The last couple of weeks have truly gone to the dogs. In Massachusetts, a white woman, quickly dubbed Dog Park Debbie by the internet, called the police on a black man when his dog humped hers at the Attleboro Dog Park. CityLab posed the question “Are Dog Parks Exclusionary?” and chronicled the development of Chicago’s posh Lincoln Yards waterfront megadevelopment including the fancy dog park that’s slated to reside within it. Juxtaposing the Lincoln Yards amenity with other Chicago neighborhoods, a bleak picture began to emerge: Dog parks are scant in non-white and non-affluent areas while leash law citations flourish.
Yet, simply adding more dog parks isn’t the answer.
“While a dog park isn’t exclusionary per se, it sends a signal,” explains Vanessa Perry, chair of George Washington University’s department of marketing. Dog parks, bike lanes and other such public space amenities have come to be associated with gentrification in many U.S. cities. First come the dog parks, then the Starbucks, then sky-high property values that push out the longtime residents and small businesses that have called a neighborhood home for decades.
“Thy symbolism is also tied to the sociopolitical environment because public resources get allocated through the political process. To the extent that more long-standing residents don’t have the political wherewithal to be able to influence the flow of resources the way that newcomers do, then you have dog parks emerging as this symbol of the disenfranchisement of existing residents,” Perry says.
She adds that it’s not like there are hordes of people out there who are vehemently against dog parks — just that people want an opportunity to have their voices heard rather than have amenities dumped on them when their needs lie elsewhere.
One of the reasons a mismatch between a community’s wants and needs and what actually gets built can arise is through a default reliance on public officials. “It’s easier and in some cases legally supported to just defer to elected officials and zoning processes, but that’s not necessarily inclusive and doesn’t capture everyone,” Perry notes. Considering the fact that marginalized groups are often disenfranchised from voting, “what happens then is that people start to assume that there’s a conspiracy to run long-standing neighbors out of these neighborhoods and it’s hard to refute.”
As cities struggle with these public space equity issues, Raleigh, North Carolina, has taken a step in the right direction with broad outreach to ask residents about dog parks.
The city’s park system plan, adopted in 2014, called for a study of the need for dog parks. In 2018, a dog park needs assessment began and culminated with the city’s 2019 Dog Park Study, complete with a smiling dog on the cover and a collage of adorable faces on the third page.
The report found that an estimated one-third of all households in Raleigh have at least one dog, that the city’s pup population is projected to exceed 100,000 by 2023, and that over half of Raleigh’s human residents reside in multifamily or attached housing arrangements that often lack yards.
TJ McCourt, a planning supervisor in Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department, was surprised that the study found, despite over 200 public parks and a network of greenway trails, many people only visit public parks to access a dog park. “For these people, this is one of their only outlets for getting outside, getting exercise and meeting neighbors,” he says.
In addition to looking at systems in other cities and defining holes in the city’s dog park coverage by creating something of a doggie census, Raleigh took community input seriously.
“When it comes to dog parks in particular, we were aware of the [equity] issue and wanted to make sure that we were getting as representative of a sample as we could,” McCourt explains.
His team used a variety of different methods, from collecting survey responses to interacting with people at pop-up dog parks, and stopped halfway through to look at the results they were getting.
“We were getting disproportionately high responses from downtown and north Raleigh, which is generally white and higher income,” McCourt says. “We saw that we were not getting high responses from southeast Raleigh where a high percentage of the population … identifies as black or African-American, so we did specific outreach there.”
The key, though, has been using the information from the report as a guideline that is secondary to individual communities’ priorities. As an example, the report showed gentrifying neighborhoods in east Raleigh, just outside of downtown, as prime locations for dog park development. Yet, because of previous engagements with residents of those neighborhoods regarding a different park issue, the city knows dog parks aren’t a high priority for that community.
“Even if there are flexible use spaces that are mostly empty, they’re often used for parties or barbecues or pickup sports or church events. Even though through some lenses they might be underutilized, we always look at the community use. We think it would be inappropriate to convert [spaces like these] into a dog park that would only serve one population,” McCourt says.
However, it’s not an all or nothing situation. The pop-up dog parks that were used in the study continue to be deployed across the city for days, weekends and sometimes entire weeks in order to meet the needs of dog park owners in other ways than permanent dog park construction.
By using fencing material that clocks in at a fraction of construction costs, the city has been able to save money and avoid the equity pitfalls that can surround long-term implementation.
“One of the things we tried to emphasize with the findings and throughout the process is that dog parks are for people too. They’re not just for dog exercise or places for dogs to go to the bathroom. We focus on the human side the same way we would for any other amenity,” McCourt says. “That approach and message go a long way to help people who don’t have dogs or don’t want to use [dog parks] to understand that we’re not building these places for dogs.”
Perry agrees, adding that small, simple and low-cost gestures that signal who a park serves can go a long way in addressing equity issues that surround not only dog parks but public spaces in general.
“There are no messages about who these spaces are open to. We assume that people know but we don’t say it,” she says, adding that there are inexpensive ways, like social media advertising, to send a message of inclusivity. “Something like ‘All dogs are welcome here’ sounds silly, but it’s true.”
This story is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.