We live in an age where all forms of development and land use are evaluated for their 'sustainability'; in other words what balance of social, environmental and economic benefits do they provide? A basic requirement of environmental care is the conservation of biological diversity. Changes in biodiversity are a barometer of how sustainably we develop and manage golf courses. It is vital that course design maximises opportunities for habitat and species conservation.
While we should recognise the valuable role golf courses often play in the conservation of biodiversity, and the existing commitment of golf course architects to integrate ecology into their routing plans and detailed design, perhaps we can still challenge ourselves, and ask the question: are we doing as much as we could and should? The ecological function of every golf course is heavily influenced by the golf course architect. Of all those involved in the development process, the architect has most control over the course layout; the footprint of amenity turf; the integration of ecological and other landscape features; the detailed design of habitats; and ultimately the protection and conservation of flora and fauna.
Golf's contribution is particularly important at a time of general decline in habitat quality, range and scale, and the associated decline in many species of wildlife. Our natural heritage has never been under such pressure.
However, golf course development is often portrayed as part of the problem, rather than as part of the solution. Golf's critics label golf courses "green deserts", of manicured, amenity grassland with token features such as unnatural water bodies; over managed, fragmented copses of nonnative trees; and monocultures of rough. Add to this wider concerns relating to water, pesticides, waste, landscape, cultural heritage – and the picture is not too good.
Of course, we know that many of these specific environmental criticisms are often ill informed, or taken out of context, and frequently also fail to take into account the broader social and economic contribution of golf. However, many of these concerns are undoubtedly valid and taken collectively, they represent a real challenge to golf development. The golf sector needs to reverse this negative environmental image. By far the most constructive approach I believe will not be by counterlobbying, but by raising the bar for design standards, so that we can deliver truly sustainable golf courses. The sector should also coordinate and promote scientifically supported examples of golf course development which have benefited ecology.
So, what do we mean by ecological design? Quite simply the term refers to an approach to golf course architecture which creates 'naturalised' courses. It is about maximising the ecological function of the golf course, whilst obviously taking into account the essential parameters of playability, safety and maintenance. This need not be an 'either/or' choice.Well-designed, naturalised golf courses can fulfil and perhaps surpass all required golfing objectives, and at the same time, they will deliver maximum ecological value. They allow natural ecosystems to be fully integrated with the golfing environment.
Ecological design seems pretty straightforward. However, very few golf courses have the full package worked into the course design and pay genuine attention to ecological detail. And that is the difference between golf courses which appeal to the more common and adaptable species, and those that provide genuinely important ecological niches for the species that are often in greatest need. Given the specialist knowledge involved in surveying and interpreting the ecology of a given site, we would always advocate the use of a qualified ecologist within the planning and design team, and full attention to ecological detail within the EIA process. Their input will be the difference between a golf course with peripheral wildlife, and one in which the course is part of the habitat.
Jonathan Smith is Chief Officer with the Commited to Green Foundation, an independent, non-profit organisation which promotes environmental sustainability in golf.
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.