The Politics of the Dog Park
Dogs are children for a growing number of Americans—and that’s putting new pressures on pup-friendly space.
- Laura Bliss
Dogs and humans enjoy a sunny afternoon at L.A.’s Sepulveda Basin Dog Park. Photo by Richard Vogel/AP Photo.
From the thin shade of a pine tree at Laurel Canyon Dog Park, Amber Freeman, a contractor for a local dog-walking company, keeps an eye on her 30 canine charges.
Two other co-workers have met her here to mind the pack, which they’ve picked up from neighborhoods all over Los Angeles. At least six other walking services have set up shop, too, letting dozens of animals frolic, tussle, and snooze in the grassless expanse. In the late morning, just a couple of owners have brought their own dogs.
The ratio of professional to “civilian” isn’t an accident. Freeman, who wears a leather hip holster and a bandana around her neck, doesn’t come here at any other time of day or on the weekends. And she and her colleagues only comes to this park, a four-acre dust bowl tucked beneath mansion-lined Mulholland Drive.
“Most other dog parks in the nice areas are ones we get run out of,” she says. Sometimes families with young kids are wary of the big packs of animals that the walkers bring; more often, Freeman says, local owners get territorial about the neighborhood space they feel is more “theirs.” So she avoids them.
This tension plays out in the park’s many anti-dog walker reviews on Yelp. “I’ve had several instances where dog-walkers have gotten very upset with me because of ‘my dog,’” wrote one user, “and what it comes down to is that I didn’t know the rules?”
It’s not surprising that relations between dog walkers and dog owners are fraught: They’re competing for finite real estate. Market research shows dog ownership has skyrocketed some 29 percent nationwide in the past decade, an increase propelled largely by higher-income millennials. As young adult professionals increasingly put off having families, dogs have become “starter children,” as Joshua Stephens wrote in The Atlantic in 2015. With demand growing, cities and developers are building more dog-friendly zones both in response to and in anticipation of more four-legged residents. Off-leash dog parks are growing faster than any other type of park in America’s largest cities, with 2,200 counted as of 2010.
And when square footage is at a premium, dog parks are the setting of some of the most contentious fights for public space.
“Cities are places where many millions of dogs live,” says Jennifer Wolch, dean and professor of planning at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. “In my view, they actually deserve, as residents, space for living their own lives.”
Amber Freeman, an L.A. dog walker, is on the job at Laurel Canyon Dog Park. Photo by CityLab/Laura Bliss.
Wolch, a pioneer in studies centered on urban relationships between people and animals, likes to use the term zoöpolis to help planners envision a multi-species city, where the needs of animals are incorporated more fully. Dog parks, in her view, are just another kind of civic infrastructure to accommodate a need—for furry citizens to roam and exercise, socialize and play. For owners, too, her research has shown dog parks to be important social mixing grounds, rare opportunities for people from different neighborhoods and backgrounds who wouldn’t otherwise meet to relate and bond through the avatars of their pets.