Golfers are disappearing from public city courses. Should some be made into parks?

Apartment towers loom over Toronto's Dentonia Park golf course. The census tract they fall into has more native speakers of Bengali than English and nearly 600 children under the age of five. About a third of adult residents spent at least some time on welfare in 2010, tax data shows. PATRICK CAIN/GLOBAL NEWS

On Friday morning, Ryan Kong walked his large dog on a small strip of grass outside the fence of a giant — and empty — golf course.

Kong lives in Scarborough, Ont. in a house on the edge of the city-owned Dentonia Park Golf Course, which was closed for the season. He and his 138-pound dog, Hunter, were making do with the little bit of space available, on the other side of a firmly padlocked gate. Hunter needs lots of exercise: “a minimum of four or five hours a day,” Kong explained.

“It’s a waste of space as a golf course,” Kong said. “Golf is not just for affluent people, but it doesn’t serve the area and the demographics of the area around are people who live in apartment buildings. There’s a disconnect.”

As the years go by, Dentonia Park has seen fewer golfers, part of a wider trend across the Western world. As less people use municipal golf courses, Canadian cities have been forced to take a hard look at their future.

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“As a public resource, it’s underused,” former councillor and Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki said of Dentonia Park.

When he was running for mayor, Soknacki argued for turning the course into a park.

Apartment towers loom over the golf course: the census tract they fall into has more native speakers of Bengali than English and nearly 600 children under the age of five. About a third of adult residents spent at least some time on welfare in 2010, tax data shows.

The apartment complex has two small fenced playgrounds.

“It could be repurposed to a number of uses, whether it would be a new combination of organized sports, soccer or cricket, or a combination of activities — everything from passive use to bicycle trails,” Soknacki says.

(“I would like to see a public amphitheatre,” Kong says.)

In 2011, Dentonia lost $242,000 and Scarlett Woods, in Toronto’s west end, made just $23,000, down from $99,000 in 2007. City of Toronto spokesperson Matthew Cutler could not provide more recent figures. From 2007 to 2011, Dentonia lost $822,000. (Other city public courses ran larger profits.)

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Cutler did not respond to an interview request.

“While we appreciate that there may be valid reasons to continue to operate Dentonia Park, the reasons for doing so should be reviewed, articulated, documented and specifically approved,” auditors said in a 2011 report.

Golf has been in a steady decline across the Western world, including Britain and the United States, for years.

It’s not clear why. Commenters have called it too time-consuming and expensive, and pointed out that with men expected to take more responsibility for child care, fewer hours are available to be whiled away on a golf course.

Canadian golfers are about 70 per cent male, tend to be higher-income, and, the authors of a 2013 study note, “the current game reflects very little ethnic diversity.”

“It’s questionable to overplay the notion that the sport is entirely in decline,” says golf journalist Robert Thompson.

“I think the story is coloured by the fact that a lot of golf courses have closed, but they haven’t closed because of decline, but because they overbuilt golf courses. A lot of that is real estate-driven.”

With land values on the increase, many private club owners have taken the obvious step and cashed out.

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Six large private clubs in Toronto’s suburbs have sold to developers in recent years, often facing furious pushback from local homeowners.

Thompson sees this as part of a normal cycle of real estate speculation, which has been going on for decades — investors buy rural land well in advance of development being approved, and run golf courses in the meantime. Eventually the bulldozers arrive.

“I don’t think those things are related to golf in decline as much as they are related to the value of real estate increasing. There have been dozens and dozens of golf courses that have disappeared in Toronto.”

At the same time, cities have debated the future of municipally-owned courses — in effect, large, fenced-off single-use public parks.

READ MORE: Proposal aims to turn Glen Abbey Golf Club into housing subdivision

In 2012, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson floated a proposal to turn parts of the city’s Langara golf course into housing, park space or both.

The idea angered local golfers.

At the time, former city councillor Aaron Jasper chaired Vancouver’s park board.

“We heard from people who said ‘Any kind of green space where I have to pay a fee to get into isn’t really public.’ We were open to discussions where we would be able to retain some portion of the golf activity, but also convert some parts of it to other public park uses,” Jasper remembers.

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Perhaps inevitably, the proposal was derailed by angry pushback from local golfers.

“It muddied the waters, in terms of having an honest discussion about how much golf is enough.”

“That seems to be what happens in these cases,” Thompson reflects. “A politician raises the issue. Then they hold a public meeting, and one person comes out saying we should close it, and 150 people, very vocal, say ‘I come out and play this golf course – it’s very important to me.’ Then the politicians say ‘Oh, my,’ and leave it alone. I’ve seen that game played out a dozen times. ”

The future of Winnipeg’s public courses was debated in local elections in 2014 after mayoral candidate Gord Steeves proposed selling all four of the city’s public courses. The previous year, Winnipeg’s council had considered a plan to lease them to the private sector.

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The fate of Calgary’s money-losing McCall Lake course has been debated for years; for now, it remains open.

Hamilton, Ont. resident Zachary Spicer argues for turning all three of the city’s public courses into general-use parks.

Spicer, a occasional golfer, teaches municipal government at Brock University.

“They really serve one very narrow function, and they take up a lot of space to do it,” he argues.

“If Hamilton wanted to make them into large urban parks, that would be fine for me. Chedoke golf course (the Beddoe and Martin courses in the graph above) is two full golf courses. It’s absolutely massive. It has trails going through it. It could be useful for baseball, soccer, anything you could possibly imagine.”

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“In the city, the city-run courses are the only option for people who want to take public transit,” Thompson counters. “Largely the argument from my perspective is that they’re inexpensive, they present kids with a chance to take up a game which, by and large, has positive qualities, it lets them get exercise by walking and playing a game in the outdoors.”

Thompson thinks the future of municipal courses may involve some kind of compromise. Elsewhere in the world, golfers, dogs and people out for walks all coexist, he says.

“When I was in Scotland, people like Ryan walked their dog while I was playing golf. It’s considered perfectly acceptable. It’s considered more multi-purpose. If you go to the Old Course in St Andrew’s — it’s actually municipally owned land as well, and people have access to it.”

Wed, Oct 28:  Glen Abbey in Oakville is being eyed as the future site of about 3,000 homes and commercial property. Lama Nicolas reports.


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