By Gary Firkins, Founding Director


Extinction Rebellion (XR), the climate action group, has targeted golf for the first time and has called for a public course on the edge of a city to be ‘re-wilded’. It’s a challenge that more city governments could face – and might find harder to resist – unless courses urgently improve proactive communication of their sustainability credentials and engage with local communities.

The golf course in question is Hollingbury Park Golf Course in Brighton, East Sussex, on the south coast of England, 50 miles from London.

Sitting high on chalk downland, with panoramic views over the city and far out to sea, Hollingbury has been a much-loved public course for more than a century.

According to reports in local media, the pay-and-play venue has 450 season ticket holders, offers Saturday morning junior coaching and its facilities are open to the local population.

But with the operator’s lease up for renewal in March, a public debate has erupted about how Hollingbury and sister venue Waterhall could and should be used for the next 25 years, and whether golf should be retained or an alternative use for the land be found.

Enter XR and its petition to ‘re-wild’ the course.

The idea takes its inspiration from the bestselling book ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree, documenting the story of the Knepp Estate in southern England, which had been intensively farmed since the Second World War but has more recently been ‘returned to nature’.

The project has yielded remarkable results, although the concept is not without controversy, primarily in relation to food production and security arguments. (The counter point made by the author is that intensive, subsidized agriculture is itself unsustainable.)

Back to golf, and you can see why the idea of rewilding a golf course might be an appealing idea to the wider public.

What the debate has highlighted is golf’s continuing poor reputation and public standing.

The thought that golf can be good for people and the environment is anathema to many.

But that’s largely because of complacency.

The old model of 18 holes golf, in most cases, simply isn’t enough. It’s less relevant and doesn’t address evolving customer wants and needs.

Complacency on diversity and a failure to communicate and engage with local communities further compounds the challenge facing golf.

In town halls and city planning meetings, golf will increasingly need to justify itself to enable future freedom to operate.

That means understanding what a diverse range of customers want, communicating the benefits – from time spent outdoors with friends and family, stress relief and exercise, to stewardship of green spaces – and engaging with local communities.

It might mean additional or mixed use leisure amenities on site that can be used by the local community.

It might also mean being flexible with the land, making out-of-play areas useful or accessible, perhaps for nature trails or pollinating insects.

The point is, in a world where sustainability issues are top of the agenda, golf courses need to communicate and demonstrate they are good for both people and planet, and a venue at the heart of a local community.