Generally, the narrative around sprawl is one of disinvestment in one area (usually the core of the metropolitan area) versus investment fueled by highways favoring formerly unincorporated areas. Sprawl has shown that inequities can be allowed to persist in government policy.
One of the interesting opportunities to restore balance and perhaps bring some harmony between urban and rural populations may be found in large plots of land reserved for the leisure classes of the Industrial era—the country clubs of the inner ring suburbs. As membership dwindles and games like golf become outmoded, huge swaths of green space become available.
Prime examples abound in Northeast Ohio—the former Oakwood CC in Cleveland Heights and South Euclid was an early one. There may be more whose future is uncertain, dimmed by “golf sprawl” into the exurbs.
High profile cases of how golf courses should be converted once the business evaporates include Fowler’s Mill, a high end golf course in Eastern Geauga County that became the center of a conversation about a conversion to a park (some residents opposed on the grounds that “there are too many parks already in Geauga.” Raising the need to have a community dialogue around the perception of parks—who “pays” for them versus do they provide a natural service?)
Closer in, when the former Acacia CC in the suburb of Lyndhurst folded, a group of wealthy property owners, who had already built an exclusive gated community at the western edge of the property, purchased the golf course and struck a deal to donate it to the Cleveland Metroparks for the creation of a new park.
But, the Oakwood CC collapse and subsequent division of the land into two ownership stakes—First Interstate, a developer, purchased the land in South Euclid and built a big box shopping center and the Hebrew Academy has an option to buy the club house area in Cleveland Heights—may be instructive in how unprepared Northeast Ohio communities are in dealing with a huge opportunity.
Collectively, golf courses are huge contiguous green spaces in Cuyahoga County, which is an otherwise completely built out county. Cuyahoga ceded its claim as Ohio’s largest county by population to Franklin County (Columbus / Franklin have a pact to consolidate or “regionalize” certain aspects of their governments).
Cuyahoga is, at best, treading water. It’s housing stock is aging—more than half was built before 1950. Much of it was designed and built in a hurry after World War II to be filled almost instantly by returning GIs. Its not that they are too large or too small per se, but the homes need a reinvestment strategy. (South Euclid set out a few years ago to do just so—bring houses up to code on energy use and to move with changing demographics around family size, live-work, and aging in place).
The county’s housing policy experts have advised older suburbs to focus on rebuilding housing in and around town center and dense commercial districts. And it's good advice considering Cleveland and the inner ring suburbs have pockets of density, a mix of land uses, and transit connections that represent an opportunity to build up areas where people who may not want to live a car-dependent life choose to live or work.
But, even with a well-planned effort to add density to existing commercial districts, Cuyahoga County will still fall short of the goal it needs to set to reclaim population lost in the past three decades.
Housing expert Tom Bier notes the challenge in this 2015 piece for Cleveland.com where he writes:
“The issue is scale. Redevelopment of the county’s old core must be on a large enough scale to compensate for growth that no longer can happen in the outer suburbs. That’s around 3,000 housing units a year, every year, for decades. Current production is barely 500.”
Suburbs may also need to consider the opportunity that current, privately owned open space represents in both capturing future housing needs and in reinventing themselves. A master plan, like those that Cuyahoga County Planning Department are conducting for individual suburbs, are an opportunity to discuss the intersection of golf courses and lifestyles to pay attention to—tiny homes? The desire to live sustainably (which incorporates low carbon living at home and in one’s choice of energy, food and transportation)?
How do they intersect with open space like golf courses and with the idea behind a planned community?
Where suburbs have an opportunity to attract Millennials and retiring Baby Boomers who are demanding housing choices, should they think big and plan for visionary reuses of green spaces like converting golf courses that will eventually come on the market?
If so, there may be an opportunity to think through the very nature of how people want to live. Where examples of fully sustainable communities exists—intentional, deep green communities like ecovillages and experimental suburbs like Vauban in Freiburg, Germany—a suburb that has a forward thinking “Master Plan” might look at golf course and similarly say, “we can have the park that pays for itself by developing a community which will produce zero waste or capture all of its stormwater or generate all of its energy or be completely car free.”
The idea of passively accepting that a population will choose an existing post-war bungalow in the suburbs is dangerously myopic. The alternative may be the sustainable, planned community of the future. Where once was a fairway could be the biodiverse, completely sustainable suburban subdivision.