ASGCA Past President Rick Robbins wrote an article on building environmentally sustainable golf in China for China Golf Management Magazine. Robbins is recognized as one of the leading golf architects in China with more than 20 years of experience designing courses in Asia.

Following is the entire article, “Challenges to Building Environmentally Sustainable Golf Developments in China.”

The general consensus by the central government leaders in Beijing is that golf courses are not acceptable uses of land within the system of Chinese society. Environmental concerns are typically given as the main reason that golf is not considered to be a good use of land, even though there is almost no factual evidence of environmental abuse by golf in China. However, I have personally seen practices that create possible environmental harm that I have tried (with varying degrees of success) to correct on the projects that I design. These are practices that have been done for some time and have generally become accepted as the only way to build a golf course. We are having some success in changing many of these practices in the U.S. and I hope to have the ability to at least get developers to consider alternative ways to build golf projects. Below are some of these and a short discussion of each:

Sand-Capping Golf Fairways: This is a practice that was started years ago in response to specific site conditions that were found in Japan and Southeast Asian countries and that have now become a standard practice throughout China. Japan has severe restrictions on land use for golf that generally requires golf to be built on the slopes of mountains in poor soil conditions that are unsuitable for farming. Sand capping was done in Japan to provide for a medium to grow turf over all the rocky soils that were encountered.

The Japanese brought the idea of sand capping with them when golf courses were being built in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia in the early days of their golf development. At that time, very little grading or drainage work was done in the fairways. Many of the holes were crowned in the center and drained toward the edges and then into grass swales that ran to streams or ponds. Given the heavy monsoon climate of the region, sand capping was used to help keep the courses in play during the rainy season.

While I have seen conditions in some parts of China where sand capping was probably necessary, the practice has now become automatic and owners tell me they are afraid not to do so because they will risk looking cheap since all the competitors have done it. In many cases, there is no good agronomic reason for this to be done based on the soils or climate. It has simply evolved into a commonly accepted method of construction.

Why do I feel that sand capping is not an environmentally sound practice? There are several reasons for this, by far the main reason being the severe problems with regard to water resources in China. Sand capping is primarily used to promote vertical penetration of rainfall through the soil so that fairways will be playable as soon as possible after rains. This same high rate of drainage applies even when the conditions are very dry which creates a situation where large amounts of water must be applied to keep the turf from becoming too dry. This wastes water resources and can also promote the movement of chemicals and fertilizers downward into the groundwater.

Because typical sand used for capping golf courses comes from sandpits or river bottoms, the mining of sand itself has environmental impacts on those areas that are being mined as does the fact that a tremendous amount of energy is burned in the transport of hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of sand from the pit to the golf course by trucks. The spreading of the sand is another step that requires use of energy. To add to the impacts, sand is by nature a relatively sterile material that has very little nutritional value as a growing medium for golf turf. For this reason, higher amounts of fertilizer must be applied to keep the turf green and healthy than is required when topsoil is used.

When higher fertilization rates are coupled with the need to water more extensively due to the accelerated drainage rates, the end result is the possibility of pollution of nearby surface and groundwater resources. Modern golf course design incorporates drainage into the plans such that the old crowned fairways and need to have the rainfall move vertically through the soil is no longer necessary. Irrigation systems allow for much better control of water application to areas that require additional water while reducing application to wetter areas.

In China, the contractors refuse to consider any alternative to sand capping as this practice adds significantly to the cost of the course and therefore, to their profits from construction. They convince the owner that the practice is necessary for good golf quality and use the fact that Japanese courses all do this as well. What is not said is that in the US and the British Isles where golf started, sand capping is not a standard method of construction. Granted, courses like St. Andrews, Turnberry, Carnoustie, and other seaside links courses were built on coastal dunes but the inland courses did not incorporate sand capping. In the US, which has 43 of the Top 100 Golf Courses in the world, none of those are sand capped and of the almost 17,000 total courses in the US, less than 5% are sand capped.

Construction methods by Certified Golf Course Builder members of the GCBAA and design specifications by almost all members of the ASGCA have soil management as part of how the construction will be done. The importance of preserving topsoil as a valuable resource that is ideal for growing turf is fully understood by contractors and architects. Instead of burying excellent soil that is already on-site during earthworks, instead, topsoil is stripped before heavy earthworks begin and it is stockpiled in locations that will not interfere with construction for re-spreading after the course is shaped. The energy savings and reduced environmental impacts are significant with this method of construction and in areas of China that have good natural soil structure, this should become the more standard method of building golf courses.

Installation of Environmental Control Measures: Despite having specifications that show the use of many environmental measures that should be incorporated during construction to prevent erosion and sedimentation of streams and lakes, I have yet to see any sign of silt fences, diversion ditches, sediment basins, slope stabilization or other erosion and sediment control measures. The laws in the US that help us protect our water resources are very strict and the golf course architects and builders are used to the methods and standards required to prevent impacts from construction.

