Seattle Parks and Recreation staff set off a bit of a backlash last week when they shared a blog post praising its four golf courses for serving as valuable habitat for urban wildlife. The department proclaimed the 528 acres occupied by the publicly owned golf courses are home to a long list of species including coyotes, beavers, raccoons, tree frogs, herons, river otters, wood peckers, and more. Trout and salmon bearing streams are located within or downstream of golf courses as well, wrote Seattle Parks’ staff.

“These wild animals may not be playing a round of golf, but they rely on the habitat in these parks to live in our city,” quipped writer Chris Nicholson in the blog post.

Some Seattleites didn’t buy it.

“Mown grass is a wildlife desert. Pesticides are bad for wildlife. The land could be used for affordable housing, community services, and the actually wild spaces that wildlife needs to thrive. Also, the water expended to maintain the grass is an insane waste of resources,” tweeted @hikemonster in a response that encapsulated much of the criticism directed toward the post on Twitter.

Golf courses have become a hot topic in growing Seattle where publicly owned land and affordable housing are both in short supply. Data from a 2017 study completed by EMC Research for the City of Seattle shows that golf courses are the least utilized facilities owned by Seattle Parks and that the number of people accessing them is on the decline. According to EMC’s data, only 12% of Seattle residents visited golf courses two or more times per year, and only 3% visited golf courses 10 or more times annually.

Thus, when Nicholson kicked off his blog post with the line, “When most people think of parks, they don’t initially think of golf courses,” he struck on a vein of truth — a substantial majority of Seattleites do not think of golf courses as parks because they simply do not visit or use them.

It is also important to note that those numbers do not take into consideration whether those visitors actually played golf during their visit since Seattle Parks occasionally opens golf courses for limited community access, such as for sledding on snow days. However, if rounds of golf played and green fees collected from golfers are any indication, the amount of golf played is decreasing in tandem with sinking visitor numbers. According to Mike Eliason’s 2019 article in The Urbanist, “Unlike Seattle, Golf is Really Dying,” rounds of golf played on the City’s municipal courses declined by 43% between 2000 and 2017 when adjusted for population growth. This is in keeping with national trends showing younger generations have been less drawn to the sport, which has a well-documented elitist, racist, and sexist history. (Gentleman Only, Ladies Forbidden)

Fewer green fees collected from golfers has resulted in a downward trajectory in revenue for Seattle’s golf courses. EMC found that from 2013-2017 golf courses were unable to meet their financial targets. Additionally, golf courses have not been able to raise the capital funding necessary to make investments in aging infrastructure, leaving a Golf Master Plan created by Seattle Parks in 2009 unfunded.

Do golf courses really contribute to biodiversity in Seattle?

In an effort to strengthen their case for preserving golf courses in an era of declining use, some golf course boosters are turning to biodiversity to bolster their argument.

Roughly 8% of land owned by Seattle Parks is occupied by golf courses, which is not an insubstantial amount of park acreage in the city. According to the Trust for Public Land’s 2021 ParkScore index, Seattle scored 55 out of 100 for total park acreage, identifying acreage as one of the city’s weak spots when analyzing park performance. For golf supporters, keeping these lands as golf courses instead of converting them to other uses such as housing is imperative because of the city’s need to maintain or increase green space.

However, unlike golf courses, most Seattle park land is much more accessible and widely utilized by the public. That’s where golf course supporters turn to wildlife as beneficiaries of golf course land, arguing that the green space occupied by golf courses functions as wildlife habitat or corridors. Yet, the amount of golf course land that can be actually used by wildlife is far less than its total of 528 acres.

A view of a fairway at Jefferson Park Golf Course in Seattle. The majority of land occupied by golf courses is limited to frequently mowed grass, making it unsuitable as habitat for wildlife. (Credit: Bernzilla, Creative Commons)

Seattle Parks acknowledged in its own post that the bulk of the wildlife habitat within its golf courses is “contained in the edges and natural areas.” While the department did not cite exact acreage numbers, it did share that it is currently restoring 30 acres of golf course land with help from the Green Seattle Partnership, SPR’s urban forest restoration program. In total, Green Seattle Partnership has identified 85 acres within golf courses for restoration, representing only 16% of the total land area.

