Feature Article - February 2020
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Canine Comforts

Implement Best Practices, Deploy New Ideas in Dog Parks

By Dave Ramont


Last year, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) estimated the number of dogs in America to be 90 million. And while other groups have put that number closer to 77 million, one thing is certain: There are a lot of dogs out there!

The number of off-leash dog parks continues to climb as well. Since the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) began keeping track in 2009, the number of dedicated dog parks in the United States has grown by more than 70%. And a National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) poll last year revealed that 55% of park agencies have at least one dog park, and that 91% of Americans believe dog parks provide benefits to communities.

"With more young people holding off on having kids and a new generation of 'empty nesters,' the dog population in the U.S. has increased, along with overall spending in the pet products market," said Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for a Washington-based company that manufactures and sells dog park products. "So those people are using dog parks as their form of recreation instead of playgrounds or other adult recreation."

John Sarvis, director of design at an Indiana-based firm that sells dog park agility and play equipment, along with other dog park products, said he's excited that cities are starting to treat dog parks as a more mainstream amenity. "The trend we're seeing is slightly larger designs and more centralized incorporation into the rest of the park—closer to the rest of the amenities—whereas several years ago we saw the dog parks being more off center of the main park."

The Right Fit

VandenBerghe said they're designing more urban parks, pointing out that as green space becomes more in demand in larger cities, creating pet-friendly public areas is crucial, even if the footprint is smaller. "Something small with a pet waste station, a bench, a fire hydrant and one or two compact agility pieces is enough to make a statement and generate a lot of use without forcing folks to drive miles outside the city to a dog park."

"We see an increase in municipalities getting involved with even smaller 'satellite' dog parks to serve the smaller district areas or up-and-coming areas," said Sarvis, adding that this can cause problems with regular maintenance if they're remote from the main parks. "It just has to be planned out properly to make sure it's safe and in an area that can be part of the maintenance workflow."

Indoor dog parks are increasingly common, and can be good secondary solutions for cities, particularly those with harsher climates, according to Sarvis. He added that they're also nice for those who work late and can't get outside while it's still light. "We'd like to see municipalities increase public indoor dog space. This would allow people to plan consistent dog play time regardless of weather."

"With urban communities having to get creative when it comes to finding room for pet amenities, we've worked on some fun projects," said VandenBerghe, describing how they converted part of a parking garage into a pet park for a Connecticut customer and designed a park in California also utilizing garage space. "Some high-rise buildings have even put dog parks into units they decided to not rent out," she said, adding that they're also designing more pet-relief areas in airports.

Rooftop parks are also increasingly common, but VandenBerghe cautions that safety and proper perimeter security are huge considerations. "We believe rooftop parks should have at least a five or six-foot-high fence, and some customers have even installed two barriers—a shorter fence on the inside and a taller fence or wall around the edge." She adds that proper drainage and regular irrigation also need addressing to control odors.

Since most rooftops have restrictions due to special coatings and barriers for waterproofing, Sarvis points out that incorporating fencing and pet waste stations can be challenging. It can also be difficult to tie into the drain system to allow proper draining of potty areas. "Most new building plans accommodate for outdoor parks on rooftop areas," said Sarvis, explaining that these are much easier to design for than older buildings.

Inclusion & Equity

After helping to design Hugh Rogers Wag Park in Whitefish, Mont.—dubbed one of the country's top 10 dog parks in 2015 by USA Today—landscape architect Leslie Lowe has moved on to planning other parks in British Columbia and the United States. She mentioned inclusiveness as a major design consideration. "Dog parks span all aspects of our society, and a lot of times we don't put enough emphasis on providing spaces that are fully accessible."

There are approximately 500,000 service dogs in the U.S., and Lowe said they also need accommodations, which might mean providing separate areas. "There are rules that govern their behavior, but service dogs need to blow off steam too.

"If we can provide a social activity that draws the community together, then we start to build those interactions and connections between the varieties of our culture," said Lowe. "And in that way we can promote good dog ownership, good behavior, and it becomes a forum for education."

Along with inclusiveness and accessibility, there are also social equity issues tied to the development of dog parks, as these spaces are often scarce in non-white and non-affluent areas. For instance, there are many dog parks on Chicago's upscale North Side, and many of them fall in neighborhoods that are mostly white, though these areas make up a relatively small part of the city's overall geography. Meanwhile, the city's predominantly African-American South Side is considered a "dog park desert."

Making the situation more unequitable is the fact that tickets for off-leash violations—a $300 fine in Chicago—are disproportionately issued to South Side residents. These residents often don't possess the resources to build dog parks, as they're typically not funded through the city's parks department, but through Tax Increment Financing (TIF), Aldermanic menu, Open Space Impact Fees (OSIF) and community fundraising. These resources are often allocated through the political process.