One of the wonderful benefits of disc golf is its ability to take advantage of underutilized space. Underutilized space is any portion of land that is seldom used due to its inability to house building structures or accommodate people. Common forms of underutilized space are ridge lines, rocky parcels, steep slopes and riparian corridors. Riparian corridors include not only the waterways (streams, ponds, wetlands, etc.), but the ecosystems and land in, above and around them. They are the most sensitive subject of disc golf course design as any detrimental action to riparian corridors can create a domino effect on several other environmental factors, while its lesser so on pieces of land like ridge lines and rocky parcels.
That being said, building disc golf holes on ridge lines, steep slopes and rocky parcels can also have an effect on their surroundings. “Unbuildable slopes” are defined as anything over a 25% grade, as moving earth at such a magnitude isn’t cost effective and the unstable ground of a cut/fill scenario wouldn’t be the safest solution to put a housing foundation on. When designing a disc golf course or property, Landscape Architects typically look at the topography first — be it through GIS, topo maps or by transit — to determine what is suitable, or in this case, unsuitable for development. Steep slopes are often underutilized due to their inability to house structures or provide handicap access, while they are commonly used in disc golf course design to provide varied shot selection and increased challenge.
Don’t get me wrong, disc golf holes that utilize steeps slopes and go over water are great, but a great deal of care needs to be used when designing these holes. If the slope is too steep, players will have a difficult time climbing the hill, and in doing so, highly loosen the top soil. Loosening the top soil won’t seem like much, until it rains and causes severe amounts of erosion due to the fact that the organic matter, vegetative plantings and root systems have been altered enough that the ground surface that was tightly held together by these components is no longer so.
The same goes for designing holes over water. Our professional opinion is that traffic should be focused in one specific direction when crossing a waterway, not scattered. This scattered foot traffic has vast potential to severely harm the ecosystem within the riparian corridor as discs can land in several areas, while physically crossing the water is ultimately left up to the players picking any given point they chose. Mitigating this problem can be be done by seldom designing a hole OVER a small tributary or stream, and providing bridge access whenever possible. Think of placing a basket short of a stream, or running adjacent to one instead of crossing it. Holes that are designed over larger bodies of water like ponds typically don’t offer multiple crossings due to the scale of the water in size, so worrying about scattered foot traffic is less of an issue in these scenarios.
While the presence of water is a benefit on any course, designing over it is seldom suggested. Think about using it as a focal point or significant on-site feature that you want to move users to more so than an obstacle or out of bounds that players have to navigate around. If you can design the hole in such as fashion as Hole 8 at Maple Hill Disc Golf in Leicester, MA then by all means do, but holes the intersect small riparian corridors should be studied if they are more beneficial to the disc golfer than they are harmful to the environment. Scattered foot traffic over water is a real problem, and very similar to the removal of top soil by players having to scale a steep slope to a basket. Topography and changes in elevation should be utilized in disc golf course design whenever possible, but there should be a limit as a tremendous amount of highly organic top soil can be removed and washed away in any type of rainfall — ultimately ending up in the riparian corridors below them; the same ones that have been subject compaction, vegetative destruction and irreplaceable damage through poor disc golf course design and scattered foot traffic over the years.