Feature Article - February 2020
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Canine Comforts

Implement Best Practices, Deploy New Ideas in Dog Parks

By Dave Ramont


On Chicago's South Side today, several new dog parks are in the planning stages as some residents are pushing for them. But complicating matters, some residents in underserved communities see amenities such as dog parks as unwelcome signs of gentrification. And with the scarcity of green space, they would rather have much-needed playgrounds or sports fields.

Park leaders in many cities are weighing the best ways to address the equity issues associated with dog parks and similar amenities. In affluent areas, residents view these spaces as basic infrastructure, but in other communities, park leaders may need to consider new ways of utilizing existing park space for dog-friendly areas.

The city of Raleigh, N.C., took a positive step by releasing their 2018 Dog Park Study, the nation's first comprehensive report on dog parks. Canine population there is expected to exceed 100,000 by 2023, and the report found that an estimated one-third of residents owned at least one dog.

The city attempted to engage the entire population of Raleigh for input, and did specific outreach in communities where responses were low, since they were predictably getting higher response rates from generally white and higher-income communities. They analyzed dog adoptions across Wake County, produced maps showing the density of dog-friendly apartment dwellings across the city, matched census-based household data with market intelligence (veterinary services, pet food purchases, etc.) and defined holes in the city's dog park coverage.

Some findings surprised city officials. For instance, despite having more than 200 public parks, many people only visit these parks to access a dog park, and therefore it's their only outlet for getting fresh air, exercise and meeting neighbors. Going forward, officials hope that the study will guide them to make equitable decisions and do what's appropriate for each neighborhood.

VandenBerghe explained that they consult with customers about these issues to help narrow down potential locations, and they feel that unless the area is especially unsafe or inaccessible, there really isn't a bad location. "Dog parks are a passive-crime deterrent; in addition to helping a community become safer, they foster relationships and can help improve compliance in relation to waste pickup in other areas within the community along with decreasing the number of dogs off-leash when and where they shouldn't be."

Ongoing Input

According to the latest ParkScore Index report issued by TPL, Madison, Wis., ranked eighth in the country when examining cities with the best dog park systems. The city currently maintains eight off-leash dog parks, and permits are required to use them, which can be purchased online or onsite, according to Ann Shea, parks public information officer for Madison Parks. "Rangers patrol the dog parks throughout the day and evening, and monitor access."

Shea said they have four landscape architects on staff who design the parks, and construction is typically bid out. "Our staff maintain the parks with the assistance of volunteers throughout the year. We host a Dog Park Cleanup Day in the spring and recruit volunteers specifically for this event."

The dog parks are popular and well-utilized, according to Shea, who said they frequently receive requests for more dog-friendly spaces. In 2016, the Board of Park Commissioners in Madison approved the Policy and Guidelines for Off-Leash Dog Park Service Area Standards. "The policy is intended to guide the Parks Division in planning new off-leash dog park areas and to set standards for responding to requests for the creation of off-leash dog park areas in the Madison Parks system." Shea added that extensive research and public input was conducted to create the Policy and Guidelines.

The creation of a "Friends" group is also encouraged in Madison where a fenced off-leash dog area is contemplated, and required when an unfenced area is contemplated. These groups help educate dog owners about rules, raise funds for amenities, police cleanup efforts, hold events and generally build community.

Back in Montana, Lowe said she often works with these nonprofit community groups, and they play a big role in how successful a park is. "They have specific mandates on why they want to build those dog parks. And with an active group of volunteers, they're out there monitoring, they're getting to know everybody in the park, and they get to know the dogs. I think there's a strength to that that can be missed in the 'let's just fence in an area' mentality." But she added that cooperation and support from the parks and rec department is part of the equation.

VandenBerghe agrees that volunteer groups can help parks function and run smoothly, and a city's maintenance budget will determine what responsibilities the group takes on, though they're typically still active in fundraising efforts. Historically, according to VandenBerghe, the initial build would be funded by a city or grant, covering fencing, surfacing, water lines, etc. while the "fun" items might be supplied by volunteers or sponsorships. "However, we're seeing a trend where the initial park design now includes agility equipment, water fountains and other amenities, so they're often being included as must-have items and not just future add-ons."

Surfacing is also a major consideration, and the most common choices include natural grass, engineered wood fiber (EWF), synthetic turf and gravel. Sarvis said each surface type has pros and cons, and selection depends on many factors including climate, budget, accessibility, number of dogs daily, shade, water and aeration. "We feel the most ideal surface is regular grass, but in some areas grass cannot stand up to the rigors of use or the climate challenges." For this reason, some parks rotate their off-leash areas to give grass a chance to recover.

VandenBerghe described a grass-stabilizing mesh they recently started offering that's getting a lot of interest. "For parks that would like to keep a more natural look, this really helps to sustain the grass, especially in high-use areas." She said that EWF is their most popular product, since it is low-maintenance and inexpensive. "It does need to be topped off, and most of our customers average about two years before that's necessary."

While more expensive, synthetic turf is also popular since it's low-maintenance and long-lasting, according to VandenBerghe. "We do encourage anyone looking for turf to install dog-park-specific turf, which has additional drainage and antimicrobial materials to help with odor control."

Back in Madison, Shea said their most recent renovation features synthetic turf, while their other parks are natural grass with concrete pad access.