Stacking numbers clarifies the golf vs homes debate

Updated: 2018-06-01 08:40

(HK Edition)

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Paul Stapleton notes Fanling facility performs poorly compared with other recreational sites in terms of numbers benefiting

In the public debate about how to best address our severe shortage of land for housing, the government-appointed task force has proposed 18 options, one of which has received more than its share of discussion. The Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling stands out as the lowest-hanging fruit not only because it is a large chunk of easily developed land - say compared with blasting out the insides of a mountain to rehouse a sewage plant or the much-maligned further sea reclamation - but because of its elitist image. Everyone likes a David and Goliath story, and as this debate plays itself out, surely the majority of the local population would like to see the latter lose, and would enjoy watching apartment blocks rise where those pristine greens stand today.

Much of the discussion so far has been about numbers. The government's Task Force on Land Supply lists hundreds of statistics, all of which point toward a desperate need for more land for housing. To cite just one number, the task force calls the oft-mentioned land shortfall of 1,200 hectares "conservative". That's the equivalent of about 1,200 football pitches.

Regarding the golf club, a government consultancy report provides two options - either develop one of the three courses to build 4,600 apartments, or develop all three courses - the full 170 hectares for 13,000 flats.

Stacking numbers clarifies the golf vs homes debate

These numbers are useful to understand both the shortage and the potential but among all of the statistics there has been no numerical comparison of how recreational space is used in Hong Kong. Because the golf club is recreational space, it stands to reason that the land it occupies should be compared with other recreational spaces in terms of benefits to the local population.

As a simple thought experiment then, let's compare the usage rate of the Southorn Playground in Wan Chai with the golf club. The playground is about 1 hectare in size (a square with 100 meter sides) with a football pitch and four basketball courts. The usage rate varies throughout the day and evening (open daily from 6 am to 11:30 pm) and is difficult to estimate; however, a conservative guess would be that at least a couple hundred members of the public use the facility on a daily basis, all free of charge. At this rate, we can make a very rough estimate that 70,000 locals benefit from the 1-hectare playground on an annual basis.

In the meantime, golf club captain Arnold Wong says 120,000 rounds of golf are played on the 170 hectares at Fanling - more than 40 percent of games are played by non-members. Comparing the two recreational sites using some simple arithmetic, the Southorn Playground at 1 hectare, offers a space utilization efficiency rate that is 100 times greater than that of the golf club. And if we confine the number of golfers to non-members, who can afford to pay over HK$1,000 per round, the comparative space efficiency ratio of the playground more than doubles - although members of the public cannot even play at the golf club on weekends.

Thus, this comparison of space utilization for recreational activities reveals that the Hong Kong Golf Club, and golf courses in general, rate very poorly in terms of maximizing availability of places for our population to play sports and exercise. Essentially, given the extremely cramped housing conditions of hundreds of thousands of locals, it is absurd to preserve a 170-hectare piece of prime land so elite members can smack a little white ball toward a distant hole. Calling the space "recreational" is even questionable given that members often drive golf carts along the chemical-laden turf between their shots.

True, there are valuable old trees and some architecture said to be worthy of preservation on the course. All these too should be factored in by the government in arriving at a final decision on disposal of the site.

It should also be noted that just across the border in Shenzhen, golfers are spoiled for choice with more than a dozen places to play. Mission Hills alone has a dozen 18-hole courses. Therefore, it is not as if golfers would be deprived if they lost the Fanling course.

Finally, to complete our thought experiment, picture in your mind an aerial photo of an outdoor swimming pool in Hong Kong on a summer day. Then do likewise for a golf course. The difference between the two is stark. In the first one, each person has barely a couple of square metres of water to splash around, while the golfer stands out as a lonely dot in a sea of green.

As this David and "Golfia" tale unfolds, one can only hope David's brethren can score par.

(HK Edition 06/01/2018 page12)