Placemaking for defunct golf courses: Using geodesign to capitalize on a site’s potential
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Placemaking for defunct golf courses: Using geodesign to capitalize on a site’s potential

Jeremy Ringer demonstrates how geodesign is a valuable collaborative design process that informs positive change for golf courses to attract more play and boost revenue by creating a sustainable place for future generations.

December 26, 2020

During the summer months of high school, I worked in golf course maintenance push-mowing rough areas with an old Jacobsen commercial mower at a local municipal course in Western Pennsylvania. My two uncles introduced me to golf, and I grew a passion for the game and golf course design. I wondered how the business functioned and why this golf course was so successful. I learned that the locals considered this a place of their own and played it outside their regular league days. The course design was not particularly special but the place was. Thirty years later, the golf course thrives and provides a relaxed atmosphere that fosters camaraderie. The course is relatively easy to play, and the drinks are cheap! The people, course layout and the local environment make the place.


Placemaking is a philosophical approach to planning that leverages community assets to promote health, happiness and well-being. Placemaking emphasizes the importance of the “people of the place” – specifically their relationships to the built environment. Defining the needs of the people of the place is an intrinsic component of geodesign.

Geodesign is a design method that involves bringing together community stakeholders, design professionals, and other experts in a collaborative environment to create informed design solutions for the places we live, work, and play. Carl Steinitz, professor emeritus of Harvard Graduate School of Design, developed a geodesign framework that asks a series of questions in three iterations. The geodesign framework helps us understand the key issues and relevant assessments to propose meaningful and consequential design solutions for a given project.

Following Steinitz, our golf course questions are:

  • How should the golf course be described?
  • How does the golf course operate?
  • Is the current golf course working well?
  • How might the golf course be altered?
  • What differences might the changes cause?
  • And given all that, how should the golf course be changed?

The framework asks questions in three iterations. First, we ask the questions in order. By doing this, we learn about the context, scope, and issues of the golf course. Second, we ask the questions in reverse order. In this iteration, we refine the golf course design method by understanding the “people of the place” and their desires to form the requirements and performance metrics – making geodesign a decision-driven – not data-driven design approach. Third, we gather all the data and ask the questions in order again, but we perform the analysis, the designs, and assess their consequences on the place. This process utilizes several impact models to determine how well a proposed golf course design performs against the stakeholders’ needs and requirements.

Using the geodesign method to redesign a struggling municipal golf course might include stakeholders from the local government and the community, such as the city parks and recreation department and neighboring residents. The design team may consist of a golf course architect, an urban and regional planner, and a professional golfer. Together the stakeholders and design team (representing five groups) form the “geodesign team.” The team works through the questions of the framework. The design team gathers input from the stakeholders to develop the requirements for the new design. Although stakeholder desires and wishes for this golf course may vary widely, the team needs to identify the overall objectives and primary concerns.

In this example, the city parks and recreation department want the course to be financially stable, where people want to visit regularly and are sustainable into the future. The neighboring residents require physical buffers for privacy and safety and wish for views of the golf course. They also want access through the golf course for walking and exercise. The design team couples the stakeholder requirements with placemaking objectives to generate design strategies. The golf course architect proposes a routing plan to challenge players of all skill levels and allocate space for future development. The urban and regional planner recommends a land-use change by adding single-family home development to provide consistent tax revenue to the municipality. The professional golfer specifies features to accommodate teaching, community involvement and ways to grow the game. Incorporating placemaking principles to these objectives will result in a well-defined design that promotes a healthier community.

Considering infusing placemaking principles with the geodesign process can often be lengthy, we will focus on the main points each team member would like to see through the change process.

In summary, the geodesign team collaborates to convert the municipal golf course into a highly desirable, reversible 9-hole plan, with healthy community amenities, attractive housing, and commercial opportunities. The 18-hole course converts into a reversible 9-hole routing that plays in different directions each day, creating a greater appeal and interest for players. The addition of a seven-tee system (based on individual driving distance) allows players of all skill levels a more enjoyable round. The reduction to 9-holes also makes this more desirable to players with limited time, thereby boosting green fee revenues. The addition of a multi-use trail system throughout the property connects residents and promotes a healthy lifestyle. Creating a short game facility provides the opportunity for practice and teaching to those just learning the game. Changing land-use builds over 100 single-family homesites with desirable golf course views that add to the municipality’s tax revenue. A dedicated five-acre commercial site allows a putt-putt facility built alongside a restaurant or bar, introducing people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds to the game golf.

These efforts and investment for the municipal golf course could recreate the type of place I enjoyed in high school. Applying placemaking strategies through geodesign provides the opportunity to change a defunct golf course to a valued complex that people will enjoy visiting, living, working and playing for generations to come.

Jeremy Ringer is the owner of Ringer Design, a small design firm based in Jacksonville, Florida, that focuses on the placemaking of master-planned communities, landscape design, golf course design, and 3D visualizations. This article is part of a capstone project through The Pennsylvania State University MPS in Geodesign program. Follow him at and @ringerdesign on Twitter.