Will Toronto Tee Up Changes to City-Run Golf Courses Amid Demands for Green Space?

By Jennifer PagliaroCity Hall Bureau
Toronto Star
Fri., Jan. 7, 2022
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Report by city staff to come before councillors next week suggests keeping the five courses for golf, but expanding their recreational uses.

How best to use Toronto’s precious green spaces — to tee up a golf course or grow much-needed affordable food for urban communities — will be up to city council once it receives recommendations from staff.

There are food security advocates, such as farm director Cheyenne Sundance, who say vital spaces such as Dentonia Park in East York are best used for urban agriculture, where people can grow their own food and even earn an income from selling it.

“Their quality of life and quality of physical life will go up,” she said.

Then there are avid golfers, such as Lucy Falco, who say it’s critical to maintain the courses as accessible spaces for lower-income residents, newcomers, youth and others wanting to take up the game.

“It’s about equal access to a recreation that so many of us love,” she said.

In a report headed to the infrastructure and environment committee on Tuesday, city staff say they are recommending an “improved status quo model” for the city’s five golf courses, despite calls to expand broader public use.

But the report contains no clear direction on plans to improve environmental sustainability and what the other recreational uses might be.

A process for a request for proposal on future operations would be started if council supports the plan, with the goal of implementing those yet-to-be-defined models for the 2024 season.

What that means is the spaces will remain largely occupied by golf courses if the recommendations are supported by a majority of council members.

“Maintaining golf at the golf courses supports affordable access to the game for Torontonians, while public access to these parklands, facilitated primarily, but not exclusively, in the off-season creates opportunities for passive and active recreation, such as hiking, running, or gathering,” the report says.

It goes on to state that the city should also look at expanding other recreational opportunities on the courses, acknowledging they would primarily take place in the off-season.

That plan, staff said, should include looking at opportunities for growing food. Local residents in low-income neighbourhoods shared “feelings of frustration with their inability to access the largest green space in their community” during consultations — along with a petition signed by 86 local residents advocating for farming opportunities.

In response to emailed questions, parks, forestry and recreation staff said many of the city’s golf courses are located on flood plains and not suitable for gardening. The response said they are working to identify other opportunities for growing food.

Farm director Sundance told the Star that the city’s current golf course plan is a missed opportunity and out of step with what local residents want.

Sundance, herself, learned what it takes to grow an urban farm from seeds and is now the farm director of her own space, Sundance Harvest, a 1.5-acre farm in Downsview Park, which has two heated greenhouses that can feed up to 150 people through the growing season.

Toronto owns seven golf courses on city and conservation authority land, two fully leased out and five run by the city through paid contractors.

All five city-run courses have struggled to break even.

“The majority of years since 2013 have fallen short of full operational cost recovery,” the staff report said.

“The largest difference was in 2017, when there was a $481,136 shortfall.”

But during the pandemic, that changed.

In 2020, the city saw a net positive revenue of $874,679 “despite a shortened season due to COVID-19.”

That upward trajectory continued in 2021, the report said, not offering overall numbers. It cautioned that it is unclear if this “new normal” will continue.

The courses will need significant repairs going forward to continue operating. The cost of these is estimated at $8.9 million over the next 10 years, the report said.

The courses are: Humber Valley (Etobicoke), Scarlett Woods (York—South Weston), Don Valley (North York), Dentonia Park (East York) and Tam O’Shanter (Scarborough).

The report says the city should take a “hybrid” approach to the courses, including remaking the smallest and least-used course, Dentonia, reducing it from 18 holes to nine and expanding parkland access for the local community. If that direction is approved, staff would begin a master plan for that space.

But Sundance said the city should consider dedicating Dentonia to more accessible community use, getting rid of the golf course there altogether, and building sizable allotment gardens, with plots larger than the more common community garden, where local residents could grow and eventually sell their own food.

“I think it needs to prioritize the actual local residents,” she said.

As both food prices and the uncertainty of the food supply continue to increase, allotment gardens could provide residents with a source of fresh food, income, teaching opportunities for their children, and a sense of pride and ownership of a project in their community, Sundance said.

Falco, chief golf advocate for the citizens’ group Save Toronto Golf Courses, said reducing Dentonia to nine holes or impinging on play at any of the other courses would be a mistake.

Falco said, as a single woman on a fixed income, she primarily plays on city courses. She learned to play at Dentonia, which is unique for being a shorter, par-3 course, which enables players without strong driving skills to get into and enjoy the game.

She said many who use the course are older women. She saw one participant in a ladies league coming every week on the bus with her clubs in a shopping bag.

“These places are not a country club,” said Falco, who hopes her group’s advocacy can help fight the stigma of golf as a rich white man’s game.

Pricing, a huge barrier to play, is significantly lower at city-run courses than others in the area. For example, adult fees were listed at $29.43 for 18 holes at Dentonia Park during the week and $31.79 on weekends and holidays, while nearby Flemingdon Park charges $50 for nine holes and private clubs typical charge initiation fees in the tens of thousands on top of substantial yearly membership dues.

Falco said her group believes the city review doesn’t go far enough and that it would like to see the courses used as incubator spaces for local artists and businesses as well as educational opportunities for environmental sustainability, while maintaining golfing.

The city should undertake a full master plan of all of the courses, she said.

That, however, doesn’t leave room for urban agriculture, and Falco said her group was “alarmed” about the push to turn the spaces into farms.

“I felt it was a call to arms.”

Correction — Jan. 7, 2021: Adult fees at at Dentonia Park is at $29.43 for 18 holes, while Flemingdon Park charges $50 for nine holes. A previous version of this story said the costs were for 18 and nine rounds.