Dave Demers: Of birds, birdies and benefits—golf in our parks

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      By Dave Demers

      About 200 hectares (almost 500 acres) of parkland in our city are currently used for golf; that’s equivalent to 15 percent of all park space, or almost half of Stanley Park. As a newly elected park commissioner, I have been curious about the efficiency of this land use.

      Among many things, I have learned that the latest golf master plan dates back to 1989 and that subsequent data is scattered and incomplete. Seeing that, I tabled on April 15 a motion titled "Golf in our Parks—A Deep Dive Analysis", hoping to get a comprehensive report about the past, present, and future of golf on our publicly owned land.

      Unfortunately, my motion was swiftly referred back to staff before any substantial conversation was had. To me, it seems simple and logical, not divisive and contentious, for the park board to gain a fulsome understanding of how such a large portion of our public land is used. Talking about golf should not be off limits.

      As an elected body, it is our duty to ensure that all parkland serves our residents in the most effective way possible, and that, I believe, starts with a meaningful, respectful conversation about it all. As we wait for my motion to return, here is a look at what’s at stake.

      Benefits, realized and unrealized

      Central to the comprehensive picture called for in my motion is a benefits analysis. Realized benefits of golf courses are well-known: between $9 million and $10 million in revenues yearly, local options for our golfing population, and preservation of green spaces. But is this as good as it gets for these precious 464 acres? I’m not convinced it is—even a brief look suggests problems with water usage, ecological services, carbon emissions, and equitable access to public land.

      Here’s a deeper dive.

      Water

      It has been claimed that our golf courses are "the aquifers of our cities". This is nonsense: a golf course may sit on an aquifer, or have access to one, but it is not the aquifer itself. If anything, pumping water out of an aquifer only to have fertilizers leach back down is detrimental to our ecosystems and an argument against using our parks for golf.

      With the climate crisis worsening, summers getting longer, drier, and hotter, and water becoming increasingly scarce, principles of sustainability should apply to all of us. How is it then, that citizens are asked to turn their taps off and watch their gardens dry up while golf courses get to remain lush? I believe it is our duty to better understand this dichotomy in water privilege and work to alleviate it. This starts with a constructive public conversation on how we manage our assets and set our priorities.

      Biodiversity

      I’ve heard claims that our golf courses are "the lungs of our city" and prime "biodiversity hot spots". Although not patently false, both claims crumble when compared to other jewels of our park system. With regards to carbon capture, golf courses are among the least efficient green spaces out there: the pollution from maintenance alone (think of gas-guzzling mowers and fertilizers) negate any benefits of the grass itself. Moreover, the number of trees on a golf course are only a fraction of what they could be were it not for the endless open turf of the fairways, rough, and greens.

      As for biodiversity, yes, a golf course is better than a baseball diamond but it is worse than a regular park. With unfettered opportunity for a mix of closed canopy, open land, working creeks, and marshes, parks can accommodate much more productive and resilient ecosystems than any of our current golf courses. And although wildlife on golf courses definitely exists and has inherent value, it has limited chances to both interface with and add to our human experience. After all, golf courses are fenced off to all but paying users. In a city like ours, equitable access to nature must be a priority underpinning all park board planning endeavours.

      Accessibility

      The park board has been particularly successful at looking at its recreational activities through the lens of accessibility and equity, but when it comes to golf I can’t help but feel we could do better.

      Yes, golf makes us money: more than nine million dollars in 2018—a large share of which was redistributed through our parks system, benefitting all parkgoers. However, this profit margin is coupled with a steady decline in the number of rounds played annually: down 31 percent since the 1990s (while the population of Vancouver has grown more than 20 percent). Although our courses run well below their yearly capacity, pools, community centres, and soccer fields are bursting at the seams. Is it not time to start looking at ways golf courses can be enjoyed by a greater number of citizens?

      When it comes to accessibility, the issues with golf extend far beyond land use. A quick glance at the situation and I wonder: why isn’t golf a part of the ever-popular Leisure Access Program? Seeing dwindling attendance, why are we not furthering our incentives for junior players and school groups? Why are we not considering opening our courses to families and birders during the months golf isn’t played much?

      Conclusion

      Greenspace is at a premium, climate change is worsening by the minute, and bold actions will be required to tackle this existential threat. My motion is asking for solid, comprehensive, and consolidated data; it is meant to provide commissioners with the information needed to fully understand golf’s role in our system and bring it up to date with the challenges of our time.

      To be clear, I am not suggesting we eliminate golf; I am simply asking for information and trying to engage in a conversation. To the Commissioners who were unwilling to have this dialogue on the first round, I offer a mulligan. Healthy, open, democratic debate is needed on this topic, and with a little luck I’m confident we can keep it on the fairway next time around.

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