The golf course as part of a sponge city
Why use space for golf courses? This critical question has been asked by many critics of this sport this year. Perhaps among the loudest was Simon Hunt, the business and technology correspondent for London’s newspaper The Evening Standard. The average nine-hole London golf course is big enough for 42 soccer and 671 tennis courts, he let us know, and called for the dissolution of 131 golf courses in Greater London to return the land to bewildered nature and flat complexes instead of clubhouses. Hunt, by the way, was not the first person in a major European city to make such a demand. In the greater Berlin area, too, similar wishes have been repeatedly expressed by members of the Left Party since the beginning of the year.
But if you take a closer look at the function of a golf course in a major city or urban areas, you’ll quickly realize: This green space, covering more than 60 acres over 18 holes, fits perfectly into the concept of a sponge city, which is seen as an innovative approach to addressing environmental issues in increasingly urbanized areas
“Sponge sity” – meaning a city that takes advantage of nature’s natural water management to minimize flooding, protect groundwater resources, and provide fresh water to city residents. At the heart of this concept are infiltration areas, which play a critical role in the functionality of a sponge city. These infiltrations include golf courses.
Origin of the term sponge city
The term “sponge city” was first coined in the 1980s by architects and urban planners who were developing sustainable approaches to urban water management. The idea behind the concept is simple but effective: instead of quickly diverting rainwater away from the streets via sealing and sewers, it has to be retained in the city, absorbed and slowly infiltrated into the ground. In this way, the city mimics the natural water-holding capacity of ecosystems and minimizes the negative impacts of flooding and water scarcity.
Sealed areas in major cities such as Berlin and London
The size of a city’s sealed surfaces plays a central role in the implementation of the sponge city concept. In Berlin, one of the greenest major cities in Europe, sealed surfaces amount to about 37% of the total urban area. London, on the other hand, as one of the most populous cities in Europe, has a degree of sealing of around 25%. These sealed areas consist of paved roads, concrete surfaces, and buildings that impede natural water run-off.
The course of the infiltration processes and water extraction
The processes in infiltration areas are critical to the successful implementation of the sponge city concept. When it rains, water collects on surfaces such as roofs, streets and squares. Instead of draining water quickly, specially designed green spaces, parks, rooftops and walkways are used to capture stormwater. These areas often have permeable soil or substrate that allows water to slowly percolate into the subsoil. In this context, golf courses offer much larger areas than, for example, gardens or small parks for the infiltration process, which takes place in several steps:
- Absorption: The green areas absorb the rainwater and store it temporarily.
- Infiltration: The water penetrates the soil and slowly moves into the deeper soil layers.
- Storage: Some water is stored in the soil, replenishing groundwater reserves.
- Evaporation and transpiration: Some of the stored water evaporates from the soil surface or is released by plants through transpiration (water loss by plants).
- Recharge of water bodies: The excess water slowly moves into nearby water bodies, such as streams or lakes, contributing to recharge.
This process brings numerous advantages. First, it helps reduce flooding by keeping stormwater from draining into the sewer system, relieving pressure on the drainage system. Secondly, it allows natural recharge of groundwater, which in turn secures water reserves and reduces the risk of soil subsidence. Third, it supports the microclimate of the city, as evaporation and transpiration contribute to cooling
The value of different green spaces
The selection and design of green spaces within a sponge city are critical to the efficiency of infiltration areas. Different types of green space perform different functions and contribute to overall functionality.
- Near-natural areas: Near-natural green spaces, such as parks and forests, provide high water absorption capacity and promote infiltration and storage of water. These areas are also important for biodiversity and the urban climate.
- Green roofs: Green roofs not only contribute to aesthetics, but also absorb rainwater and reduce direct surface run-off.
- Rain gardens: these green spaces planted with special plants not only help with water management, but also filter rainwater and promote soil formation.
- Urban Farming: Agricultural land in the city can not only produce food, but also absorb and evaporate rainwater.
Golf courses as natural areas
Golf courses, unlike rooftops or small gardens, are large natural areas that are critical to the successful implementation of the sponge city concept. In this regard, they not only appeal to us aesthetically and serve their purpose as a sports facility, but their extensive areas perform a variety of functions that contribute to the sustainable management of urban water management challenges. Especially the extensive areas with biotopes, species-rich meadows, wooded areas or hedge structures are characterized by their high water absorption capacity, their natural vegetation and their positive effects on the urban microclimate. They often have different types of natural areas within their grounds:
Biotopes are often of high ecological importance and are home to a variety of plants and animals. They promote biodiversity and are also areas for water absorption and storage.
Wetlands such as ponds, alternating wetlands, or renaturalized stream marshes also play an important role in the hydrologic cycle of a sponge town. They are natural retention basins for stormwater and help slow run-off. Wetlands act like sponges that absorb and slowly release excess water, minimizing the risk of flooding. At the same time, they provide habitat for a variety of aquatic and water’s edge species.
Recognize the importance of golf courses
Despite the growing awareness of the importance of sponge cities and near-natural areas, many cities still face implementation challenges. In Berlin, for example, there are numerous green spaces and parks, but the high degree of sealing in some areas impairs the efficiency of the sponge city concept. London, on the other hand, has focused more on promoting green roofs and community gardens in recent years to improve the infiltration of rainwater.
The presence of golf courses, on the other hand, which can add enormous areas to the concept, is often viewed rather socially. Not only in London, but also in cities such as San Francisco or Los Angeles, for example, which suffer from high settlement pressure, there are repeated calls for the conversion of golf areas.
This overlooks the fact that it is the 50-plus percent natural areas that golf courses typically bring to the table that can play a key role in the design and functionality of a sponge town. Not only do they help minimize the impact of extreme weather events, but they also contribute to a greener, healthier, and more liveable urban environment. However, it is important that they are also accessible to the public via walking and hiking trails. By integrating these diverse spaces, cities can strengthen their resilience to the impacts of climate change while promoting the well-being of their residents.
At a time when climate change and urbanization pose major challenges to urban quality of life, the sponge city concept with its infiltration areas shows a promising way forward. By mimicking natural processes, it not only helps reduce flooding and safeguard water resources, but also creates greener and more liveable cities for the future. Golf courses can play an important role in this as natural sports facilities, whether municipal or privately financed.