Municipal Golf Courses are Extremely Classist, yet Denver is Doubling Down

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Denver’s publicly-owned City Park Golf Course covers 150 acres in the heart of one of the fastest-growing cities in the US. It is in the process of a $40-million redesign to install a water retention pond inextricably linked to the Central I-70 Widening-a-Highway-Through-a-Low-Income-Neighborhood Project, cutting down 260 golf course trees in the process.

location of City Park Golf Course in the heart of the city

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

The main concern I have is not one of lost trees, but of social equity. But before I get to that, let me get some other concerns out of the way first:

  1. Land use: Golf courses are inflexible, single-use environments that don’t allow for any other activity and are only usable part of the year.
  2. Environmental: Golf courses are notorious users of pesticides and wasters of water.
  3. 18-hole golf is a dying industry: Why is the city investing in it?

Each of those are serious concerns that deserve their own article. But like I said, this article is about social equity. Please take a minute to digest the following amazing infographic. (Spoiler: Golf is a rich people sport.)

Data from Bureau of Labor Statistics. Infographic credit goes to Henrik Lindberg.

It may surprise you that my biggest concern here is not that the City and County of Denver is spending $40 million of public money to benefit the wealthiest Denverites. What bothers me most is that the City and County of Denver is spending 150 acres of public space to benefit the wealthiest Denverites.

The benefits of green space are hard to overstate. The physical benefits are more obvious, like lower risk of cardiovascular disease, but the mental health benefits are substantial as well. Time spent in green space can decrease fatigue, depression, anxiety, and dementia, while at the same time increase productivity, creativity, and focus. Basically, green space increases the ability to be successful.

[Edit: I would like to take a moment here to point out that City Park Golf Course is a dedicated city park, which means it cannot be used for anything besides a park without a vote of Denver residents. I say this because many of the comments on the video version of this article (below) focus on how “if it wasn’t a golf course, the city would just let greedy developers build 12-story fugly luxury apartments.” This land can only be a park. ~C]

In an era where the federal government is so unashamedly divisive, it is more important than ever for cities to devote public resources as equitably as possible. A golf course does not do that. Denver is devoting public land, finances, and environmental resources to an activity that is disproportionately utilized by those who are already the most well off. Redesigning this space was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide a public resource that benefits all people, not just the ones who have both the finances and free time to play a round of 18 holes. The city missed that opportunity…and it wasn’t by accident.

To be clear, the city unquestionably performed its legally required due-diligence by having public meetings about the course redesign–but did it in a way that framed the question in its favor. “What is the best redesign for this golf course?” was not the right question. A city motivated to serve all of its citizens would have asked “What is the best use of these incredibly valuable city-owned 150 acres?”

By framing the conversation the way the city did, the status quo power structure was never threatened. As stated, the question left people upset and scrambling over trees scheduled to be felled (that they probably would never have sat under anyway) instead of how they lost out on an opportunity to benefit from the most precious of publicly-owned resources: urban green space. Obviously, I have strong feelings about this, but I recognize that mine is not the only voice. I want to hear from you.

Do you think a golf course is the highest and best utilization of this park space? What variety of park amenities do you think would have the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people? I would love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. Here is the video version I mentioned before.

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