The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 5, 2011

Three Barks for Dog Parks!

October 5, 2011

A recent Urban Institute-National Recreation and Park Association event gave mayors, leaders from urban park districts, federal agencies, and business a safe haven to explore what the fiscal crisis is doing to urban park systems. But with a pay-for-use revolution going on and staff lay-offs staring them in the face, they are also still concerned about safe havens for urban dogs.

There’s no doubt that dog parks are getting more popular. The former mayor of St. Petersburg, FL (population 250,000, land area 60 square miles) told us that six dog parks opened under his administration, partly because they’re cheap and easy to build and partly because the dog owners show up in packs to support them. Ithaca, New York, my old stomping ground, has one large dog park located on a beautiful city-owned property near Cayuga Lake and maintained by a nonprofit—TCDOG—that worked for years to get it built and now continues to be the park’s steward and champion. Washington, DC, has nine.

Some of my dog-less friends and colleagues roll their eyes when I enthuse about dog parks. But having patronized them in Berkeley,  Ithaca, to Washington, and noting their popularity in less “crunchy” locations, I think dog parks deserve respect—and public support.

Why public dog parks? You might as well ask, Why public playgrounds and tot lots? After all, 39% of households have at least one dog, compared to just 33% with at least one kid under 18.

Dogs comfort the confined and make many people feel secure. But ownership can be hard for people who use wheelchairs or who have arthritis or live in neighborhoods that aren’t pleasant or safe for walking. Dog parks help reduce barriers.

Public dog parks also often become “third places”—spaces outside the home and the workplace where you can meet new people and old friends. But unlike coffee shops, shopping malls, and bars, you don’t have to pay to get into a public dog park. Most of their patrons can be counted on to help tidy them up and maintain social norms about acceptable behavior. And, of course, dogs need socialization, exercise, and safety at least as much as their people do.

Here’s hoping dog parks remain and grow more significant as “urban infrastructure.”

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