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Golf Course Architecture: Low Impact Design

Stewart Creek Golf By Gary Browning

It’s time golf got back to nature!

With the environmental movement becoming larger and louder, the water conservation issues becoming critical, and the pressing need of reduced impacts on watersheds and wetlands, it is high time that golf got back to nature.

In the land development industry, Low Impact Development (LID) has become the recent buzz and also the norm, with an emphasis on stormwater management strategies and zero discharge of stormwater runoff. The strategy often emphasizes elements such as conservation of natural landscape features, infiltration, permeable surfaces, created wetlands, bio-retention ponds, oil & sediment traps etc. By integrating water management strategies, the developer reduces or eliminates problem issues of soil erosion, water pollution, siltation and the over taxing of underground stormwater infrastructure.

If the development industry is showing leadership in the LID field, why can’t golf course development do the same? The simple answer is: "it can," and it has been, but it hasn’t been properly promoted. It is much easier to criticize golf course development than promote it. Golf has been such an easy target when many perceive it as an elitist sport for ‘white guys’ and ‘fat cats’ that don’t care about the environment. For years, at least as long as I’ve been practicing, golf course development has been under constant fire. What may have once been accepted as a benign form of open space,(St. Andrews and such) has come under attack for its impacts on water quality, water consumption, wildlife habitat and land use.

The acronym LID – Low Impact Development can be modified just slightly to mean Low Impact Design in the golf course development industry.  It’s time for low impact design!

The push for perfect playing conditions (known as the Augusta Syndrome) may be beautiful but is completely unnatural. Why don’t we get back to nature when it seems every golf course architect strives mightily to duplicate it anyway? “Minimalist design” has been the mantra for golf course architects for a number of years. Talkin’ the talk & walkin’ the walk are two different things, however. I’ve heard Nicklaus and Norman promote ‘minimalism’ and then set out to move over two million cubic metres of earth in the design of 18 holes. That’s not minimalist, it’s just lip-service and pure arrogance and blatant disregard for the site and existing terrain.

St. Andrews and similar British links courses gave rise to a game that was shaped by the landscape, and not a game that shaped the land. There was no modification to the land; the courses were simply woven through the existing rolling, often seaside, terrain. That was then, this is now. For a course to be an enjoyable, relaxing test of golf, it should first offer a measure of safety. That means clear lines of sight and enough separation from adjoining fairways.  It should have a good variety in the hole lengths and severity of hazards. The holes should flow in a logical progression and keep players engaged and moving at a reasonable pace. Throw in the more technical aspects of drainage, irrigation and water reservoirs and the task of routing 18 holes on less than 200 acres becomes a bit of a daunting task. My point is that, unlike yesteryear, most courses require at least some modifications to the existing landscape. Good, conscientious design can make it happen with low impact.

Stewart Creek Golf Resort in Canmore, Alberta (pictured above) is a proven case of how a high-end golf course development can have surprisingly low impact on even a sensitive environmental area as the Rocky Mountain/Bow Valley Corridor. The Low Impact Design(LID) for Stewart Creek saw careful attention paid to the routing of the golf course to minimize earthmoving  and maximize a natural appearance. Preservation and enhancement of wildlife movement corridors was incorporated into the design as was the selection of hardy, drought tolerant native grasses in non-play zones that also provided forage for grazing ungulates in the Spring and Fall.

Stewart Creek, which opened in 2002, has been subsequently showered with numerous environmental accolades:

  •  2002 – Golf Digest Magazine – Best New Canadian Resort Course – Runner Up
  •  2004 – Certified as a Cooperative Sanctuary through Audubon International
  •  2004 – Golf Digest & GCSAA – Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards – International Section
  •  2004 – Excellence in Government Relations – Sponsored by GCSAA
  •  2006 – Environmental Achievement Award – Sponsored by GCSAA
  •  2007 – Recertification as a Cooperative Sanctuary

It was not easy; Stewart Creek was over ten years in the making – to get through the thicket of environmental opposition and regulatory problems. It now stands as a testatment to perseverance and the benefits of Low Impact Design.

The golf industry and environmentalists continue to square off.  The sister course to Stewart Creek, Three Sisters Creek is very close to completion (unfortunately a 2009 recession has stopped progress), but has been met with a barrage of environmental opposition despite having shown every effort in the field of Low Impact Design. 

Three Sisters Creek will exceed its sister in terms of low impact design efforts:

  • earth movement kept to an absolute minimum
  • hardy, drought tolerant native grasses in non-play zones
  • minimization of turf (irrigable area)
  • maintained/irrigated turf only where necessary
  • sub-surface drainage system to capture/harvest rainfall and stormwater
  • recapture of stormwater for re-use
  • containment of all surface runoff on site for re-use
  • state-of-the-art irrigation system to conserve water use
  • creation of habitats to attract wildlife
  • IPM (Integrated Pest Management Plan)

Further, during construction, stormwater management and control were of paramount concern.  Building on the side of a mountain, with residential development below the golf course was clearly problematic. It created a condition whereby all golf course runoff had to be controlled and contained for re-use. The golf course was sensitively graded to provide drainage catchments that controlled runoff to surrounding properties to pre-development flows. Extensive erosion and siltation control measures were also implemented and carefully followed. Miles of silt fence and diversion swales were constructed as specified in an erosion and stormwater control study prepared by professional stormwater management engineers.

Respect for wildlife habitat and migratory movement meant that golf course construction had to be halted in certain areas, at certain times, while in other areas equipment size and noise decibel levels were limited to avoid excessive or unnecessary wildlife disturbance. This was time consuming and costly to the contractor but was respected implicitly. Suffice is to say that the design and construction program exhibited at both Stewart Creek and Three Sisters Creek golf course is one of the finest efforts anywhere to design and build a golf course in a mountain setting that ecologically fits the environment. I believe that both are outstanding examples of environmental stewardship.

Still, the feverish opposition is out there. Regardless of the design efforts that truly respect the mountain environment in which we are working, there are those zealots who blame all the world’s ills on development and are out to stop it without bothering or caring to see what goes into a golf course that has followed a low impact design philosophy. But we must persevere. To have been commissioned to work on two world-class projects on one the most spectacular rocky mountain settings in the world was truly humbling and required tremendous perseverance. Our philosophy, from the outset, was to get back to nature and to give the courses a certain character that makes each course memorable and puts you in touch with the surrounding environment.

It was a chance to prove the environmentalists wrong and let the public decide if we were walkin’ the walk. I believe we proved that it’s high time that golf got back to nature.

(Gary Browing is a landscape architect and golf course architect with a graduate degree in Environmental Planning from the University of Calgary.  He has been a private consultant for over thirty years and is president of  Browning Horrocks Golf Design Inc. a private golf course design consulting firm in Calgary, Alberta.)






















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