They’ve been locked up inside these golf courses and inside industrial estates. We now know communities value these great ponds and lakes and the social and environmental heritage they contain, and they would love better access to them.

As I noted a long time ago, Melbourne has an even bigger concentration of golf courses close to the city centre than Sydney. The Yarra River park system – that ribbon of green that runs north east from the vicinity of inner suburban Kew and Abbotsford to Warrandyte State Park – is one of Melbourne’s great assets. Few other cities have such a vast expanse of relatively undeveloped land threaded through residential areas so close to the city centre.

Like Melbourne’s green wedges it is used for all sorts of purposes, but rather than the sewage works, quarries and airports that sully the name of the wedges, the Yarra River park system is mostly occupied by real “green” uses – primarily golf courses and sporting fields. At the time these facilities were established, this land was floodplain with few alternative uses.

Just looking at the Melways, I can see 10 golf courses along the Yarra, of which six are clustered at the southern end of the river around Fairfield-Ivanhoe. There’s a nine-hole course in Yarra Bend Park, Yarra Bend Public Golf Course at Fairfield, Latrobe Golf Course at Alphington, Green Acres Golf Club at Kew, Kew Golf Club, Ivanhoe Public Golf Course, Freeway Public Golf Course at Bulleen, Yarra Valley Country Club at Bulleen, Rosanna Golf Club and Heidelberg Golf Club at Lower Plenty.

It’s perfectly reasonable to ask if there might be better uses for the extensive areas of urban land occupied by golf courses; or if continuing to devote quite so much land in strategic locations for the sole use of golfers is warranted. Rapid population growth in established areas is a key reason to justify reviewing how this land is used. In some cases the original rationale for the golf course – flood prone land – no longer applies.

The answer to the question depends crucially on the alternative use. An urban forest (say) is likely to be a more feasible replacement use than housing because it would preserve the existing open and green character provided by golf courses. Melbourne has around 90 golf courses in the metropolitan area; if the three adjoining courses at Alphington and Ivanhoe, say, were returned to native forest, it would produce a centrally located bushland region covering an area of around 30,000 hectares – that’s more than eight times the area of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

And it’s not necessarily only about changing the use of the land; it might just be about golf clubs sharing some of their assets with the wider community. Unfortunately, some golf clubs have shown themselves to be less than enthusiastic about sharing e.g. when the construction of public cycling and walking trails on their land is proposed.

There’d be practical issues with change. Many courses are privately owned or under long-term leases. There’d be significant political opposition. It’s vital though that the arguments for change – or no change – are supported by objective research and the impact on the various parties is thoroughly assessed. After that it’ll doubtless be down to politics, but it’s essential to start the debate with solid evidence.

Imagine if all this were urban forest!
Imagine if all this were a riverside urban forest!