Image by rpmaxwell used with permission.

Dog owners in Columbia Heights are upset that a temporary dog park at 11th and Park NW is about to be sold, which means it will likely be used for another purpose. The land is owned by WMATA, though the agency wasn't responsible for the temporary park. There's no word yet on whether or not housing is slated for the spot, but it nonetheless sparked a debate about whether or not dogs fit into cities, and how urbanists should prioritize land use.

Some argue that people should be prioritized over dogs. Since there's a dearth of homes in DC, urbanists should push to use land like this to shelter humans.

Others point out that about 40 percent of households own a dog, and cities without infrastructure for that reality are being exclusionary. Of course, wealthier neighborhoods tend to have more green space even though dogs are popular with all income brackets — so if we really want to be inclusive, that could mean putting dog parks in lower-income areas as well. (Though only if the community wants them.)

A frenchie relaxing in Dupont Circle. Image by Nikoo’s Photos used with permission.

So…are dogs urbanist? Here's what our contributors say:

Abby Lynch points out,

As a future dog owner who will be using that 11th and Park space when I get a dog, I'd be interested in finding a space for a formalized, fenced-in dog park on one of the other plots of land nearby, if the 11th/Park lot is being developed.

I actually bristle at putting dog parks on top of private condo space, in part because it keeps condo residents (assuming higher-income residents at buildings with nice amenities) cloistered in their fancy buildings rather than getting out into the community. As a childless adult, I don't hang out in city parks all that often. I don't belong at a playground, I don't play sports of any kind, and my friends and I typically socialize in bars, restaurants, or at home, rather than in a park space.

While I don't live in a fancy apartment building, those buildings are often targeting people like me. Having a dog to walk (and a shared space in which to walk him) means that I do get out, walk around the block, and interact with my neighbors of all kinds at the local park. There are some exclusionary issues with dog parks themselves, but I'd rather work through that than cloister dog-friendly spaces in private buildings.

Gray Kimborough says,

I own a dog (though to be fair, it was my wife's), and I have seen certain benefits of dogs in urban areas. People out walking dogs increase eyes on the street at odd hours, for example. But as with anything else, when people clamor for public lands or funds to be used to benefit a few, this can be extremely anti-urban. Dog park proposals can be used as a reason not to build more housing, just like play space for kids. We should all keep in mind that there are always tradeoffs.

I think that parents, pet owners, and especially car owners can all forget about some of those tradeoffs at times, but maintaining a truly urban perspective means keeping those in mind.

Joanne Tang offered a modern model and some historical context:

Swampoodle Park is a pretty good model for how a park can be people- and dog-friendly without needing to exclude either. The whole park is for people but a smaller area is set aside for dogs. Apparently the first dog park started in Berkeley when a bunch of people “annexed” BART property in the 70s and used it as a dog park until the city made it official in the 80s.

As did Connor Waldoch:

To tie it all way back into human development, dogs are one of if not the first species domesticated by humans (something like 13-30 thousand years ago, agriculture is only ~10k years old). This has interesting implications in terms of co-evolution and the potential benefits that we still accrue from dog proximity even if they are burdensome in a modern urban setting.

A very good dog sleeping at Washington National Cathedral. Image by SullyDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Cat person/provocateur Alex Baca adds,

Overall, parks need to be programmed to reach their full possible health/wellness benefits — which is both naturally easier and less formally necessary when the parks themselves are smaller.

Dog parks are different — I get it. I'm not crazy about their single-use-ness, and I am biased in my pet preferences (my extremely domesticated cat is camped out on my lap as I write this). Still: Practically, I get the social role that dogs can play in cities, and I of course understand that dog parks are one part of that landscape.

There are obviously issues around access, but JetBlue's JFK terminal (post-security) has a dog walk; if that's possible, surely so is some sort of new format for this dog park. Taken with the theory that humans need less green space than they think they do (or claim they do in order to block development, a real and deeply disappointing thing), it seems like this Park View site could be built out — if the grates are accounted for — and dog stuff could be accommodated either on the same site or at another.

We should also be looking for places to reclaim space from cars for humans and dogs alike.

Sean Maiwald says,

I love dogs! Seeing one on my way to class or work always makes my day. I also understand the social aspect of going to dog parks, waking around, meeting people through that. Some friends of mine are able to have side income through school by dog-walking and dog-sitting, so that's a plus.

I do think that we need to have a conversation about the spaces and resources dogs occupy and ask ourselves if it's equitable and appropriate along the lines of earlier comments of 'best possible use.' Playing devil's advocate here, I do think the question needs to be raised — are we taking away space that could be used for affordable housing and housing in general for dogs?

In some situations it seems to be that dogs are being valued over people, especially people from lower socioeconomic status or even minority groups. There's a lot of layers to unpack here, so all of this is a super generalized statement, but having domesticated animals is such a privilege when some people can't afford a roof over their heads.

Kelli Raboy points out that a huge percentage of the population are Team Dog:

About 40 percent of US households have dogs. Saying dogs don't have a place in cities is essentially saying that 40 percent of households have no place in cities. How is this any different from saying that families with children don't belong in cities? That playgrounds are a waste of space?

It doesn't mean that's the best use of this space, but as major constituents in all cities, dog owners' needs should at least be considered in land use decisions.

Oodles of dachshunds. Image by Caroline Angelo used with permission.

Bryan Barnett-Woods shared this article (and this pun):

Strong Towns posted this article on dog ownership and the need for a car. Maybe dogs are good for a large…muttropolitan area like DC.

In the pro-pooch camp, Scott Kaiser says,

“Dogs don't belong in cities” is the same line of thinking as “kids don't belong in cities” or “bikes don't belong on our roads” etc, etc. I moved to DC with an 80lb lab/small bear precisely because DC is such a great city to have a dog.

As urbanists we should be searching for ways to accommodate everyone. A city that can achieve this balance is a city I want to live in. Is it easy? No, but we shouldn't be discounting anybody if we are seeking to be inclusive.

We'll let contributor Veronica Davis have the last word from a Pecha Kucha she gave in 2016 in favor of a livable, walkable, and poopable city:

 


Julie Strupp is Greater Greater Washington's Managing Editor. She's a journalist committed to building inclusive, equitable communities and finding solutions. Previously she's written for DCist, Washingtonian, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and others. You can usually find her sparring with her judo club, pedaling around the city, or chatting with her neighbors on her Columbia Heights stoop.