Auckland’s 14 publicly owned golf courses have been in the public eye lately. Economist Shamubeel Eaqub argued that Auckland Council should develop housing on the golf courses:
In June, Eaqub said he wanted the golf courses sold and this was published in a book he had written.
Asked for a more detailed explanation, he said he thought it was wrong to have so many hectares of land tied up in public ownership across the city when that very same city was suffering a desperate shortage of land for residential development…
“It looks like a subsidy for the rich when the council has well-placed land that could be at least partly used to supply significant intensive housing,” Eaqub said.
In early August, the Albert-Eden Local Board released plans to rethink the Chamberlain Park golf course, which occupies 32 hectares of land in Mount Albert:
Albert-Eden Local Board has decided to develop a plan which could reduce the size of the golf course at Chamberlain Park in order to create sports fields, restore a stream and put in public walkways.
Tonight board chairman Peter Haynes denied its chosen basis for developing a masterplan was a “carve up” of the 32ha council-owned public golf course.
“You could say, local board future-proofs open space and recreational opportunities in the local area,” said Mr Haynes.
“What we also did tonight was to approve the starting of a process to work on the western part of the park – naturalising the stream, putting in walkways and cycleways, barbecue areas and playgrounds for the local people.
In other words, Auckland Council’s showing signs of rethinking its publicly-owned golf courses. (Other cities, like Sydney, are also having similar debates.) While the plans under consultation don’t include an option for developing housing on Chamberlain Park, several of them envisage reducing the amount of space devoted to golfing and opening up more space for the general public. This is likely to be a controversial move. But is it a good idea?
I’m going to take a look at the issue in several parts. I’ll lay my cards on the table at the outset: I do not think there is a strong case for Councils to own golf courses. We would be better off to convert public golf courses to a mix of public parks and housing. Privately owned golf courses will still cater for golfers. But don’t just take my word (or Shamubeel’s) for that – let’s take a closer look at the issue.
I want to start by drawing a distinction between public parks and private open spaces, like golf courses. This isn’t an argument that we should find every green space in the city and put an apartment block on it. Public parks, like Maungawhau/Mount Eden, Albert Park, the Waitakere Ranges, and Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill, serve a valuable public role. They provide recreation opportunities that all Aucklanders can freely enjoy. Many people can enjoy public parks at the same time, without preventing others from also enjoying them – witness the crowds that fill out Albert Park, Western Springs Park, or Maungawhau/Mount Eden when events are happening there.
But golf courses are different: they’re not open to the general public. Entry is limited to paying customers, even at a publicly owned golf course. As a result, the social value of publicly owned golf courses is much more limited – golfers get most of the benefits, and others don’t benefit much at all.
This was highlighted in an excellent Cycle Action Auckland post on Chamberlain Park:
Not only is the park effectively closed to the public, but thanks to lack of foresight by planners many decades back, its fences also present a major barrier to the local community. Numerous streets at the edge of the park finish in dead ends, with no links between them…
At the same time, we have the Northwestern Cycleway (and Walkway) along the northern edge of the path. One of the criticisms we often hear about paths like this is the lack of fine-grained local connectivity. And for this section, it is certainly true. From the Pt Chevalier side, the motorway blocks all access onto the cycleway for 1.5km. The lack of a proper street / path grid at Sutherland Rd and at Chamberlain Park ALSO means that for 1.5km there’s no getting onto the path from the southern side either.
As a consequence, this is the closest that most people can come to experiencing Chamberlain Park: a bike ride along a chain link fence:
In a previous Transportblog post on Chamberlain Park golf course, reader B White made a similar observation:
I’ve lived just down the road in Mt Albert on and off for over 30 years and have never set foot in this park. I would quite like to without having to play golf. I submitted to get rid of golf completely but would be happy to compromise to a nine hole course just to get some access to the place before I die.
In short, golf courses are different than public parks in three important ways:
- Public parks are free and open to all comers, while golf courses are open to paying customers only.
- Public parks can be enjoyed by many people at the same time, whereas only a limited number of people can play on a golf course at any given time.
- Well-designed public parks connect communities and give them more enjoyable options for getting around, while golf courses tend to sever neighbourhoods by creating inaccessible voids between them.
Consequently, I would argue that councils should not treat golf courses in the same way that they treat public parks. Councils should provide parks (and potentially other types of sports grounds that offer more open access) as “public goods” that provide social benefits for the city as a whole. But golf courses, which are reserved for the exclusive use of paying golfers rather than being a public good, should be run as businesses on a purely commercial footing.
This would mean, for example, that publicly owned golf courses would have to properly account for all their costs, including the cost of the rather valuable land that they occupy. (I’ll explore this idea further in parts 2 and 3 of the series.) However, it would hardly eliminate golf from Auckland. The city has a total of 39 golf clubs, 14 of which are owned by Council. Even if some publicly-owned golf courses were repurposed, there would still be an abundance of tee times available for golfers. In fact, it’s likely that the remaining golf courses would be more financially sustainable, and thus better able to invest in their facilities, in this case.
What do you think about the value of golf courses as opposed to public parks?