Pollution is also a major concern when it comes to golf courses. While Seattle Parks has made efforts to eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers used on its meadows in partnership with a certification program administered by the Audubon Society, grass fairways still demand of the application of these hazardous substances which harm wildlife and enter the city’s watershed. Additionally, the regular mowing and removal of weeds on grass fairways makes the land inhospitable as habitat for birds and other pollinators.

With this context, the argument for biodiversity on Seattle’s golf courses falls short, even when you consider the charismatic coyotes that venture out on the fairways from time to time. Those coyotes would probably be happier loping around the dense trails of Seward Park or another similarly verdant spot anyways.

Using golf course land for public benefit

A burgeoning movement calling for publicly owned golf course land to be put to greater use in cities is emerging nationwide as more cities put former golf course land to use as housing and park space. A 2018 report from the National Golf Foundation found that more than 200 golf courses closed in the U.S. in 2017 alone as golf facilities continue to exceed demand from golfers.

Some of Seattle’s neighboring cities and suburbs have already embraced the trend of converting golf courses to new uses. In Kent, a 492-unit urban and garden style apartment development with 12,000 square feet of retail is in development near its town center on land formerly occupied by a nine-hole golf course, while in Mountlake Terrace a nine-hole golf course was converted into a 55 acre passive park, expanding the footprint of Lake Ballinger Park and increasing the amount of land dedicated to wildlife habitat.

Beyond actions taken by other cities, however, recent developments have put new urgency on examining the future of publicly owned golf courses in Seattle. On August 6th, 2021, the Sound Transit Board voted to approve plans to keep the expansion of Link light rail mostly on schedule and actually accelerating 130th Street Station. This means that two light rail stations will be opening within walking distance of Jackson Park golf course: NE 145th Street Station in 2024 and 130th Street Station in 2025. The City has been engaging in planning efforts around these station areas, including a community survey soliciting feedback on proposals to change the surrounding zoning from single-family to commercial/mixed use and multi-family residential zoning that closed in late July of this year.

The millions of dollars in public funding that have gone into the development of these light rail stations has spurred housing advocates to call for a reevaluation of the 160 acre, 27-hole Jackson Park golf course in particular. In an op-ed for the The Urbanist, titled “Let’s Tee Off for Housing,” Ryan DiRaimo makes the case for converting the course into a new eco-district that could house 35,000 people on the 60 acres of fairways and preserve the remaining 100 forested acres as public open space, all of which would be within a short walk of rapid transit.

Graphic by Ryan DiRaimo showing Barcelona style apartment block layout for the golf course..
Two future light rail stops will open by the year 2025. With 61% of the site uncovered by trees, a quality designed neighborhood could house a dense population and leave swaths of existing trees and parks open to the public (Image by Ryan DiRaimo)

DiRaimo also supports removing the name of genocidal U.S. president Andrew Jackson from the park, suggesting renaming it after Jim Ellis, a Seattle planner who dedicated his professional life to the expansion of the mass transit in the region and set the groundwork for today’s Link light rail system.

Ensuring that affordable housing makes its way into the mix would be an important way for the City to further distance itself from a legacy of exclusion, and enable a diverse array of humans — and wildlife — to benefit from this publicly owned land.

Regardless of the particular solution, the status quo of an unpopular, money-sucking public golf course next to a soon-to-open light rail station is untenable. The first planning concern within a short walk of a transit station should be increasing the count of human residents rather than raccoons and coyotes.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.

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Chris

I’d like to offer some counter arguments as most of the commenters are clearly against golf courses and are probably not golfers.

We are talking specifically about public golf courses that actually do provide amenities to local residents. There are several programs such as first tee that offer outreach and recreation to youth in the city from any background. Do they not deserve to learn and enjoy golf like anyone else? By taking golf courses out of the city you are pushing it further out of reach for them and residents of Seattle.

The studies previously done about decline in popularity of the sport were last done in 2017, and golf has actually seen a significant rise since the start of the pandemic. The idea that golf is only enjoyed by the old, white, and wealthy is a stereotype and is as offensive as any other stereotype.

