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The Politics of Creating a Dog Park
Round two in the urban debate

This is a follow-up article to our political primer on dog park campaigning. We hope that you found some of the information helpful and that you are now ready to sit down with town planners and design that perfect dog park.

Let’s start by suggesting a different term for dog park. We know it’s an easy term to use, but it often evokes irate comments like: “What do you mean you want to spend my taxes on a bunch of dogs?”; “What about safe playground equipment for my kids?”; “Drinking fountains for dogs, you gotta be kidding!” Play it safe—try using terms like “off-leash” or “multi-use area,” stressing the human component at all times. The acronym-clever COLA people (Citizens for Off-Leash Areas in Seattle simply call theirs OLAs (a convention we’ll adopt here). In Berkeley, “multi-use area” refers to the multiple legitimate uses, including our leashless dogs, that are allowable in sections of the park. In Indianapolis they refer to their recently inaugurated area as a Canine Companion Zone.

In doing the research for this article and in talking with many of you who have contacted us for more information or to share your wisdom and experience, we realize that this material cannot be easily condensed into just two parts. So we will be turning this into a regular feature, with future reports including case studies from your parks.

A recap from last time: because most cities have leash laws that outlaw dogs running “at large,” you’ll need to change this policy.

But few policymakers or administrators are risk-takers; they’ll need reassurances that they are not the first to be confronted by a citizenry asking to use public land to recreate with a pack of off-leash dogs. This is to be followed by gentle and constant reminders that your request isn’t coming out of left field and you have the numbers to support your proposal (with signed petitions in hand), that you do pay taxes supporting everyone else’s recreational activity and, lastly, that you regularly consult with your dogs before voting. By doing most of your homework online you can find many excellent examples of successful programs (see resources) to bring to your town’s decision-makers. Now that you have piqued their interest, the next step is to lead them to the drawing table with design guidelines and planning criteria.

Guidelines can help move the process along but keep in mind that, as Mencken noted: “For every complex, difficult problem, there is a simple, easy solution … and it is wrong.” One of the first things we learned in gathering this information is that while it is tempting to use guidelines from other cities or even from other parks within the same city, they should be used judicially and only as outlines to help shape the planning process and not as across-the-board standards. As Judy Green, a veteran of off-leash planning in Virginia, cautioned, “it is important to remain as flexible as possible,” leaving room for “fine-tuning afterwards.” Site-specific and community-specific needs must be addressed. A fifty-acre area within a five-hundred acre park might be too small for one city, but in a dense urban area like New York it could be positively palatine.

It is beyond the scope of this space to write about macro-level planning issues or site analyses—we all know that a city should provide a series of neighborhood parks accessible to the daily needs for all its citizens, including those with dogs, with major municipal or regional parks available for special jaunts. In the ideal world, dogs would be welcomed to share the total park experience with us, as they do in Australia, and not only be limited to permitted sectors. Taking these limitations into consideration, we’ll concentrate on some guidelines for a prototypical off-leash park, if only in the abstract. Operational topics, such as sponsoring groups, user-permits and maintenance issues will be discussed in the next issue.

Size
If your OLA is located on a new site or built within an established park, size is the single most important and probably the most contentious criterion to be decided. Let it be suggested as a rule of thumb that the bigger the better. An off-leash area is similar to a computer: the day you buy one is the day it becomes outdated. With a smaller area (especially if it is the only facility servicing a wide area), you will quickly find that supply can’t match demand. Indianapolis experienced this when permits to their first Canine Companion Zone were sold out almost the day of the opening. They are now looking to open a second, larger canine zone in another park.

Some suggest that the auxiliary (i.e., neighborhood) off-leash parks be a minimum of three to five acres. Even though we agree with the larger end of this range, in many urban areas this is probably unattainable. For smaller parks or for the ones that can’t be easily “divided” into specific usage zones, a “time share” arrangement might be possible, with the park available to dog use in the early mornings and early evening hours. If this is your only option, as it is for many New Yorkers, try to obtain a liberal frame of permitted times (perhaps before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.), factoring in seasonal day length changes. The town of Petaluma, north of San Francisco, reports very successful results with a time-share program that is operational in all of its parks.

We disagree with policy papers that suggest that OLAs be restricted to a maximum of five acres. The rationale behind this limit is that a larger area would make monitoring more difficult. But there is abundant and convincing long-term evidence to ameliorate these concerns, coming from larger dog-friendly parks such as Pt. Isabel in Richmond, California (with nearly a million visits a year), Fort Funston in San Francisco, Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, Shawnee Mission Park in Johnson County, Kansas, and others. Ideally, OLAs should be large enough not only to accommodate human-with-dog recreational activities, like walking and jogging, but also to provide enough space where some of us can spend private time away from the fetch-and-chase set. Also, the larger the park the less likely that its resources, such as turf, will suffer from overuse.

Fencing
Another bone of possible contention is fencing. In parks close to traffic, fencing—with consideration for aesthetic concerns —might be necessary. In these cases, double entry, self-closing gates are recommended. Unless your dogs are into high hurtling, a four-foot fence should be adequate. Chain-link (vinyl-coated) fencing is probably the least expensive but some parks, as in Sacramento and Dupont Circle in DC, are looking into other alternatives like wrought iron (beware of the pointy pickets). Arlington Dogs’ Judy Green adds that fencing must extend to the ground and that if using chain-link, the bottom must be crimped to avoid injuries to the dogs. In larger multi-use parks, especially in areas away from traffic which have terrain features that provide natural demarcations and barriers away from other park uses, fencing might not be necessary. There are often serious disagreements over fencing. It can be the single most expensive item in the construction of OLAs, so securing the funding can hamper the progress of projects, especially if communities balk about paying for it. Sometimes dog people are asked to contribute to this expense. Putting aside the fairness question—are tennis players asked to pay for the fences on public courts?—some of you have turned into amazingly effective fund-raisers, getting financial assistance from local businesses. Pet stores and pet food companies should be eager to contribute and perhaps even sponsor your park. In some cases, fencing can also help allay fears of liability.

Children
Even though allowing children into OLAs is more of an operational than a design issue, is it usually during the design stage that this issue is addressed. Again bringing up the specter of liability issues, some communities have opted for not allowing children, even those accompanied by an adult, into their OLAs. We think this is unfortunate. It can add fuel to the children versus dog debate, and Judy Green thinks that it “doesn’t serve the dog community to perpetuate this idea that dogs are always to be feared.” Children should obviously be closely supervised in parks from all recreational activities, such as bicycling, inline skating, kite flying, as well as from dogs. Also, many families with dogs cannot afford the luxury of providing quality park time to their dogs, separate from the time they can spend with their children. Most parks do allow children but some take the precaution of noting on their signage that children under a certain age must be accompanied by an adult. Personally, we love seeing young parents with those new sports-model baby strollers wheeling their charges on the paths of the off-leash area with their dogs merrily running alongside. This goes to the essence of what these areas are all about—having a good time in our parks with those we love.

Other design considerations:

• Available parking that will not interfere with or disturb neighbors
• Compliance with American Disabilities Act requirements—service dogs and their companions should be urged to use OLAs
• Buffer Zones from neighbors who might be concerned about barking
• Conveniently-sited, covered trash receptacles and poop disposal product dispensers
• Bulletin boards for posting notices, raising public awareness, announcing training classes, etc.
• Shade trees, good drainage, maintain-able turf
• Water fountains with both human and dog-level spigots
• Clear, concise and aesthetically pleasing signage
• Benches, tables, agility equipment, swimming ponds
 

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Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com
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