Aging on a Different Course

In this installment in our design for aging guest writer series, Jane Hickie, James F. Dausch, and Edward Bennett Vinson present a novel opportunity for helping to address the issues of aging in suburbia: golf course redevelopment. 

The vast majority of Americans over 65 live in the suburbs where neither homes nor neighborhoods were designed with an older population in mind. The functional limitations that come with aging may make suburban, auto-dependent life difficult, but older people do not want to move. Rather than requiring them to relocate, the suburbs should adapt to this aging population, offering more walkable neighborhoods with smaller housing near services and amenities. Because changing zoning laws to include multi-family housing and retail in a single-family neighborhood can be quite a challenge, it is important to target locations where such infill development may be welcome.

This proposal is to redevelop failing suburban golf courses. The recent economic recession and a flawed culture around the game of golf itself offer an unprecedented opportunity to reorient the suburbs on a scale that addresses the need for appropriate homes and neighborhoods in an aging America.

Aging in Suburbia
“In 2007, 10 million of the 23 million older households, or 46 percent, were located in the suburbs” (1). Single family homes and suburban neighborhoods were not designed for people who may have functional limitations related to vision, hearing, cognition, and mobility as they age. “Epidemiologists are reporting a link between suburban living and physical health. They find that older people walk less frequently when they live in lower density neighborhoods that are more distant from shopping, restaurants, and other services. Absent or poorly designed and maintained sidewalks (e.g., uneven or interrupted walkways), poor street lighting, absent benches, dangerous crossings, and hill terrains also limit their mobility as pedestrians”(2).

With 80 million people soon to be over 65, the critical question is: how easy will our society make it for older people to optimize their independence and well-being? Most people prefer to age in place (3) and the determination to remain in one’s home actually increases with age (4). With a move, social networks and connections with familiar shops and services are lost. Friends are distant. A move may require changing one’s place of worship and leaving acquaintances at community cafes, bowling alleys, libraries, or community gardens.

Rather than asking older people to move, the suburbs should change to accommodate their longtime residents. There should be a variety of safe ways for suburban residents to reach their destinations—including walking, transit, and automobiles. There should also be greater diversity in suburban housing, including more affordable multi-family options. In Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbia, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson argue that suburban residents want to stay in their suburban homes, and that defunct commercial sites offer redevelopment opportunities for walkable urban lifestyles (5). They note that grayfield retrofits “facilitate walking instead of driving, social interaction instead of isolation, and the health benefits associated with improved air quality and water quality and tempered thermal conditions”(6).

The simultaneous collapse in the value of homes and golf courses may make such suburban redevelopment, retrofitting, and regreening possible on an unprecedented scale. The decline in the economy presents an opportunity to fundamentally “rethink suburban housing: to make it responsive not to dated demographics and wishful economics but rather to the actual needs of a diversifying and dynamic population” (7). The game of golf is suffering not only from the Great Recession, but also from outdated service, outreach, design, and marketing. Many golf communities have been forced into bankruptcy, or very close to it, by a number of factors including the economic recession, overbuilding, poor business planning for the golf course, and declining interest in golf (8).

Golf as a Real Estate Amenity
“The past two decades saw an unprecedented boom in the building of high-end golf courses linked to luxury real estate communities. Betting that aging boomers would embrace golf as their pastime of choice, the National Golf Foundation set a goal of building, ‘A Course a Day’ beginning in 1988. Real-estate developers teamed up with top-name golf course architects, building exclusive communities adjacent to courses, and requiring homeowners to pay annual club dues—sometimes even if they didn’t play. Then, in a moment of spectacularly bad timing, both the golf industry and the real-estate market took a nose-dive at once”(9). “It was a ‘perfect storm,’” said David Hueber, former President and CEO of the National Golf Foundation, who estimates that 4,000 to 5,000 (of the 16,000 in the United States) will be in financial danger if the model does not change (10). According to the National Golf Foundation, more than four million golfers have been lost to the game since 2000. The number of female and junior golfers have dropped 23 percent and 25 percent, respectively, over the last five years. Golf participation in the United States has fallen to levels not seen in 25 years (11). “The model of a country club is gone forever,” said Syd Kitson, who is recasting a golf community with a village center in Naples, Florida (12).

