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

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