Sustainability by design

By Howard Swan and Mike Wood

Sustainable development is a problematic phrase. 'Sustainable' implies an inexhaustible system, perpetual rebirth and renewal. On the other hand 'development' denotes change, production and expansion. Both words speak of time, evolution and adaptation. But each word subtly, yet significantly, modifies the other.

To be judged sustainable, development must somehow incorporate renewal: a recycling process that ensures the continuity of matter, resources, populations and cultures. For sustainability to accommodate development, it must allow change and adaptation. Douglas Porter, president of the Growth Management Institute, once said: "These two words speak of balancing economic and social forces against the environmental imperatives of resource conservation and renewal for the world of tomorrow." Over a century ago, the pioneering environmentalist George Perkins Marsh said: "Man everywhere is a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords." It is the modern golf course architect's responsibility to tread as lightly as possible when designing a course, and thus hopefully reduce the discord created by the unavoidable 'footprint.' In essence sustainable development, as described in the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, must "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The R&A has shown the way in terms of golf course management. Chief executive Peter Dawson said: "The challenge for golf is to maintain course quality and playability while respecting and positively contributing to the social and natural environment." And in the design world, the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA) has followed up by becoming one of the first golf organisations to publish a Statement of Environmental Policy. This includes a definition of sustainable golf architecture as: "Golf course architecture which achieves the best fit between the quality of the golf course and the natural, economic, and social characteristics of its environment." It goes on to define a number of broad principles derived from this philosophy, covering each of the major facets of an architect's work. Of course this is only a first step, but EIGCA is committed to a future action plan to carry this forward. This will include detailed guidance on environmental best practice for new golf course development, produced in partnership with Golf Enviromental Europe, as well as the promotion of existing case studies.

But how exactly do we put such principles into practice? The conservation of natural features and resources is paramount. This is achieved through both the initial minimising of land construction, and the subsequent maintenance, restoration and enhancement of environmental attributes on the site. Energy sources, use and effects are also of key importance.

Developers must recognise the need to reduce consumption. In theory this should lead to, and include the reduction of waste, toxic emissions and pollution. It is from here that the idea of sustainability arises. To minimise their human footprint, architects must move towards the use of existing and renewable sources of development and energy.

There are also less obvious facets to the concept of sustainable development. A golf course should have a sense of place, of community. It should accommodate and encourage social interaction by improving accessibility (social and logistical) and expanding diversification (social and ecological). It is clear that, for golf course architects, there is much to be done.

In the early days, natural designs defined golf – land linking the sea with arable terrain, poor soils with grasses, dunes and dune slacks, hills and valleys.

It is Mother Nature, the original and greatest golf architect, whom we have been attempting to imitate, with varying degrees of success, ever since.

It is important to realise how utterly different golf was in those days. There were no greens, just flattish areas in the dunes. Tees were non-existent; a player simply started a stone's throw from the previous hole. Bunkers were wind-eroded areas of ground and fairways merely the way from one hole to the next. Actually, holes didn't exist either, save for the rabbit scrapes.

Back then, there were no two-legged custodians of the links. No architects. No earth movement. No adapting the form of the land at all. Nature was left alone to manage the land, with a maximum of simplicity and a minimum of impact.

How life has changed in half a millennium! Of course the spread of the game has involved new land types. And it may be argued that to play the game in these new environments necessitated the adjustment and modification of the landform. In a sense this was the starting point for the more aggressive style of course architecture that abounds today.

While such a development seems indeed to have been unavoidable, the key is to know how much to do, recognising when to stop, when to let nature prevail.

Unfortunately, it is perhaps easier to start the process than to stop it.

Architects belong to a profession that strives for increasing amounts of creative input, accompanied by, and resulting in more modelling, more engineering and perhaps more artificiality.

From hand labour to horses and carts, via rudimentary mechanical equipment to bulldozers and trucks – has it become all too easy to snap our architectural fingers and command the earth? Have we lost sight of the beauty in simplicity? Are architects still capable of designing a good golf course that has minimal environmental impact and supports the principles and practices of sustainability? If it is a case of over-elaboration, why are modern architects inclined to indulge such decadence? Ego? Fees? Outdoing one's contemporaries? Fame and glory? At the turn of the century, a certain James Braid wrote: "When the course is being laid out on which there are natural hazards such as trees…the general aim will be to make the best use of them as hazards…for the more natural hazards there are on course, whatever their character (trees, grasses, scrub, hills and valleys…dew ponds) the more interesting the course ought to be, and generally is." Braid stuck to these principles through his remarkable architectural career, underlying his belief that nature and social sustainability were fundamentally important. If sustainable development is an ideal aim, perhaps greater effort should be made to shape its contours. It can be summarised as consisting of three main concepts – environmental integrity, economic and financial prosperity, and social equity.

Environmental integrity involves minimising the effect on the natural environment. Renewable materials should be used on all possible occasions and overall energy consumption during application of design kept low. Change to the landform should be minimised, primarily by reducing or eradicating earthworks. Water is another key concern; it should be recycled and 'human' wherever possible. Grass species need to be drought tolerant, as well as modest in their chemical and nutritional requirements. In fact grass areas on the whole would be better reduced.

Economic and financial prosperity is undeniably important, the architect must recognise the client's need to meet a realistic commercial return in developing a golf course. This involves restricting and controlling the overall development budget and ensuring that the programme stays on time.

Often an afterthought, social equity is a key part of golf course architecture. The focus is on making the game more accessible in order to expand the current customer base. Affordability should be a primary concern, as should making the game more approachable for beginners and players of different abilities. This could be done by designing multiple loops in courses, or designing shorter courses with perhaps three, six or nine holes to allow shorter playing times.

Practice and tuition facilities, as well as specifically designed courses for kids or families deserve attention. At root it is simply a question of removing stuffy elitism from the game.

If the professional golf course architect can strive to meet these categories, then, as a significant member of the development team he or she can make a major contribution to the progress and sustainability of the game's facilities, as well as to the game itself.

This game of ours is a great one, respectable, respectful, quite unique. Its future must be secured. It is the responsibility of the golf course architect to ensure this, to meet the environmental, economic and social needs of the present, without compromising those of the future.

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