The longer courses built during the 1990s are too expensive (both financially and environmentally) to maintain, take too long to play, and are too difficult for men or women who are average and aging golfers. There is significant excess golf course capacity, reducing the premium paid for golf course living and further undercutting already diminished housing values. Some homeowners are serving as maintenance staff on their golf courses to save on increasing expense (13).

Redevelopment of Suburban Golf Courses
Redevelopment could provide solutions for the financial problems that many homeowners associations and golf course operators are struggling to address through infill housing and retail more suitable for an older population. A golf course will average 150 to 180 acres while a mixed-use development with a multi-family housing cluster could average 25 to 40 acres. Reshaping a golf course can create land parcels on the periphery of the course, where commercial, professional, medical, institutional, and multi-family residential facilities might be developed.

There are opportunities nationwide to adaptively reconfigure an existing golf course for a new public and private mixed-use project that retains much of the acreage of the course. “(The goal is to) find a way to keep the course open, find a vehicle to fund the improvements to make the facility competitive, create a little more tax base and create some development opportunities that previously never existed. Repurposing—whether 10 or 100 acres—could keep architects and courses in business” (14).

Bill Amick, Past President of ASGCA, redesigned the North Olmsted Golf Course to an executive course. This course redesign freed land for the Shore West Company’s Viewpoint housing development. The course was turned over to the Northern Ohio Golf Association where the Return to Golf program flourishes. The mission of Return to Golf is “to restore physically challenged individuals to the greatest degree of independence possible by combining golf with rehabilitation-based fitness and conditioning” (15).

Bobby Weed Golf Design dramatically transformed The Deltona Club in Deltona, Florida, that had 200 single-family homes surrounding the declining golf course. Seventeen acres were carved out for up to 300 age-restricted condominiums. Since renovation, the golf course has been profitable, with a positive net operating income (16).

In San Antonio, Texas, developers are planning The Valor Club at Pecan Valley, which would include 45 acres of park space, including a 15-acre lake. The re-dedicated golf course will be adapted to comply with ADA accessibility standards and housing will include a continuing care retirement campus and first-class apartments (17).

Successful adaptive reuse engages the intellect and open-minded effort of all parties with actual or potential vested interests. It will also require a talented creative team to address the typical risks of development—site acquisition, entitlement/public approval, site/land development, building construction, and financing availability. A series of important questions must be answered in every case.

Overcoming intense neighborhood resistance to a change in use and zoning can only occur when a number of factors converge and even so, only when the community and its leaders are persuaded that many more benefits are offered. The challenge of this effort cannot be overstated and requires that “architects, landscape architects and urban designers collaborate with developers, builders, economists, engineers, ecologists, homeowners and homebuyers” (18).

Consumer research shows that today’s fifty-five plus market strongly values proximity to shopping, nature, and their children; low-maintenance and energy-efficient homes; walking/jogging paths; and the amenities associated with a village center. They are eager to remain engaged by volunteering and continuing to learn in their multi-generational communities, stay physically active, and be able to safely walk to a mix of uses (19).

Reconfiguring golf courses to reduce their length and make them easier to play, less expensive to maintain, and more environmentally sustainable can create opportunities for infill development of village centers. A village center infill development could include a variety of uses. All could be accessible by walking, golf carts, transit, and/or automobiles. Senior-accessible housing could be clustered around the clubhouse with apartments with elevators or low-rise bungalows. A new village center would provide a nearby place to move as age dictates and also benefit community economics by increasing the numbers of residents to share in assessments, taxes, and dues.

