Homes are more expensive and parks are harder to get to because of urban golf fields, and taxpayers are paying for it.
Homes are more expensive and parks are harder to get to because of urban golf fields, and taxpayers are paying for it.
  • Not many people live in cities that have golf fields, but they take up a lot of room and resources.
  • People who don’t play golf pay for golf courses in many states by keeping property taxes low.
  • Urban planners want to turn some courses back into homes and public green space.

There are 18 holes at the Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco. It is in a national park, which is some of the most beautiful land in the country.

With eight other courses in the city, where there aren’t enough homes for sale and the typical home price is now $1.3 million, golf takes up more than 700 acres. Central Park in Manhattan is 843 acres, so that gives you an idea.

When the pandemic hit, golfers stopped. The 150-acre Presidio course became open to anyone who wanted to walk, hike, jog, or ride a bike through it without worrying about getting hit by a ball. Many San Franciscans who had never been to one of the city’s most beautiful green spaces because they don’t play golf or can’t afford to could now go.

This made some people wonder why a huge green space paid for by taxes is closed off to most people. Zach Klein, co-founder of Vimeo, wrote after walking the path on April 25, 2020, “It was intoxicating to be there and think about the possibility of this remaining a park forever.” It would become a classic right away. It’s a huge open area in the second-most crowded city in the United States.

One of the worst and least fair ways to use land that is heavily crowded is on golf fields in cities and suburbs. A lot of urban planners see them as a great chance to fix problems like rising homelessness, a lack of affordable homes, and a lack of green space. Reusing golf grounds could be a way for towns to relieve stress.

“Golf courses are kind of a blessing in disguise because we have all of these problems related to urbanism and the housing crisis and social isolation,” Tayana Panova, a researcher studying the built environment, stated to Insider, “and then we have golf courses, which are these places that are right smack dab in the middle of some of the areas that have these crises to the highest level.”

A view from above of The Olympic Club at the 98th U.S. Open golf tournament in San Francisco, California, on June 19, 1998. The event was held at the Lake Course.
A view from above of The Olympic Club at the 98th U.S. Open golf tournament in San Francisco, California, on June 19, 1998. The event was held at the Lake Course.

Public golf fields in cities also cost a lot of money, even from people who don’t play. About half of the states in the US give golf clubs big tax breaks to help pay for themselves. A rule from 1960 in California makes sure that golf courses aren’t charged based on their “highest and best use,” like other land is. Instead, they get a special tax break just for being golf courses. They also gain from Prop 13, the famous rule in the state that puts a heavy cap on property taxes, especially on property that doesn’t change hands.

By their very nature, golf grounds are some of the least used places in a city. At most, 300 people can play on an 18-hole golf course in a single day. Every year, only 1,200 people visit each acre of the Presidio Golf Course. In contrast, 24,000 people visit each acre of nearby Golden Gate Park every year. Any other sport, from football to tennis, makes better use of the room. If there were homes on a golf course, thousands of people could live there.

Some old golf courses have been bought by developers and land groups, which have then turned them into parks or business buildings. But players and neighbors are making it hard to make any changes.

Not fair and expensive

Even though golf has changed over the years, rich, older white guys still play it more than any other group. There are still some exclusive golf clubs that don’t let women join.

The well-known Los Angeles Country Club was established in 1897 and spans over 313 acres in the luxurious Beverly Hills. In 1977, the club welcomed its first Jewish member, and in 1991, it welcomed its first Black member. Malcolm Gladwell said in a talk in 2017 that the club is on land worth about $9 billion. It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to join. It would have to pay $60 to $90 million a year in property taxes if it were treated like a home. The club instead pays around $300,000 a year in taxes.

Scot Scheffler of the United States hits a shot into the 13th green during the final round of the 123rd U.S. Open Championship at The Los Angeles Country Club in Los Angeles, California, on June 18, 2023.
Scot Scheffler of the United States hits a shot into the 13th green during the final round of the 123rd U.S. Open Championship at The Los Angeles Country Club in Los Angeles, California, on June 18, 2023.