Furthermore there are only a few remaining public courses within driving distance of the city. These courses are used by people who do not golf as well. They also increase the real estate value of properties surrounding them. While I agree that they are not “natural habitats”, one could argue that the monetary and ecological costs of ripping out these courses and replacing them with housing are far greater than fixing the zoning and increasing the density of areas that are readily available for housing.

Douglas Trumm

A lot of people want a pony and a Seattle ranch to keep it on but you don’t see them acting like it’s a high priority for the government to make their dream come true.

Joyce

Talk about another waste of land adjacent to a Link Light Rail Station at Northgate. Housing could have been built where the ice hockey facility is. Golf courses are excellent places for planting more trees to address climate change. Something has to give, since all the developers are installing ugly boxes at the expense of trees in the city.

Justin

Trees are very important, but limiting housing inside cities in the name of tree preservation or reforestation just pushes development into the suburbs. This ends up destroying actual natural areas and/or farmlands on the outskirts of the urban area. More housing in cities = better preserved habitat elsewhere. The author’s proposal is great because it preserves existing trees while also adding housing.

RDPence

Urban residents shouldn’t have to travel to distant suburbs to experience major treed environments. Yes, make good arguments in favor of more affordable housing, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of trees. We can have both I our cities.

Eric

Trees are great! Let’s line our streets with them and fill our parks with them. Let’s not tell someone they can’t build an apartment building on their own property because someone 50 years ago planted a tree on it instead of paving it over.

RDPence

Agree in principle. Build apartments on MF zoned land (gee, aren’t we seeing a lot of that already…?) where it can be served by frequent transit, etc.

Eric

In principle, our tree protection laws already do what I describe. Large trees are legally protected in most circumstances, but they can be removed as part of a development project if saving them would reduce the maximum building envelope beyond what is otherwise allowed, and things like height limits and setbacks can be relaxed to achieve tree protection while also allowing full-sized housing developments. This seems like a fine balance to me.

There is a movement toward making our tree ordinance go further, toward protecting more trees in more circumstances, and adding steep fees for removing trees to add housing. These costs, like all costs the city imposes on housing development, will create ripple effects that push the price of housing upward.

As to your comment that we should only build apartments on land zoned for it, sure…but there should be very little private land not zoned for it. We don’t need to limit apartments only to land near planned transit routes; if someone wants to build apartments somewhere else it’s easy enough to adapt our bus routes to serve the population wherever demand increases within the city.

Last edited 3 months ago by Eric
RDPence

Actually, it’s not that easy to simply “adapt our bus routes” to serve neighborhoods that are off the beaten path. Neighborhood side streets are too narrow (often only 25 feet); not designed for buses or even for the increased auto traffic generated by MF development.

If current urban village plans won’t support needed housing increases, then upzone them and/or expand their footprint a little. It’s called urban planning. More complicated than the current urbanist mantra of “MF everywhere, SF nowhere” but maybe worth it in the long run. Less political warfare for one thing.

Bryan K

“Almost everywhere” in Seattle is within frequent access to transit (and it wouldn’t take much to make it universal).

transit.jpg
RDPence

Such maps tend to ignore hills, streets with no sidewalks, and 10-minute walk times (0.4 miles).

Ruth

Good point! It’s unbelievable how little consideration is given to pedestrian safety. In Northgate they are in the process of dumping hundreds of vehicles on just such a street that is also part of the designated neighborhood greenway. Just a matter of time. . .

Bryan

It’s the city’s official map based on 10-minute walk times in the Urban Village monitoring report, and done in collaboration with Move Seattle Levy folks who are accountable for ensuring 72% of Seattle households are within a 10 minute walk of transit running every 10 minutes by 2025.

https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OPCD/OngoingInitiatives/SeattlesComprehensivePlan/OPCD%20Comprehensive%20Plan%20Urban%20Village%20Indicators%20Monitoring%20Rpt%206%2026%202018%20w_pg%2047%20corr.pdf

Last edited 3 months ago by Bryan
RDPence

That report assumes all neighborhood streets have sidewalks for safe walking, and they are flat (no hills to slow your walk). And they assume commuters walk at 3mph on their way to the bus, whereas MUTCD says pedestrians walk at 2.4mph.

