Creating dog parks - without rancor

Whether the tabloid take is "Dogs Unleashed on Parks!" or "Fido Finally Gets to Play!," advocates from both ends of the spectrum would undoubtedly agree: the issue of free-running canines in public open spaces has become a permanent fixture in local park planning debates.

Dogs have always played a big role in city parks, but their traditional position at the end of a lead has been upended by changing mores and a rising enthusiasm among dog owners for much more active play.

There are now more than 700 dog parks in the US, ranging from substantial corners of large green spaces to small parks entirely devoted to unleashed canines - and the number is growing.

Beginning with a 1979 experimental dog park in Berkeley, Calif., the issue has provoked raucous local public hearings that sometimes run well past midnight.

While the issue has divided some cities, it's unified others - sometimes even bolstering the general park constituency as a whole, dogs aside.

The key to success, it seems, is all in a community's approach. The efforts of several prominent dog-park communities provide useful examples of what works and what doesn't.

Of all the clashes, none is as brutal as San Francisco's, a city with multiple park agencies and about as many dogs as children. In the 1970s, an off-leash culture began on some of the remote San Francisco beaches operated by the National Park Service.

The activity was illegal but tolerated until park naturalists realized that the populations of two threatened beach birds, the snowy plover and the bank swallow, were dropping rapidly - probably due to the dogs.

When police began enforcing the leash law, owners shifted to smaller, more centrally located neighborhood parks run by the city park department - provoking an outcry from mothers of small children and others who didn't want to pick up droppings every time they spread out a picnic blanket.

Soon, almost every park became a battleground. Both sides dug in, egged on by the media and grandstanding politicians. The Park Service eventually brought in mediators to lead a "negotiated rulemaking process," but an amicable solution still seems years away.

In contrast, Seattle made the civic transition with relative ease. Hit by the off-leash trend in the early 1990s, the city initially took a hard-line approach, adding more animal control officers and increasing the number of citations. Concerned dog owners formed Citizens for Off-Leash Areas (COLA) and caught the attention of a city council member.

COLA helped identify about 70 possible off-leash sites, and the City Council mandated a pilot off-leash program at seven of them in 1996.

The test program made all the difference, showing residents that the city was in charge and acting reasonably. It also taught Seattle - and, by example, other communities - about the criteria that make for a good location.

Seattle Parks Department spokeswoman Dewey Potter deems the city's dog park program "wildly successful." Dogs have even helped reclaim three parks from illegal users: When police reported a high volume of unlawful alcohol, drug, and sexual activity in Seattle parks, the city park department converted them to pilot off-leash areas, and criminal activity soon evaporated.

There's no doubt that off-leash areas are good for dogs and their owners. The dogs can cavort; the humans can stand or sit, talk or read, watch or even provide comfort, if necessary. It's not unlike a children's playground and it's just about as much fun, even for non-dog-owning passersby who often stand at the fence and watch.

But there's also no doubt that nearby neighbors are often less enthusiastic. Noise is a factor, as is auto traffic; moreover, poorly planned and badly maintained dog parks can be unsightly. However, many of these and other annoyances associated with dog parks can be avoided through careful planning - by avoiding locations that have established uses, as well as those abutting residences, for example. In addition, care should be taken to choose areas so as to avoid spillover into non-dog areas.

More so than any other new segment of the park user universe, dog owners are a constituency with clout. (The US "dog economy" - sales and service - is a multibillion-dollar industry.) Thus, the steep growth in demand for dog parks has two possible outcomes - it can empower the greater park movement or it can divide and debilitate it.

By communicating sensitively and by planning cooperatively, park advocates of all stripes should be able to strengthen urban park systems through better design and space utilization and, ideally, through the acquisition of more parkland for dogs as well as for people.

Peter Harnik is director of the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence. Cerise Bridges is a former researcher for the center.

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