Suburban redevelopment on a scale to serve more than 80 million Baby Boomers, who are aging, requires a diverse and innovative professional team. Reimagining suburban golf courses for new housing and amenities is at the intersection of public policy and design, zoning innovation and design, construction innovation and design, neighborhood activism and design, and cultural perception and design (20). No society has previously experienced the longevity, affluence, or patterns of suburban development that the United States enjoys. Golf, like other lifetime sports, can make a positive contribution to an aging America, as can the suburbs, if both the game of golf and the suburbs are transformed by creatively adapting to a changing world.


Jane Hickie

Jane Hickie is a Senior Research Scholar and the Director of the Communities project at the Stanford Center on Longevity. She is the Co-Editor of Independent for Life/Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America, University of Texas Press, 2012. She lives in Stephenville, Texas.

James F. Dausch

James F. Dausch is a Principal in Resolutions Real Estate Advisors, LLC. His career in real estate includes The Rouse Company, The Mills Corporation, and the New Communities Administration at HUD. He holds an LL.B. from Columbia Law School.

Edward Bennett Vinson

Edward Bennett Vinson has developed and managed real estate nationally and internationally for over 30 years. He is a Principal in Resolutions Real Estate Advisors, LLC, and resides in Boca Raton, Florida.


(1) Adele Hayutin, Miranda Dietz, and Lillian Mitchell, “New Realities of an Older America/Challenges, Changes and Questions” (Stanford, CA: Stanford Center on Longevity, 2010), p. 33.
(2) Stephen M. Golant, “Aging in the American Suburbs: A Changing Population.” Web. 28 July 2012.
(3) Nicholas Farber, Douglas Shinkle, Jana Lynott, Wendy Fox-Grage, and Rodney Harrell, “Aging in Place: A State Survey of Livability Policies and Practices,” National Conference of State Legislatures and the AARP Public Policy Institute. Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Sept. 2012.
(4) Marketing Charts, “Seniors Fear Loss of Independence, Nursing Homes More Than Death” (commissioned by Clarity and The EAR Foundation, research by Prince Market Research). Nov. 2007. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.
(5) Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishers, 2009).
(6) Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, “Retrofitting Suburbs,” Independent for Life, Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America, Henry Cisneros, Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain, and Jane Hickie, eds. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), pp. 182-183.
(7) Aron Chang, “Beyond Foreclosure: The Future of Suburban Housing,” The Design Observer. 14 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.
(8) David Tobenkin, “Off Course: Housing Units Surrounded by Manicured Green Spaces and Golf Courses Supported by Enthusiastic Neighbors. What Could Go Wrong? Golf Communities Flourished for Decades, but Now Their Economic Viability May depend on How They’re Repurposed,” The Appraisal Institute, Gale Cengage Learning, The Free Library by Farlex, 23 Oct. 2012.
(9) Nancy Keates, “Fore Sale,” The Wall Street Journal, 24 July 2012.
(10) David Hueber, “‘Code Blue’ for U.S. Golf Course Real Estate Development,” Clemson Center for Real Estate, May 2010.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Keates, loc. cit.
(13) Bill Pennington, “Club Members Learn to Swing More than a 5-Iron,” The New York Times, 28 May 2012.
(14) “A Survival Plan for Struggling Clubs.” 22 March 2010. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.
(15) Return to Golf, “Return to Golf” (A Program for Golfers with Physical Disabilities). Web. 23 Oct. 2012.
(16) Tobenkin, loc. cit.
(17) The Valor Club at Pecan Valley, “How Our Decision was Reached.” Web. 23 Oct. 2012
(18) Chang, loc. cit.
(19) Dunham-Jones and Williamson, p. 180
(20) Hunter and Belza, loc. cit.

Featured photo courtesy of Todd Petit.

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Posted in: Adaptive Reuse, Community Engagement, Creative Placemaking, Design for Aging, Economic Development, Health + Wellness, Print, Public Spaces, Sustainability, Technology, Transportation

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

The Foundation’s work would not have been possible without the incredible talents of its many staff over the decades, the generous support of its funders, and the tireless dedication of its civic & design partners across the country. The Board remains deeply proud of the significant contributions Foundation has made in its 75-year history and would like to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the efforts, dedication, and support from so many of you.