Feature Article - March 2016
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Four-Legged-Friendly Parks

Well-Planned Dog Parks Unite the Community, Whether Canine or Human

By Joe Bush

There's a growth industry in parks and recreation, and it's something other than waterparks and SoulCycle and climbing gyms.

Dog park construction is part of a dog industry that one estimate values at $7.5 billion. There were approximately 83 million pet dogs in the United States in 2013, and an estimated 1,200 dog parks in operation. The first official dog park opened in 1979 in Berkeley, Calif., but there has been a boom in the past decade.

Between 2005 and 2010 there was a 34 percent increase in dog parks in the 100 largest U.S. cities, and with that rise, there's been a boost in designers, equipment manufacturers and philosophies on how to best plan, build and maintain an area beneficial to both beast and man.

"I've noticed more money and thought are going into parks, therefore supporting dog park design companies," said Becca Barnett, social media manager of BringFido.com, a dog travel directory. "That would have been a surprising focus, just 10 years ago."

Because dogs need their owners to bring them to the parks to socialize and exercise, it's not only dog data that matters, said Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for an Everett, Wash.-based company that specializes in dog park products and solutions.

"With millennials waiting longer to have children, adults who don't participate in organized sports, people with service animals and just families looking to spend quality time together, dog parks help to fill a niche," she said.

"Recent studies have also noted that when people are looking to move to a community, a dog park is often a strong consideration, so they not only help to build a sense of community, dog parks can actually draw potential new community members and tourists traveling with their pets to the area."

Municipalities are finding that when they ask their residents for feedback in the planning stages of new recreation spaces, dog parks are popular choices. They are not revenue generators, but neither do they have to be very expensive to create, design, build, install and maintain. It's about as close to a feel-good project as there is, like children's playgrounds. Dogs like to walk, but they love to run, and chase, and climb and play in water. All that is enhanced when their leashes are unhooked. Park visits are great for owners as well, for some of the same reasons as it's healthy for their pooches; bonding with the dog, exercise and socialization.

A Tail of Two Cities

In 2007, the Cincinnati Park Board and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) collaborated to redevelop Washington Park. Part of the redesign included the addition of a dog park. David Vissman, senior operations manager for 3CDC, said the 12,000-square-foot space in the middle of the 8-acre downtown park is the result of citizen input.

More than a score of neighborhood meetings made it clear that residents wanted more than just sidewalks to pace their pooches. "Especially in a downtown environment, green space is needed as much for dogs as people," Vissman said.

He said the requests have been backed by attendance: The dog park is the busiest part of the park, year round. The park staff clears snow from the parking area to the dog park because it is the only part of the park that gets heavy traffic in the winter.

Vissman said the board and 3CDC haven't rested on those laurels, though. There has been marketing from the start, like weekly Yappy Hours in the summer, during which dogs enjoy free treats and their owners sip on provided beverages. A popular dog park needs constant maintenance and oversight to stay popular, and Vissman said there are crews visiting three times an hour, picking up poop when owners don't, collecting litter, sweeping pebbles that stray from their area, and making sure the drain by a water feature is clear.

Vissman said users make the maintenance easier. "It seems like the community is taking more ownership of the dog park," he said. "We'll have people ask, 'Do you have (pooper scoopers) in here?' So we're going to try this spring to put out pooper scoopers and see if they disappear on us."

After nearly a decade, there are plans to add tunnels and mounds in 2017, Vissman said, and maybe some shade umbrellas after the loss of a large tree last year. He said the dog park's only drawback is that it is too small to have separate spaces for different-sized dogs.

Cody Swander is superintendent of the Nampa (Idaho) Parks Department, an organization whose dog park does have the separate spaces for larger and smaller dogs. Opened in 2009, the 6-acre space also has benches, shelters, drinking fountains for both species, and a drainage ditch for water play.

Swander said the creation of the park was controversial. The Boise suburb, population approximately 85,000, is in a desert climate, and many influencers wondered why people couldn't merely take their dogs to rural spaces and let them run. A piece of city-owned land that was undevelopable due to a high water table kickstarted the planning.

A committee that included residents, park board members and staff came up with a design that was drafted by a volunteer. The committee hired a company to do a rendering, so there was something tangible to pitch. When they got the green light, they kept costs low by using a contractor only for the fencing.