In Berkeley, a process-rich city, attendance at numerous monthly meetings of four separate commissions, plus a Dog Task Force, was needed before we even got close to our first city council hearing. Note that most public meetings reserve time for public comment unrelated to any specific item; take advantage of these opportunities to introduce your proposal. Go as often as you can—hounding them isn’t a bad idea; sometimes just showing an interest in their dull proceedings and becoming a familiar, (and hopefully friendly) face, can earn you bonus points.
Determine what public agencies are concerned with parks and dogs: Parks, Recreation, Animal Services, Public Safety and Health departments. Meet with the managers to assess their positions—offer to help with some park maintenance, like organizing a poop clean-up campaign. Let them know that you are there not just to ask for something but to provide a service as well. In New York City, individual directors of parks, such as Central and Riverside Parks in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, can act quite independently. So Jane Cameron’s FIDO (Fellowship for the Interest of Dogs and their Owners) group in Brooklyn found the director of Prospect Park more responsive to their demands and thankful for the assistance they were proffering, whereas Jeff Zahn’s FLORAL (Friends and Lovers of Riverside Area Life) had their adopt-a-park space taken away from them by a director with a renovation plan that didn’t allow for their good stewardship to even be acknowledged. Go figure!
Civil servants can be your biggest enemies or best allies. Often it is up to them to support the legitimacy of your activity—and this might be key to your success. The Director of Portland, Oregon’s Parks and Recreation Department, Charles Jordan, understood the off-leash issue to be a classic example of a land-use conflict: “Public lands belong to everyone, yet when there’s not enough for everyone to do what they want to do when they want to do it, we have a collision.” His department took the step of accepting the legitimacy of off-leash recreation and set up a task force to find suitable sites. John Etter, of Parks Planning in Eugene, Oregon, is so enthusiastic that he provides a supportive letter to those interested in dog parks. And Dee Tilson, Park Supervisor at Point Isabel— a 21-acre off-leash park in Richmond, California, established in 1975 and receiving an estimated 900,000 dog visitors per year—is also happy to send her supportive letter.
Consult with any neighborhood groups that might have an interest in your proposal, especially targeting any and all homeowners and businesses abutting a park that might be under your consideration. Kevin Kraus, the philosophy professor who spearheads the dog group in the Dupont Circle, stresses the importance of consensus building. He recognizes his group’s need of first making peace with their neighborhood council so they can achieve the goal of making a de facto off-leash area part of the neighborhood’s Adopt-a-Park strategy. He adds, “We’re optimistic, we are working with really good people in the neighborhood.” Kevin teaches a program in Creative Problem Solving—skills sure to be well tested in his new dog park activism.
Do not ignore the concerns of the community, as they will be addressed some time during the public process. Better still, become a player yourself. Get appointed to or volunteer to be on a civic committee, neighborhood council or a task force. Working from within can do wonders.
A model that has been used with varying degrees of success by some cities, including Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego and Berkeley, is a task force appointed to study and make recommendations on off-leash recreation. A task force centralizes the “process,” but it needs to represent your constituency as well, with its public meetings conducted openly with schedules properly noticed, and in locations accessible to public participation. Since it is the park users who should determine local park needs, a task force shouldn’t just be packed with city hall pols and bureaucrats.