November 17, 2020

Five reasons dog parks build brighter communities part two

Public Space and Land Art

Article By

Until this year, I had never owned a dog. Now I’m the stepmother to a husky crossed with a myriad of other dog breeds. Her name is June, and she’s a handful.

If you didn’t know she was five years old, you could assume she was still a puppy. She zigs, and she zags when she walks and her ability to turn into the She-Hulk whenever a bunny catches her eye would lead one to believe she had yet to attend puppy school. Of course, she had, and yes, she failed.

I love June though. She’s sweet, and when she gets her belly rubbed, her tongue falls out the left side of her mouth like she’s dead. Yes, she’s one sprightly and happy doggo.

As part of my step-motherly duties, I often walk her, whether that’s through Middle Gate and into West Broadway, or tag along with my partner to the dog park. We started taking a short road trip to Charleswood (my old hood!) to the dog park on Roblin Boulevard.

This December, we will move into a loft in the Exchange. The Exchange’s sidewalks don’t provide the same freedom to June as West Broadway’s did. Now, she will move to a harness and shorter leash. We live on the West side of the Exchange, a few blocks and one main street (literally Main Street) and then another few blocks before we reach some ample green space on the other side of Waterfront Drive.

It’s not horrible, but it’s certainly not great either. Going outside in the dead of winter is never an easy task, but it’s nice to think there is a destination in these walks with June. One where she can roam free-range, and I can be outside in the company of strangers again.

At the dog park, we would walk the course about half a dozen times, watching June try to steal other dog’s toys or attempting to socialize with other dog’s who were playing together. During these times, I often thought of my coworker, Kristen Struthers, who’s on maternity leave right now, and her work designing dog parks and writing about them for our newsletter.

In one article, she wrote about the benefits these parks can bring to dogs and humans in the context of the communities we live. Kristen applies her urban studies to how people use streets and areas to engage with one another when a dog park is part of the neighbourhood fabric.

In Five reasons dog parks build brighter communities, she lists “community interactions”, “meeting new people”, “a gathering place”, “increased safety” and “low cost and low maintenance” as the motivation to including a dog park in master plans.

Using Kristen’s points, I will apply them to the neighbourhood my partner, and I are moving to in December: the Exchange District. This neighbourhood would benefit considerably from a dog park as I know lots of dog owners who live there and often have to travel outside their community for open spaces.

So, let's see how a dog park could enhance a great neighbourhood even more, shall we!

Community interactions

At the dog park in Charleswood, even without digging any deeper, we would have a sense of communion with other owners. We would overhear someone yell to their dog who was yapping loudly and buzzing to chase after other dogs, “Charles! You always do this when we come to THIS park.” My partner and I would then look at each and laugh, knowing what she meant as we watched June take a far-left while all the other dogs took a sharp right.

Being outside is safer than being inside because it’s more natural to social distance. However, what’s even more significant, is that you’re with other people again. Albeit they are strangers and you may never speak, you know you have something in common with them—other than living through a pandemic—which is a dog.

I crave seeing other people, smiling at other people, hearing other people’s voices. It’s a glimmer of pre-2020 when the biggest thing we talked about was President Trump’s impeachment. But I digress. Being in the company of others, even without speaking, remains a comforting facet of life. Moreover, the Exchange District is a neighbourhood that would thrive with increased community interactions and eyes on the street.

Meeting new people

"The 11 off-leash areas in the city are treated more as destinations or regional parks, accessible by vehicle and not by foot. These larger parks are lovely spaces to spend a few hours in, but we are missing the community level spaces that you stop at a few times during the week and interact with your neighbours."

Meeting new people in your area helps with safety, comfort and our sense of place. These characteristics are the foundation of community building, getting to know your neighbours and feeling comfortable in your surroundings.

I know that it would feel great to get to know the people who live in your neighbourhood, strengthening our ties to the community and one another. Not to mention, your built-in commonality, which helps build the bridges to acquaintances and then, quite possibly, even friends.

A gathering place

What the Exchange needs is for people to stay put. Grab a coffee or treat from local businesses in the area instead of grabbing a McDonald’s coffee on the way to a dog park in the suburbs. What’s more, this could become a destination for suburbanites as well, bringing people from all over the city to downtown.

Even with beautiful architecture and walkable destinations (once you're in the neighbourhood), the Exchange District like the rest of Downtown Winnipeg does have its foot traffic considerably reduced in the evenings and weekends.

Dog parks don't have set hours, and neither does a dog's playtime hours. The creation of destination places remains a critical component of communities. Even though the Exchange District boasts some of the best cuisine and entertainment spots in the city, these places cater to only a few demographics.

Keeping residents in the area and expanding its programming to bring non-residents will also help our next point significantly.

Increased safety

This radius of turn-of-the-20th-century architecture and brutalist buildings has at times experienced low foot traffic on weekends and evenings, living with an “unsavoury” reputation when the sun goes down, according to many Winnipeggers.

Misconceptions, that stem from empty streets, can be solved by the inclusion of a dog park. Part of the Exchange’s troublesome reputation comes from not enough people being around to hold one another accountable.

Now, while this sounds somewhat Big Brother—it’s not. No one is calling a government tip line. Instead, it's the safety that crowds bring to public spaces. In other words, Kristen writes, “The off-leash areas are well used from early in the morning to late at night, year-round. Even on the coldest days, you can always find a few brave souls and their pups in the park. There are not many other park programs that can guarantee that amount of activity from such a diverse demographic and age group. This constant activity increases the perceived safety of the space.”

Low-cost and low maintenance

The Exchange District is a highly walkable neighbourhood with an abundance of surface parking lots that frankly, are not being used right now. While a permanent dog park is a dream, why not take elements of tactical urbanism and create a “pop-up one” instead. As part of Kristen’s reasoning to include them is how little they cost to construct. It’s a fenced-in area, sometimes with mounds, sometimes with different spaces for small dogs and big dogs and even a tree or two, but not necessary.

As you know, I’m not fond of surface parking lots. I find them eyesores, like MAGA hats and chewed gum. And since we’re in the middle of a lockdown, probably for the foreseeable picture, why not rethink our spaces to make them friendlier to people and pups?

Conclusion

“To be clear, I am not saying that dogs are necessary to create a safe, personable and prideful neighbourhood. However, the types of interactions that dogs can evoke most definitely are. Public spaces such as dog parks, green spaces, sports fields are essential to a healthy community, and we should never stop encouraging the use and creation of them.”

Just like the Stark mantra, winter is coming, and if we can’t lower our daily case count, it means the lockdown is here to stay.

As you can tell, all this extra time has me thinking about how underutilized spaces are in Downtown Winnipeg. What we need to think about are short term and long term opportunities to transform currently underutilized spaces into destinations that can safely distance people in a pandemic.

So, if anyone reading this lives in the Exchange, care to start a petition for a dog park to replace one of the surface parking lots? Please comment below!