Playing the regeneration game with former landfill sites

Playing the regeneration game with former landfill sites
John Sanford
By John Sanford

Golf originated on the shores of the British Isles in the 1400s, when shepherds grazed their flocks along coastal dunes, which they considered wasteland since it was unsuitable for farming or building.

What was once unsuitable is now cherished as sacred golfing grounds. And our new wastelands are truly that – degraded land where we have deposited our domestic and commercial waste, also known as ‘landfills’. As history has proven, even today’s wastelands can be transformed into cherished spaces.

Converting landfills to golf courses is not a new phenomenon, but more of these types of project are becoming a reality. There are thousands of waste sites around the world that are candidates for transformation to ‘green infrastructure’, and golf fits that bill.

Even on landfill sites that are not large enough or suitable for a 150-acre, regulation golf course, there are infinite options to create practice facilities, short courses, or nine-hole tracks. Golf also mixes well with other active recreational uses, such as ballfields, parks and walking trails, and tends to be the primary revenue generator.

The benefits and challenges of designing and building on a landfill are numerous. Sanford Golf Design has designed two such projects in the US that exemplify these virtues – Granite Links Golf Club in Boston and Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in New York City. Both are products of public/private ventures, requiring extensive planning and permitting. They were very expensive to build by golf course standards and many challenges had to be overcome during their creation.

Granite Links included two contiguous and active landfills that were closed during the golf course construction process. Ten million cubic yards of fill came out of the ‘Big Dig’ (a huge highway and tunnel construction project just six miles away in downtown Boston) and fees for the disposal of this material funded the project. This fill was used to cap the waste and was shaped to form the base grade for the course. The fill helped to accelerate settling of the waste, while methane gas vents were inconspicuously placed around the property.

What was previously an eyesore has been transformed into a site with a beautiful 27-hole golf course, public ballfields and hiking trails, which all returns revenue to the local communities. The course construction project has also saved millions of dollars of public funds that would have been required to close the landfills. The facility is operated by a private entity and has become a favourite destination for many in the Boston metropolitan area.

Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point was an inactive landfill that had lain fallow for decades on the East River at the base of the Whitestone Bridge in New York’s Bronx district. Over 60 years, the site had been filled with everything from kitchen appliances to construction debris and had never been properly closed in adherence with State regulations. After several failed attempts by private entities, the City stepped up and funded the design and construction of this links-style course.

Substructures under tees and greens, methane gas vents and geofoam backfill made for a challenging design and construction process. Nothing is easy in the ‘Big Apple’ when it comes to building public facilities, but with the help of Jack Nicklaus and Donald Trump, the course was completed in 2014 and had a very successful first year of operation in 2015.

As well as the 18-hole golf course and practice facilities, the 220-acre Ferry Point Park now includes a community park with ballfields and a waterfront park with a pedestrian link along the East River to the adjacent neighbourhood.

Closing a landfill is a complicated and expensive process, and transforming a landfill into an active public park costs even more. However, creating a golf facility costs no more than a public park yet generates income perpetually. This makes golf the logical choice.

Though both of our landfill to golf course projects had different constraints and opportunities, they have transformed degraded urban sites into active recreational amenities that have enhanced and will sustain their communities for many years to come. 

John Sanford is president of Sanford Golf Design and currently Vice President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects

This article first appeared in issue 45 of Golf Course Architecture.