According to Mitchell Reardon, head of urban planning at the Canadian design company Happy Cities, “you should all be on the same page on this one.” This is true whether you’re a market person who believes we should only do what the market wants or an equality person who wants everyone to have equal access to room.

Also, not as many people play golf these days as there were twenty years ago. Before a rise caused by the outbreak, the sport had been steadily going down since the 2008 financial crisis. In 2019, about one-third of public golf clubs lost money. Florida loves golf so much that between 2013 and 2018, public golf clubs there lost almost $100 million. People who want to modify courses say that fewer golf courses would help the ones that stay open make more money. Of course, things are looking better now that the most courses were closed in 2019.

It’s not good for towns to have golf fields because they take up important room and make it harder to walk and be environmentally friendly.

“One of the best things about cities is that you can build places with much lower infrastructure costs per person,” said Ray Delahanty, who used to be an urban planner and now runs the famous YouTube program CityNerd. This is why it’s a waste of room to build golf courses in large open areas, especially if they are close to public transportation. A lot of places have climate goals that are at odds with this. These goals are often what drive rezoning and rebuilding around transit stops.

Not at my golf course

Jen Keesmaat wanted to turn three city golf fields into public parks when she was running for mayor of Toronto in 2018. The previous top city manager said that people in Toronto were not interested in golfing anymore, but they were very interested in cricket pitches, off-leash dog parks, and other facilities.

“So many of our parks are absolutely jam-packed with people on any sunny day all summer long,” Keesmaat shared with Insider. “But then on the flip side, we have these public golf courses that are just these almost vacuous spaces that are quite underutilized.”

Keesmaat lost that election, so the city courses haven’t been fixed up yet. However, work is being done to turn a private course into four apartment buildings and 40 acres of public parks. She says that rethinking golf courses is “the natural evolution of making sure that the public amenities we have are in line with the greater public interest.”

A player in Toronto, Ontario, at the Don Valley golf course.
A player in Toronto, Ontario, at the Don Valley golf course.

Actually turning a golf course into homes and public space is very hard to do. First, someone has to buy it. After that, the customer has to get money. Finally, the lot often needs to be rezoned, which is a process that is often very political and troublesome.

Charlie McCabe, who used to run the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land, told Insider that the best ways to redevelop a golf course have been for private developers to buy the course, build homes on it, and then give some of the land back to the city as green space. Often, projects that only involve making golf fields into parks are the ones that neighbors are most open to.

One great example is how part of an old golf course in New Orleans was turned into the city’s largest urban farm, with a focus on getting kids involved.

But there are a lot of cases of activities that didn’t work out. In one example, Denver voters recently turned down a plan to build hundreds of homes on a 155-acre site that used to be a golf course. Twenty-five percent of the homes would have been for low-income people. Soon after, the City Council backed down from its plans to rebuild the Park Hill Golf Course. Instead, they rezoned it as open space with the goal of making it back into an 18-hole course. As expected, homeowners were much more against redeveloping the course than renters. This is because homeowners think golf courses are good for property values.

Cristina Garcia, a Democrat who used to serve in the California Assembly and covered parts of southeastern Los Angeles County, offered a bill in 2021 that would have given cities money to turn public golf fields into parks and homes.

She said on the podcast Gimme Shelter last year, “Even if all you did was take down the fence and give us a park, that is a gift to the community.”

There was a lot of opposition to the law from players and other NIMBYs, and the effort failed.

“There’s no group more motivated than retired or semi-retired people,” he said.

Redevelopment supporters don’t want to get rid of golf, despite what “anti-golf Twitter” says. They just want golf to take up less room in crowded areas.

This might mean cutting 18-hole courses down to nine holes, putting a food store in a building, or making the course open on the weekends or at night.

“Why not at least try and meet cities and other neighboring communities in the middle by offering more activities to take place within that space?” Reardon told him.

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