Coronavirus lockdowns tee off debate on opening up golf courses

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 April 2020 08:48 GMT

Golf - The Senior Open Championship - Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club, Lytham St Annes, Britain - July 25, 2019 Republic of Ireland's Paul McGinley in action during the first round Action Images via Reuters/Jason Cairnduff

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The lockdowns highlight the scarcity of urban green spaces and rekindled a debate on opening up golf courses for public use

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, April 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lockdowns in cities to limit the spread of the coronavirus have highlighted the paucity of green spaces in urban areas, reigniting the debate on whether private golf courses should be opened up for public use, land advocates said on Thursday.

More than 1 million people across the world have been infected by the coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.

With many countries introducing restrictions on movement, city residents are crowding parks and battling for space on pavements. Authorities are repurposing streets for walkers and joggers desperate for exercise.

"We should be opening up private green spaces so there's more room for everyone to exercise safely," environmental activist Guy Shrubsole said in an online petition on golf courses in Britain that has garnered about 5,000 signatures.

"Rather than let our existing parks become overcrowded, it would be safer to open up more green spaces like golf courses," said Shrubsole, author of a book on unequal land ownership in Britain.

There are 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of golf courses across the United Kingdom, according to Shrubsole.

If golf courses in Britain were opened up, about 1 million more urban residents would be within 500 metres of a green space, data science consultancy Geofutures estimated.

The coronavirus outbreak has led to a rethink on public and private spaces, with hotels and military camps used for quarantine, ships and churches adding hospital beds, and conference centres taking in homeless people.

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In Hong Kong, the world's most unaffordable housing market, authorities last year said they would convert a part of the 130-year-old Fanling Golf Club into housing on the recommendation of a task force on land.

"It is a warning to all sports and recreational clubs that are granted land at preferential rates that they have to stay relevant for society as a whole," said Paul Zimmerman, chief executive of Designing Hong Kong, an urban think-tank.

"A few hours of public access will not satisfy the public call for greater social responsibility," he said.

Elsewhere, waning interest in golf has led to the closure of thousands of clubs, with developers cashing in.

While in Scotland, even the iconic St. Andrews golf course is open to the public on Sundays.

In Britain, some golf clubs have opened their doors to local residents during the lockdown.

The Reading Golf Club and the Caversham Heath Golf Club, which closed on March 24 following the lockdown notice, have opened up some areas to local residents for walking and jogging.

Visitors must steer clear of the greens, tees and bunkers, and cycling and skateboarding are not permitted.

"It was a unanimous and instant decision by the board, and it has been very gratefully received and well respected," said Gary Stangoe, general manager of both clubs.

But while other golf clubs may also wish to consider giving access to local residents, for many it is not practical, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It has to be their choice, no different from any private landowner, and a little unfair if golf clubs are singled out. When golf resumes, we will immediately return to being a private golf club once more," he said.

Related story:

As coronavirus forces lockdowns, city dwellers head to parks

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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