Feature Article - January 2009
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Going to the Dogs

A Growing Community Trend

By Stacy St. Clair

Location, Location, Location

Often the hardest part of opening a dog park is selecting the right location. Some recreation managers gravitate toward open, isolated tracts, while other communities have integrated them into existing venues.

In Toronto, officials opted to build a canine playground in the middle of Cawthra Square Park when they renovated the site last year. It was a daring choice, given the park's rich tradition and high traffic volume. The site dates back to the 1880s, when it was a sporting club and the social hub for the city's elite.

The new plans called for an eclectic mix of amenities, including a splash play area, an AIDS memorial and a dog park. The arduous task of integrating the diverse venues became the responsibility of HOK, a global architecture firm with offices in Toronto.

"Everyone recognized a need for the (dog) park, we just needed to find a suitable space for it and to sort out all of the maintenance issues," project manager Barry Day said.

Among the most pressing issues was the ability to suppress odor. If they couldn't control the smell, how could the city hold candlelight vigils at the AIDS memorial? Who would want to recreate in a place that smelled like urine?

The architects addressed the situation by installing a sand surface with an irrigation system that reduces potential smells and allows for sufficient drainage. The sand is also easy on the paws.

"It has worked well from both a maintenance standpoint and at managing the odor," landscape architect Tom Hook said.

There were also fears about safety and pets breaking free from the designated grounds. While many dog parks worry about this, the concerns were heightened in Toronto because Cawthra Square has so many user groups at play.

To address anxieties, the dog park is completely contained by iron gates that make it difficult for dogs to escape. The venue, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, also boasts abundant lighting as an added security measure.

Once the safety issues were addressed, HOK architects turned their attentions toward creating a casual, natural place for dogs to recreate. Simulated limestone boulders blend beautifully with the landscape and provide seating options under large maple and horse chestnut trees.

"We focused on how to create an inviting social place with benches and large pieces of natural stone surrounded by vegetation that act as natural barriers with lots of waste receptacles," Day said. "It turned out quite well."

The design successfully introduces designated zones, without wholly segregating the parks. It also brokers peace between dog lovers and other users. Recreation-loving canines had become a politically charged issue in downtown Toronto, where dog owners and parents often spar when dogs run off-leash and bark at kids or lick the spouts of human drinking fountains.

"It has eliminated the user conflict," Days said. "Now people and kids who don't want to interact with dogs don't have to."