In China, the contractors seem to want to do everything fast and cheap. Unfortunately, the owners and local officials also seem to follow this course, so there is very little pressure to do things in an environmentally responsible manner. There are no specific laws or rules by local or provincial governments that govern golf course construction. Part of the problem is the issue with the opinion by the Beijing government that golf is not an approved land use. It is an impossible task to pass laws that would control environmental construction practices for golf courses when their very existence is illegal.

I believe this condition will continue to be normal for golf courses in China until both the owners and officials who grant the land use license realize the importance of having golf courses become more environmentally responsible or the central government creates a set of rules that govern the building of golf courses. Using such well-known devices as planting of emergent wetland vegetation along lake and stream edges, creating littoral shelves on ponds where fairway drains are directed, adding aeration to lakes, using filtering sumps on greens drains along with the sediment and erosion control devices mention above could make golf courses become part of a solution to many water quality issues instead of adding to them.

Development Area Grading Methods & Land Planning: Many of the new courses being built in China are resorts that typically will be located in mountain areas with steeper terrain. The sites that are selected for building resorts are usually chosen because of their natural beauty and desirable physical features. What I often see is a beautiful piece of property that has great natural amenity value become reduced to just another big development that does not keep what made the site valuable as a resort to begin with. The problem lies in the basic land planning that does not seem to take existing contours into account except as something to be overcome and the methods of grading for housing in China.

If the land planning is done properly with an environmental perspective in mind, the site design will recognize and preserve the areas of steep slopes, existing lakes and streams, wildlife habitat areas and other natural features of the site. Since these assets are the things that add value to the property, it only makes good economic sense to protect these assets. Housing density and amenity locations should be planned to avoid the necessity to disturb the natural feature areas to the greatest extent possible.

Site grading is another big factor in the destruction of environmental and aesthetic site values. Almost all housing in China is built using a method we term in the US as “slab on grade” building. This means that the housing will be set on a site that has been graded completely flat and the building will be constructed on this graded area. This is the case whether the site is relatively flat or steeply sloping. Such mass grading on resort sites in mountain areas can completely destroy all the charm and beauty that made the site valuable for development. Alternative methods of building that require very little grading or site disturbance are in common use in other places but China’s construction industry and developers have been slow to adopt these methods.

Selection of Turf Grasses: This simple idea is actually a basic part of environmental design and should also be expanded to include the entire landscaping theme and plant selection for the project. By choosing types of turf and landscape planting materials that are either native or naturalized to the local environment, less application of chemicals, fertilizer and water should be required for the plants to grow. Extensive research and plant breeding has been done in the past several years to produce turf types that fit almost every type of climate. Turf that resists pests, disease, drought, heavy wear, heat, and cold extremes are constantly being developed. Selection of the right types of plant materials can greatly reduce the need to provide artificial means of growing good turf.

Preservation of Natural Areas/Limitation of Highly Maintained Area: From the very early stages of a development project, one of the first things that should be done before any plans are produced is to have an environmental assessment of the property. This assessment should include looking at the terrain, soils, vegetation, wildlife habitat, water resources, views and all other natural features of the site. Mapping these features and then planning in such a way that not only preserves them but uses them as an integral part of the design and master plan is something that is environmentally responsible and adds value to the property.

Along with the preservation of resources goes trying to choose a design style for the golf course that leaves as much of the area in its natural state as possible. Incorporating use of native grasses in areas of infrequent use can reduce the need for active maintenance, chemical applications, fertilization, and watering. This is especially true for mountain resort courses which usually have active or wet-weather streams in the valleys. By preserving the slopes and edges that border the streams with natural vegetation, runoff from the golf course is filtered and sediment is kept away from the streams.

The design theme of the golf course will certainly enter into the ability to utilize natural areas of the site. If a “parkland” design style is chosen, it will be more difficult to implement a more naturalistic theme of turfgrass selection and landscaping. If environmental preservation is going to be a serious consideration in the design of the project, it should be taken into account from the start of the planning process, continuing through the entire construction and on-going operations of the golf facility.

In China, it has been common to choose the highly landscaped and well-manicured style of design for most courses. Given the severity of water shortages and desire to reduce environmental impacts in general, this type of design is one that requires more resources to be used than any other. There are several other alternatives that can provide both the well maintained and colorful look that players in China want without going to a style that requires maintaining the entire property.

It is my feeling that China is becoming a very good golf market and one that has great potential to expand. In order to do so, golf course developers, public officials, contractors and others associated with the development of golf in China will need to make environmentally sustainable golf more than something that is talked about. Good environmentally conscious design and construction must be standard practice throughout the golf industry if the game is to receive favorable treatment from the government in Beijing. Golf should be part of the solution to some of China’s environmental issues rather than contributing to them.