Jake Torrey

Should there be golf courses? Yes. Should there be golf courses in the middle of a city? No.
They should just replace this with a frisbee golf course. That way it doesn’t need massive lawns.

Ernest

Elitist, Racist & Sexist history is just that. History. I play Jefferson on Beacon Hill, and Foster in Tukwilla. Racist and Sexist don’t exist there.

RDPence

When I lived on Beacon Hill, the Jefferson Park course was known for the ethnic diversity among its players.

Anne

To keep these well-manicured green lawns and keep “weeds” like flowers out it is well known that chemicals like Glyphosate (a well-known brand name is Roundup) are being used that are linked with cancer (Roundup Maker to Pay $10 Billion to Settle Cancer Suits – The New York Times (nytimes.com).
And what does Seattle: Seattle’s pesticide phaseout lags: Potentially harmful products used in parks | The Seattle Times.
Time to reconsider the golf courses I would say. Let’s start with making the golf courses really public eg always open for people to use and not only for people playing golf, and stop using chemicals. These 2 steps alone I predict will bring a swift end to using these “parks” for golf. And that will open up the discussion what to do next.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

Very nice rundown on the present situation. However, you omitted the single biggest barrier to repurposing the park–it’s illegal. Under Seattle law, any sale of park land must be compensated by the same amount of similar land. As your superimposed map indicates, this is impossible. The best we can hope for is to close Jackson Park Golf Course, stop growing manicured grass, and repurpose it for more people. How about a summer camp like Camp Long? A BMX course? A large P Patch? An urban farm like Marra Farm with with classes in growing and cooking? A demonstration shade garden and meditation space? Play area with splash fountain? Let’s have fun with repurposing Jackson Park and build dense low-rise housing around it.

Douglas Trumm

A land swap would make several blocks of social housing near the two light rail stations possible while adding more parks/green space where it’s needed most in places like Southeast Seattle. That would be a win and win. Most of the golf course could be kept as park space, but I see no reason not to get creative to get better outcomes for the whole city. Distributing parks and green space better throughout the city where gaps are most pronounced is the higher priority than adding another megapark in North Seattle.

Ruth

Except that North Seattle is also diverse and also short of green space. Robbing Peter to pay Paul would not be a helpful solution.

RDPence

There’s another major issue when it comes to “repurposing” Seattle parks~ many city parks were gifted to the city by early pioneers with a stipulation in the deed that should the land ever NOT be used as a park, title reverts to the heirs of the donor. I think these are referred to as Dedicated parklands. This may be a factor in the golf course discussion.

James

Turning these parks into housing is by no means “eco-friendly”. The reality is only a little more than 11% of Seattle’s overall land is dedicated to greenspace and these courses are included in that portfolio. The public would be much better served by turning these parks into urban forests that actually provided viable and meaningful habitat for biodiversity. Climate change is happening and we are already at a tipping point, we need to do what we can to promote climate change resilience with what little time we have left. This means protecting our tree cover and expanding our green infrastructure. Rather than exploiting our publiy owned land, we should look at redeveloping the large swaths of commercial corridors all throughout the Puget Sound and Seattle area that have large sprawling parking lots that are underutilized and unsustainable.

Martin

Yes, we need parks, urban gardens and forests, but not necessarily next to a light rail stop. As Doug suggested, let’s look at where throughout the city we need such space and then swap those locations. May be a portion of the Armory, certainly South Seattle is lacking green spaces, but may be some pockets of North Seattle, too, that’s urban planning!

A Joy

Pretty much anywhere in Seattle a location swap would be expensive and difficult. Not to mention unlikely, as what would probably happen is the space slated for turning into a park is never actually turned into a park or turned into a fully paved park. If there’s already existing green space next to a proposed light rail stop, you should be complaining about the bad planning that Link officials envisioned, not the green space’s existence. Move what hasn’t been built yet, not what has been there for decades.

Ruth

As another commenter has pointed out, these kinds of land swaps are very expensive. ‘Urban’ planning would be nice, but that’s a more complex method than today’s compartmentalized, one-size-fits-all style.