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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Dogs breed neighborhood civility, so why can’t we all just get along?

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 23, 2009

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  heading out for a walk (from Depot Walk in Orange CA, by coincidence a LEED-ND certified neighborhood (by: Tom Arthur, creative commons licence)  family outing in the dog park (by: BL 1961/Beverly, creative commons license)

I had an unhappy camper in my office yesterday.  I was in a decent mood (for the office, heh), too, so this was a drag in some ways.  His conversation opener was "I'm here to vent."

G is a city dweller and urbanist who gets it about the things we discuss on this blog.  It's not his professional field - he's in a different branch of the enviro world - but he cares.  We talk about neighborhoods and cities all the time, when we're not talking about cycling or work.  But yesterday G was edgy and discouraged, and I think rightfully so, because some of the neighbors in his diverse, mixed-income, great neighborhood - just the kind that we want to thrive and continue improving - are all exorcised about the use of a vacant lot in the 'hood as a dog park.

a dog park opens in Davis, CA (by: Bev Sykes, creative commons license)And it's actually worse than that.  The issue is being turned into a divisive, racially tinged dispute being bitterly fought over the community's listserv.  I think what G's neighbors are really upset about isn't the dog park per se but neighborhood change and a sense of powerlessness in their lives.  I think most of us can sympathize with that.  But it's become a matter of pride for some folks to resist even something as simple as a playground or a place where neighbors can gather with their pooches, if it is seen as something that the newer residents, like G, might enjoy.

This is a damn shame, because G is the most conscientious person in the world when it comes to matters of diversity and respect.  He likes his neighbors.  But this is gnawing at him, in part because he knows it's not just about the dog park, really, and now he's even talking about giving up and leaving the city.  For G, it's a matter of whether he feels welcome on his own block, in his own home, with his family.  My prediction is that something positive will come along and knock this bit of negativity down a rung, and G, his neighbors and the community will all find better days together.  But he isn't buying it this week.

Which brings me to a thoughtful post written about this very subject (albeit in a different neighborhood) by my favorite local blogger, Richard Layman:

"On the [xyz bulletin board] there has been spirited discussion about 'dog parks' in public spaces, which some see as a plot by whitey somehow--not stated directly but definitely seen as an unwelcome sign of neighborhood change, along with yoga studios  and restaurants selling Tex-Mex cuisine.

"I am not a dog person myself, but I am deeply appreciative of well-managed dog parks because in many urban neighborhoods, dog owners are some of the only regularly walking people in a community--many neighborhoods outside of the inner core of Washington are dominated by automobiles and there is relatively little positive pedestrian activity on often empty sidewalks.

dogs mingle in a NYC park (by: Natalie Maynor, creative commons license)"Dog walkers contribute positive activity not just to streets and sidewalks but to parks. It's very easy for a park to devolve into a dangerous place. One technique for people committed to disorder to keep people (especially families and children generally) out of parks is to break a lot of bottles--broken glass keeps a park free of children, making it easier to conduct illicit business and activities.

"Dog walkers help rebuild neighborhood groups committed to providing support and focus to neighborhood parks--parks that often are willfully or passively neglected by municipal governments overwhelmed by a variety of responsibilities, and lacking the resources to be able to provide regular maintenance and assistance and supervision."

I'm with Richard.  I don't own a dog myself and, as a cyclist, I'm not overly fond of their owners when dogs are unleashed where I'm riding.  But dedicated spaces like dog parks help, and I've learned that most city dogs are pretty cool about cyclists, anyway.  It's out in the countryside that things can get dicey.

But, good heavens, people of all stripes can and do enjoy pets and neighborhood pocket parks.  Dogs, and baby strollers, and schools, and bicycles for that matter, are things that bring people into contact with each other - that help turn a neighborhood into a community.  Though I do understand some of the underlying reasons, it seems really, really counterproductive to resist that.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Randy SimesJul 23 2009 05:58 PM

Jan Gehl wrote about social activities in regards to three types - Optional, Necessary, and Resultant. Necessary activities are those that people must do like work, school or errands. Optional are choice activities and Resultant are those that happen as a result of one of the other two.

Of these Optional activities generate the most social interaction which then causes longer staying times in public spaces for people. At the same time, these are the most difficult to attract as they demand high quality public spaces. Walking the dog is an Optional activity as the need could be taken care of in a simpler way that doesn't involve walking throughout the neighborhood or engaging ones neighbors. When these activities occur we should be doing everything in our power to grow and preserve them as it creates a more dynamic, active, safe and friendly urban space.

Richard LaymanJul 24 2009 04:31 PM

A private email to me about the thread in my blog commented that some people are upset by DC Recreation policies, currently focused on privatizing the provision of afterschool activities. So that some people see this as a diversion of public resources to higher income people and away from lower income people.

I can see the anger about priorities, but they are not the same issue.

And if G is upset about this, and I understand why he might be, I don't know if he's gonna be able to get his 10 year pin or 20 year pin awards for living in the center city... In other words, it gets a lot harder, the only thing that keeps me going is a belief that deep down everyone wants a better city, a better city on every block.

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