Urban golf courses are making housing more expensive and parks harder to access — and taxpayers are footing the bill

Urban golf courses are making housing more expensive and parks harder to access — and taxpayers are footing the bill
  • Urban golf courses are used by a fraction of city residents, but take up a ton of space and resources.

  • Many states subsidize golf courses with low property taxes, so non-golfers are footing the bill.

  • Urban planners want to redevelop some courses into public green space and housing.

San Francisco's 18-hole Presidio Golf Course sits in some of the most prized land in the country: a national park.

Combined with eight other courses in the city — where a severe housing shortage has helped push the median home price to $1.3 million — golf takes up over 700 acres. To put that in perspective, Manhattan's Central Park is 843 acres.

When the pandemic hit, golfing was paused and the 150-acre Presidio course opened up to anyone who wanted to walk, hike, jog, or bike through it without fearing they'd be knocked out by an errant ball. This opened up access to many San Franciscans who'd never set foot in one of the most beautiful green spaces in their city, simply because they don't, or can't afford to, play golf.

That begged the question for some: why is a massive green space paid for by taxpayers, but closed off to most? As the co-founder of Vimeo, Zach Klein, tweeted after a walk through the course on April 25, 2020, "It was intoxicating to be there and consider the possibility of this remaining a park forever. It would be an instant classic, an immense open space in America's second densest city."

Urban and suburban golf courses are one of the least efficient and equitable ways to use densely-populated land. Many urban planners see them as a golden opportunity to address worsening homelessness, a housing affordability crisis, and a shortage of green space. Repurposing golf courses could offer cities a pressure relief valve.

"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 who studies the built environment, told 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."

Aerial view of a golf course in San Francisco, California.
An aerial view shows The Olympic Club during the 98th U.S. Open golf tournament on June 19, 1998 at the Lake Course in San Francisco, California.David Madison/Getty Images

Urban golf courses also cost taxpayers — even those who don't play — a lot of money. In about half of US states, golf courses are heavily subsidized through property tax breaks. In California, a 1960 law ensures golf courses aren't taxed based on their "highest and best use" as other land is, and instead get a special tax break just for being golf courses. They also benefit from Prop 13, the state's famous law sharply limiting property taxes, particularly on property that doesn't change hands.

Golf courses are, by the nature of the game, some of the most underused spaces in a city. No more than about 300 players can use a typical 18-hole golf course in one day. The Presidio Golf Course has just 1,200 visitors per acre each year, while San Francisco's nearby Golden Gate Park welcomes 24,000 visitors per acre annually. Any other sport — from football to pickleball — is a more efficient use of space. A single golf course could be home to thousands of people if there were housing on it.

Developers and land trusts have managed to buy up some defunct courses and add commercial buildings or turn them into parks. But golfers and neighbors are making any change a major challenge.

Inequitable and expensive

While golf has diversified over the years, it's still disproportionately played by affluent, older, white men. Several exclusive golf clubs even still prohibit women from becoming members.

The famous Los Angeles Country Club, which was founded in 1897 and sits on 313 acres in super-affluent Beverly Hills, admitted its first Jewish members in 1977 and its first Black member in 1991. Malcolm Gladwell noted in a 2017 podcast that the club, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to join, sits on about $9 billion worth of land. If it were taxed as homeowners are, it would owe between $60 to $90 million in annual property taxes. Instead, the club pays about $300,000 a year in taxes.

Scottie Scheffler playing golf at the US Open at The Los Angeles Country Club in Los Angeles, CA
Scottie Scheffler of the United States plays into the 13th green during the final round of the 123rd U.S. Open Championship at The Los Angeles Country Club on June 18, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

"Whether you're a pure market person and think we need to just do what the market wants, or you're very much about equity and supporting equitable access to space, you should be united on this one," Mitchell Reardon, director of urban planning at the Canadian design firm Happy Cities, told Insider.

Golf has also gotten a lot less popular over the last two decades. Before a pandemic-induced uptick, the sport had been on a steady decline since the 2008 financial crisis. About a third of public golf courses lost money in 2019. In golf-obsessed Florida, municipal golf courses lost almost $100 million between 2013 and 2018. Proponents of retrofitting courses note that reducing the number of golf courses would help boost revenue for courses that do survive. Indeed, business is looking better since course closures peaked in 2019.

Urban golf courses work against the advantages of cities, taking up valuable space and making walkability and environmental sustainability much harder to achieve.

"The whole virtue of cities is that you can build places at a much lower cost of infrastructure per capita," Ray Delahanty, a former urban planner who runs the popular CityNerd YouTube channel, told Insider. "And so when you have big open spaces in the form of golf courses," particularly when they're close to transit, "it's really wasteful. It conflicts with a lot of the climate goals that cities have, which often drive the rezoning and redevelopment around transit stations."

Not on my golf course

When she was running for mayor of Toronto in 2018, Jennifer Keesmaat proposed remaking three city golf courses into public parks. The former chief city planner noted that interest in golf had flatlined in Toronto, while demand for cricket pitches, off-leash dog parks, and other amenities had surged.

"So many of our parks are absolutely jam-packed with people on any sunny day all summer long," Keesmaat told 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 and the city courses haven't been redeveloped, but plans are in motion to transform a private course into four apartment towers and 40 acres of public parkland. She argues that rethinking golf courses is just part of "the natural evolution of ensuring that the public amenities we have are fitting with the broader public interest."

Don Valley golf course in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A golfer on the Don Valley golf course in Toronto, Ontario.RENE JOHNSTON

Actually getting a golf course redeveloped into public space and housing is a major challenge. First, there needs to be a buyer. Then that buyer needs to find funding. And finally, in many cases, the parcel needs to be rezoned — often a political and highly-fraught process.

Charlie McCabe, the former director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land, told Insider that the most successful golf course redevelopment efforts he's seen have involved private developers buying a course, building housing, and giving a portion of the land back to the city for green space. He noted that projects that just involve turning golf courses into parks are often most palatable to neighbors.

In one shining example, part of an abandoned golf course in New Orleans was transformed into the city's biggest urban farm with a focus on engaging youth.

But there are a mountain of examples of failed efforts. In one such case, Denver voters recently rejected a plan to build hundreds of homes — 25% of which would have been for lower-income residents — on a 155-acre former golf course. Shortly thereafter, the City Council reversed its efforts to redevelop the Park Hill Golf Course, rezoning it as open space with the goal of turning it back into an 18-hole course. Predictably, homeowners — who see golf courses as good for their property values — were much more likely to oppose redeveloping the course than renters.

Former California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat who represented parts of southeastern Los Angeles County, introduced a bill in 2021 that would have given cities funding to convert public golf courses into housing and public park space.

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

The pushback to the legislation from golfers and other NIMBYs was fierce and the effort failed.

"There's no group more motivated than retired or semi-retired people," McCabe said.

Despite what "anti-golf Twitter" says, proponents of redevelopment don't necessarily want to abolish the sport — they just want golf to take up less space in dense places.

This could mean shrinking 18-hole courses to nine holes, putting a grocery store in a clubhouse, or opening up the course on 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 said.

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