Disc golf has become a very popular sport in Estonia among health-conscious white-collar employees with higher incomes. However, the planning of green spaces has not kept up with the trend, and the hobby is wreaking havoc on park forests.
According to Marika Kose, senior lecturer in recreation ecology at the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Estonia has more than 120 disc golf courses and over 60,000 disc golfers. This year, Kose published a research article outlining the methodology for calculating the environmental impact of disc golf in Estonia.
Recreation ecology is the study of determining the environmental affect of various recreational activities. "Three studies have been conducted around the world to analyze the environmental impact of disc golf. We discovered that all of these approaches have flaws. We adapted them to Estonian situations and I feel we now have a good methodology," Kose told ERR.
During the course of its preparation, it became evident that the frequently used disc golf courses had sustained significant damage. Discs can cause damage to trees. The issue is especially severe for young trees and vegetation. Students measuring the radar found that all pines between 1.5 and a few meters tall were severely damaged. "These trees have broken branches and frequently crowns," the senior lecturer explained. Additionally, the soil around the chain baskets could get damaged as well.
The impact of diverse leisure activities on nature, according to Kose, has been studied for decades around the world, but it is an emerging area of research in Estonia. "Green spaces are used for a variety of activities and some tension between the environment and multiple user groups is usual. In Estonia, there is still a perception that there are few people, plenty of space and that everyone can fit comfortably in a forest or park," the researcher said.
Educated and high-income earners have more free time
Kose went on to elaborate that an increasing number of Estonians are working nine to five and fewer than five days per week. Recreation and health are gaining popularity among these well-educated, high-income earners as their living conditions improve.
According to the senior lecturer, the majority of this population is concentrated in the newly developed areas encircling Tallinn, which subsequently increases the strain on Tallinn's green spaces. "There was once a green swath surrounding Tallinn, which is now largely developed."
The larger park forests, including Sütiste and Harku, are ideal for running, cycling and rollerblading as well, which results in the inevitable concentration of recreational activity in those areas.
Disc golf, on the other hand, necessitates substantially more area than other recreational pursuits. "Humans do not merely cross space; they also throw things. A single person or a group's usage of space differs greatly from that of a roller skater, a walker with a dog or stroller or a cyclist," she said.
"Poor planning of public space use is the name of the problem," Kose emphasized.
In recreation ecology, the term 'novel activities' is commonly used: it begins with a small group of ardent individuals looking for an exciting new pastime. "There are the citizens who have an abundance of free time, are bored and in pursued of new challenges. Because they are uncommon, all types of novel activities employing new devices are extremely popular. The emergence of football golf is another example," she said.
"Spending time in nature is beneficial to mental health. You request permission from the local government or landowner to install baskets and openings, and everyone is pleased. People now have a wonderful new place to enjoy their free time," she said, adding that fewer people are now napping on park benches or using computers.
However, almost nobody considers the possibility that these new activities could become immensely popular, she went on to explain. "You can't foresee the number of users or the impact of the hobby on, for example, soil and trees. As popularity grows, the hobby starts to disturb other people who are used to walking in the same area. Here we are already talking about social carrying capacity. It will reach researchers when the problem is already big," the senior lecturer said.
Conflict of space use
According to Kose, since the notion that the use of green spaces must be planned or designated is still uncommon in Estonia, conflicts arise frequently. Parks are not designed with the idea that many people want to engage in various activities and how they can do so thoughtfully. "These conflicts are not caused by malice, but by ignorance. We are not accustomed to considering how recreation affects nature or disturbs others," Kose said.
The issue, Kose continued, is the organization of public space: who designs it, for how much money and where these facilities are built. "This is not an Estonian custom: when planning new housing developments, we do not consider where residents will spend their leisure time," the lecturer said.
According to her, course maintenance should be taken into account when designing a disc golf course. Wood fragments should be used to cover the tracks, and trees should be considered for protection and fencing. "To do this, ecologists should be brought in to say that if this basket is placed here, this or that could happen."
Environment Board: More disc golf courses needed
Leelo Kukk, Environmental Board's deputy director general on wildlife, said that disc golf has gained unexpected popularity in Estonia. "Opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and engage in outdoor activities are unquestionably essential to enhancing the quality of life. It benefits both physical and mental health. Studies have also shown that those who are in harmony with nature are more likely to make environmentally responsible decisions," Kukk told ERR.
Kukk also emphasized that getting around in nature always has an environmental impact. "The severity of the impact increases as the burden on the same place, on the same track, increases. In the case of disc golf, the primary dangers are damage to trees and soil in heavily trafficked areas," he said.
"Losses are inevitable when there are many participants. But when you consider the positive effects of being in the outdoors on people's health and well-being, it makes sense in certain locations to tolerate the damage," Kukk added.
Kukk said the negative impacts of sport must not be tolerated in protected areas. This, however, does not imply that sporting activities, and disc golf in particular, should be wholly banned from protected areas. " Each case will be evaluated separately to determine whether the sports facility poses a threat to the conservation value. Wherever feasible, we will provide recommendations on how to design the course so as to have the least impact on the conservation values," Kukk said.
In some areas, he says, proposals to construct a disc golf course were rejected due to the potential for damage. Also, several existing institutions in Harju County were closed for the same reason. " There have also been instances where disc golf interfered with other uses of the nature reserve. For instance, it is impossible to enjoy a walk between tinkling chains. Simply put, it can be dangerous," the deputy director-general pointed out.
Kukk said that the popularity of the sport or the frequency with which the course was being used was the determining factor in locations where courses had to be closed. "More health and disc golf courses could be built, particularly in Harju County. This would help to distribute the load more evenly and reduce the harm to each individual location," Kukk said.
"Thus, we can preserve protected areas primarily for their natural qualities and provide opportunities for low-impact activities such as walking and health runs," Kukk summarized.
Editor: Kristina Kersa