Sports Facilities

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Dog Parks are the New Sports Fields – and Cities Are Building Them Instead

8 Jan, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

A middle school in Florida won’t be getting the athletic fields it asked for. A dog park is going in instead.

The Parks Department in Boynton Beach was working with the Palm Beach County School District to provide the new middle school, still in the planning stages, with athletic fields, according to an article in the Ocala Star-Banner. Those negotiations, however, fell apart over funding issues and when they did, the Parks Department quickly replaced plans for the athletic fields with plans for the dog park.

If event owners are surprised by this, they shouldn’t be. Dog parks are one of the top amenities going into communities nationwide, and one of the most in-demand. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) recently quoted a report from the Trust for Public Land, showing that the presence of dog parks in cities is up a whopping 89 percent since 2007.

And just in case you were wondering: The cities with the most dog parks per resident are Henderson, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; Norfolk, Virginia; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Madison, Wisconsin. In other words, it’s pretty much a coast-to-coast phenomenon.

Replacing current athletic facilities with dog parks – or choosing to install dog parks instead – is a phenomenon that stretches far beyond Boynton Beach. In Michigan, officials in Marysville decided to turn a ball field into a dog park that would be free for residents’ use. According to Mayor Dan Damman, it was a matter of balancing the interest of multiple users – and as he saw it, athletes already had plenty of no-cost places to play.

“It’s similar to the boat launch and some of the other things we’ve done, and ... we’ve worked so diligently throughout the course of the last six years to provide opportunity for our parks for a multitude of different interests. Whether it’s fishing or swimming or pickleball or bicycling or basketball, or whatever that is … and we eradicated the parking fee, we’ve eradicated the boat launch fee, we’ve really made these parks accessible.”

It's fast becoming a political selling point, too. In College Park, Maryland, District 1 Councilperson Kate Kennedy was re-elected with the promise of a dog park as part of her platform. The dog park has not materialized yet, but she is lobbying hard to make it happen. There are five baseball fields in College Park’s first district and more in the surrounding area, she said, and the dog park could replace a softball field.

In Jones County, Georgia, about $60,000 in SPLOST funds helped turn what used to be a sports field into a walking path, a pavilion with benches – and a dog park.

Of course, it begs the question: Dog parks don’t generate tourism income, put heads in beds or drive users into restaurants. So why are they going in at the cost of sports venues? Easy: The presence of a dog park is a key economic development engine (it's just a different type of engine). In fact, it can make a huge difference as to where a family chooses to locate.

In almost every case, the demand for dog parks is created by a very vocal group of local residents who believe there are enough ball fields, swimming pools and sports complexes, but not enough amenities for dogs. And say what you will about priorities; the demand has given rise to organizations designed to guide dog park enthusiasts along; one of these, Dog Park USA, publishes a nearly 600-page manual on the development, design and construction, as well as maintenance, of dog parks, and offers information on consulting services to help communities with their plans. It has also created an economy of turf manufacturers, architects and others who market their products to cities who want to set up dog parks.

Of course, there are those who would rather see dog owners simply walk their pets on leashes instead of having special spaces constructed for them; however, the pragmatic view is this: creating a dog park decreases the chance of people using ball fields and unfenced park space to let their dogs run free, with unfortunate consequences. And as officials have noted, if other park users are intimidated by dogs or if the dogs’ owners don’t clean up, it generates friction – and even more problemsin Chevy Chase, Maryland, a fairly new dog park was taken out after neighbors repeatedly complained of excessive noise and parking problems. (No word as to what the area will host next).

The rising presence of dog parks has also generated discussion about the fact that lower-income areas get dog parks with fewer amenities, while more moneyed areas have more deluxe models. (Sound familiar?) Denver’s Dog Park Master Plan determined that more dog parks are needed, but also that the installation had to be sensitive to gentrification. In Maryland, a Baltimore City park handed over a tennis court (hard surface and all) for off-leash dog use, whereas in more moneyed Howard County, a community received an enormous, staffed, double-gated dog park, complete with drinking fountains, landscaping, climbing features and boxes of tennis balls and throwers for visitors to use.

In fact, the drive to build bigger and better dog parks has become an arms race to rival that of cities who are putting in sports venues. Right now, Austin, Texas, is top dog with the construction of Canine Commons, an indoor center with an off-leash park, walking track, coffee shop, Wi-Fi and other amenities.

The news website, Greater Greater Washington (GGW), noted that even the nation’s capital had managed to put in a dog park costing at least a half-million dollars, without upgrading the playground, soccer field, basketball courts and other amenities adjacent to it.

“Very few longtime African American dog owners use the park, and there is a perception that this newcomer amenity has been preferred over other local recreational spaces,” noted GGW. “At the time of the dog park’s construction, no resources were dedicated to other amenities, which were in desperate need of upgrading. The soccer goals were askew, and the field was mainly dirt. The basketball courts had not been renovated since at least 1997, when DC’s professional basketball team changed its name from the Bullets, as indicated by the faded Bullets logo on the court’s worn surface. Yet while soccer fields and basketball courts, which are often used by Hispanics and African Americans, are neglected, newcomer amenities are developed and upgraded.”

Despite the political problems, the uptick in dog park construction – and the trend of cities choosing those parks over sports facilities – shows no sign of slowing. In a separate trend, apartment complexes are filling in swimming pools and creating off-leash dog areas. (A study from the National Apartment Association found dog parks at the top of a list of community influencers, even ahead of fitness centers).

The advantages to removing the pool in this case are manifold. More Americans are owning dogs and are seeking dog-friendly places to live. Fewer apartment management organizations want the liability of a swimming pool, nor the costs of running, maintaining it or staffing it. In many areas, a dog park could get year-round use (or at least use in more than one season), whereas a swimming pool can be an attraction only in the summer months. The dog park is the stronger marketing tool and the one more likely to keep residents renewing their leases from year to year.

Even if there isn’t dog park tourism, it’s obvious there is a dog park-driven economy, and everyone wants a piece of it.

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