Repurposing what no longer works, from prisons to golf courses

Things are left behind when economies and communities change. Prisons in North Carolina. Harbours in the Netherlands. Golf courses in California. All of them, no longer used for their original purposes, are being repurposed and adapted for our times, rather than torn down. 

I was pondering these stories when I read about how sugar kelp is becoming Maine’s new cash crop as the state copes with how climate change threatens Maine’s billion-dollar lobster fishery. And somehow, that story seemed to summarize so many of the ideas I’d been reflecting on.

Our communities exist within much larger systems, and in turn, those systems are affected by even larger currents that we don’t control at an individual level. We tend to think the solutions to such huge issues must be equally large. 

But adaptations that are local, place-based, interconnected, and even ‘outside the box’, can be effective at a local level when they genuinely grow from the experience of that local place. And that takes local people who can see beyond the obvious.

Growing Change’ – North Carolina

Sometimes parts of a solution are embedded in a problem, says mental health therapist and counselor Nolan Sanford. He grew up in eastern North Carolina, in Laurinburg, population about 15,000, and he didn’t have an easy childhood. After 2001, when he came home to look after his ailing mother, he provided therapy to young people who also hadn’t had easy childhoods. Boys who came from broken homes, struggled with poverty and addiction and had lost family members to violence.

Growing Change photo

But in 2009, a promising young man he’d been working with was killed in a gang-related incident, and he had to rethink everything he was doing. “I had to be honest with myself that the system had not done everything it could do, that I had not done everything I could do.” He began to pray about what he could do. 

Then, looking around the region, he realized that all three of the counties where he worked had a small prison that was closed or was in the process of closing. And he saw a radical solution that no one else had seen – to team up young people on probation with members of the local community, and work together to transform a shuttered state prison into a sustainable farm. 

It was a radical revisioning of prisons, justice, youth crime, and poverty in that area of North Carolina. The Scotland center was a work camp prison built around 1930, as people in prison became the primary laborers building state roads, and it operated until 2001. The first state penitentiary had been built by forced prison labor in the early 1870s, just after Emancipation. By the end of Reconstruction, the state routinely ‘leased’ crews of prisoners to private businesses at extremely low rates and starting in 1901, prisoners were put to work on the state’s railroads and highways.

Growing Change helps ignite the social entrepreneurial spirit of communities to transform these properties, and while we transform our youth, our youth  transform their communities.”

Growing Change photo.

It began in 2011 with a pilot project which put a group of kids, all on probation and under 14, in charge of reclaiming the 67-acre Scotland Correctional Center. The goal was to transform the former prison labor camp into an agricultural and farming community center that will provide counseling and assistance services for troubled youth in the region. The facility also would provide employment and educational services for returning veterans and recreational opportunities for the surrounding community.

It was a radical idea that proved itself

By the end of its five-year trial, Growing Change had a 92% rate of preventing entry into the adult correctional system, far above the national average of 60%, and many of the kids went onto college, the military and other stable professions. And it saved the state money it would have had to spend on remediating the abandoned prisons.

It was one of those proverbial ‘win, win, win’ solutions.

In 2017, the NC Rural Center honored Noran as the 2017 Rural Leader of the Year, saying that what Growing Change had done in converting the Wagram prison in Scotland County “into a symbol of hope and new beginnings is incredibly inspiring and now a model for communities across the nation.”

Growing Change photo

Noran believes the act of reimagining abandoned prisons helps young people and communities flip their own metaphorical prisons and create a new narrative together, says Future Crunch, where I first read about his work.

Today, Noran’s vision extends to the 300 decommissioned prisons across America, and he’s created a free, open source, prison flip toolkit to help other communities begin the process of reclaiming closed prisons and to give youth a chance to begin again.

“If you draw a circle within a 50-mile radius of the Wagram Prison there are six decommissioned sites. There are 22 in North Carolina and nearly 300 in the nation. We’re creating some best-practice standards for how these sites can be reclaimed for the greater community,” he says.

Reclaiming the abandoned harbours

There are old harbours in some Dutch and Belgian cities that are longing for a new purpose, says a story about a fascinating company called Wikkelboat.

Its small floating houses made from cardboard and other recycled materials could provide a housing solution for some of those unused harbours, making it possible to develop Dutch cities on the water.

The Wikkelboats – “wrap boats” in English – are used for short-term accommodation in Rotterdam and are positioned on a floating jetty.

The old golf course that will be a public park

The Trust for Public Land bought the financially troubled 157-acre San Geronimo Golf Course in Marin County, California, in 2017, nearly 60 years after it opened when a suburb was planned but never built. Now it is being turned back into wildlife habitat that will link the restored landscape to four surrounding nature preserves, Bloomberg reports. Hiking and biking trails to be built through the San Geronimo Commons will connect communities in the valley.

The San Geronimo property is an ecological treasure in the heart of  West Marin, says Reimagining San Geronimo. It links to over 100,000 acres of contiguous public open space from the Golden Gate to Point Reyes. It is surrounded by Marin County open space preserves, and beyond that large swaths of state and national park lands. Miles of regional trails begin at the property boundary.

TPL is also involved in the restoration of the former Rancho Cañada golf course in Monterey County, California, to a natural state to revive a floodplain along the Carmel River. “Projects like these do more than just create habitat and connect people to nature,” TPL’s Fischer told Bloomberg. “These places create a sense of hope where people can see things getting better.”

Rancho Canada Golf Course in central California is a new public park .Photo credit: Carmel Realty Company/Trust for Public Land

Of the 16,000 golf courses in the US, 130 closed in 2021. Between 2006 and 2016, 1,500 golf courses shut down. A 2017 study by landscape architect Kelly Cederberg of the University of Arizona found that of the 365 defunct courses she examined, 28 had been redesigned as open-space preserves or public parks, Bloomberg said.

“There’s going to be a lot of attention paid to golf courses along coastal areas and along rivers, and in areas that face elevated fire risks,” says Kristin Hill, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, who focuses on climate adaptation. “Some golf courses will be under pressure to become a new land use that might be better adapted to flooding or fire conditions.”

In a 2018 story, the Trust for Public Land highlighted former golf courses across the US where it was working, in California, Colorado, Oregon, and New Jersey.

Preparing for an ocean where the lobsters move

This is the KarunaNews summary of a lovely story told in Reasons to be Cheerful.

“Seaweed is evolving into Maine’s new cash crop, as the Gulf of Maine warms so quickly that it threatens a billion-dollar-plus business that provides most US-caught lobster. Economic development experts worry that so much of Maine’s economy depends on lobster. Briana Warner of Atlantic Sea Farms, which buys all the kelp harvested by fishers whose boats once held cod and haddock, was studying the warming ocean when she discovered sugar kelp. Its gelling capacity makes it useful in everything from cosmetics to ice cream to toothpaste. Kelp-infused foods are nutrient rich and have a lower climate impact than more traditional fare. And around a seaweed farm, mussels grow bigger and faster. Atlantic Sea Farms now buys a million pounds a year and has 27 partner farmers, with another dozen waiting for leases from the state. To build a market, it has invested in cold-storage units and refrigerated trucks, developed a flash-freeze process so it can sell fresh kelp to restaurateurs and the food service industry, and opened a new 27,000-square-foot kelp nursery and production facility.”