Golf Courses as a Source of Habitat Conservation in the Urban Landscape

A golfer looks out over a bright swath of Coreopsis flowers at the Mark Bostick Golf Course, University of Florida. Photograph by Matt Borden.

Any observer of our modern cities or the endless sprawl of suburbs can attest that natural habitat in urban areas is increasingly scarce. As a result, the limited open spaces and natural areas remaining must be shared. These become multipurpose spaces for recreation, relaxation, and refuges for plants and animals.

In the southeastern United States, urbanization and residential development has undergone rapid expansion in recent years — with no end in sight. This is especially relevant to Florida, where the population increase is around 40% higher than the national average. Model predictions of urban growth are sobering and highlight an urgent need to plan our expansion more efficiency and to preserve natural lands and resources before encroachment by development.

Urbanization projections for Florida reveal the urgency to plan ahead for preserving habitat and other natural resources, particularly the aquifer-based water supply. See the Florida 2070 Project for more data.

Unfortunately, many organisms do not adjust well to their changing environment, and urban development continues to be a driving force in habitat loss. Mosquitoes, cockroaches, and plant pests certainly seem abundant, but there is concern about the diversity of insects from other important groups. Many of these play vital roles as natural enemies of pests, food for larger animals, nutrient recyclers, decomposers, and pollinators. To enjoy the enormous benefits of a biodiverse and functional ecosystem, we must preserve (protect from use) some natural habitat and conserve (make proper use of) of our green spaces.

Three major types of urban green spaces: residential landscapes, parks, and golf courses. In Florida, golf courses are particularly abundant!

In urban areas, the main green spaces are residential yards and gardens, city parks, and golf courses. But which of these should we focus on if we want to make a difference in habitat conservation?

The answer, of course, is all of them. However, golf courses tend to be disregarded as having any role in the solution. In fact, public opinion often regards them as the problem. Golf courses are still seen by many as water-guzzling wastes of space where habitat destruction, monocultured turf, over-fertilization, and heavy pesticide use is the norm.

Do we really have to choose between having golf courses and building a more sustainable urban landscape with ample room for habitat conservation? New research and innovation within the golf industry reveals that, rather than being an obstacle, golf courses have the potential to take a lead role! A recent study of green spaces in Melbourne, Australia found that golf courses supported a much higher diversity of insect species than parks and gardens. This was attributed to the improved structure and continuous volume of plant habitat, as well as greater plant diversity.

Over the past few decades, modern agriculture experienced notable improvements. We learned more about practices such as fertilizer use, integrated pest management, and tillage methods for soil preservation. With more available knowledge and interest, the golf course industry has begun to experience a similar movement. Organizations such as the GEO Foundation, Environmental Institute for Golf, and research-based guides for best management practices (BMPs) now exist. These offer practical guides for architects and superintendents to rethink the ways they design and maintain courses.

For the planning and design process there are many recommendations that golf course architects can apply. These include preserving the site’s topsoil, mapping natural water movement across the site, and identifying areas of valuable habitat or rare trees. Instead of first clearing and grading the land, there is an emphasis on incorporating the native environment and showcasing its natural beauty. Instead of fighting water movement, wetlands can be managed, providing wildlife interest and breeding grounds for waterfowl, beneficial insects, and amphibians.

For golf course planting and maintenance, recommendations help maximize the available habitat and be more sustainable in the process. Out of play areas between the greens can be connected, creating wildlife corridors and effectively connecting habitat fragments. Plant structure focuses on different levels of vegetation, from closely mowed turf to tall grasses, low and high shrubs, and trees of all sizes. Each of these levels provides additional habitat niches for organisms. In general, greater plant diversity favors predatory insects, while limited plant diversity supports herbivore populations and potential for pest outbreaks. Therefore, careful selection of plant choices, including native species, can translate to significant savings for the golf course.

This introduces a core concept that needs to be clear to both golf courses and their members. Simply put, implementing best management practices and the many recommendations for habitat preservation and sustainable development is not merely the right thing to do, but can be the economically prudent choice.

Preserving the native habitat in arid regions is an excellent way to reduce management costs and irrigation needs. The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay in Tennessee was able to reduce water by over 1 million gallons annually simply by converting excess turf acreage to natural areas. Similarly, Old South Golf Links at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina has decreased their water needs by 1 million gallons each year since 2010 by investing in energy-efficient equipment and optimizing the natural landscape. Converting to improved turf varieties can be an enormous asset. In addition to saving water, The Bear Trace also slashed its expenses for fungicide sprays and manpower by switching to a more disease-resistant turf.

By embracing the existing terrain and maintaining native ecosystems, golf courses also have opportunities to be more inclusive in their customer base. Rockwind Community Links in New Mexico was able to revive their financially troubled course by introducing trail systems, allowing the community access to their green spaces for other forms of recreation.

Sand Valley Golf Course. Photograph by Ryan Farrow,

Sand Valley Golf Resort in Nekoosa, Wisconsin successfully recovered and restored a rich native sand dune ecosystem. The images below show the recovering habitat, featuring a wide variety of lichens, Hudsonia, oaks, jack pine, and native grasses.

Recovering native sand dune habitat, featuring a wide variety of lichens, Hudsonia, oaks, jack pine, and native grasses. Photograph by Ryan Farrow,

Through restoration efforts, they simultaneously preserved a rare ecosystem and created a unique golfing experience.

By bringing back original soil contouring and drought-tolerant grasses they were also able to manage resources more efficiency. This in turn led to job creation and a significant boost to the local economy.

These are just a few examples of how golf courses have the ability to become leaders in local habitat preservation efforts — while simultaneously uncovering new opportunities for environmental collaboration and economic improvements.

At the University of Florida, research has focused on converting out-of-play areas of “rough” on local golf courses to swaths of native wildflowers. The plant mixtures are designed for continuous blooming nearly year-round, providing consistent floral resources to insects and undisturbed habitat.

The plots benefit many pollinator groups, including butterflies and a diverse collection of native bees. They also support insect groups that serve as natural predators of pest species. By increasing local biological control of turf pests and having less turf area to mow and irrigate, the golf course sees a reduction in maintenance costs. And of course, colorful scenes of blooming wildflowers in a meadow-like habitat can be a stunning visual element to any golf course, offering new textures and colors to golfers.

See the video below for a closer look at this project.

In Florida alone there are over 1,100 golf courses, over 500 golf communities, and hundreds of thousands of residents who live near golf courses. Our hope is that residents will see the untapped opportunities at their local golf courses and encourage them to make some of the changes outlined here. We further hope that golf course management teams will investigate how they can design a more environmentally and economically sustainable businesses. By following research-based best management practices and taking steps to encourage biodiversity through habitat preservation, more golf courses can join the trend. In time, perhaps we can turn the industry once perceived as an environmental eyesore into leaders of urban green space management and sustainable recreation.

Dale Lab

Published by Matthew Borden

Matt practices the Art of Diagnosis, a study combining the developments of science with keen field observations and deductive skills. Diagnostics is rich in mystery, regularly doused with humility, and even entails some human psychology. Matt completed his Doctorate of Plant Medicine and Masters of Entomology & Nematology at the University of Florida, seeking multidisciplinary training and adaptability across plants, pathogens, insects, and environmental subjects. Matt is a writer and plant health consultant, currently researching tree and shrub disease management.

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