From the thin shade of a pine tree at Laurel Canyon Dog Park beneath the mansion-lined Mulholland Drive, Amber Freeman, a contractor for a local dog-walking company, keeps an eye on her 30 canine charges. At least six other walking services have also set up shop 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. “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.
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 29 percent nationwide in the past decade, an increase propelled largely by higher-income millennials. With demand growing, cities and developers are building more dog-friendly zones both in response to and in anticipation of more four-legged residents. 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 City & Regional Planning at the College of Environmental Design. “In my view, they actually deserve, as residents, space for living their own lives.”
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 four-legged citizens to roam and exercise, socialize and play. For owners, too, her research has shown dog parks to be important social mixing grounds for people from different neighborhoods and backgrounds who wouldn’t otherwise meet.
Laurel Canyon Dog Park, where Freeman and her fellow walkers roam, was L.A.’s very first: It opened in 1991 and was the subject of one of Wolch’s early studies. In it, she charted the transformation of the tucked-away space from a graffitied drug market to a cleaned-up space for pets, driven by a group of neighborhood activists.
Resistance to dog parks takes on a different tenor when animals seem to displace humans in housing-crunched cities. When young, white, affluent dog owners snap up properties in historically lower-income neighborhoods of color—and start advocating for amenities like dog parks, which can bump up property values further—the optics are complicated.
Take the uproar in Philadelphia’s fast-gentrifying Point Breeze neighborhood, where the number of dog licenses increased sixfold from 2012 to 2015. Scant green space is available to the historically black neighborhood, and one that does exist—Wharton Square Playground—is off-limits to dogs. As the Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, a push among new residents to convert a “currently inoperable, fenced-in tennis court” into a dog park was killed after longtime residents balked at what they saw as less room for their kids to play—and another encroachment by newcomers.
“People have been living here over 100 years and had a playground; now new people want to come in and change things. It didn’t seem right,” Alex Brown, a longtime Point Breeze resident and dog owner himself, told the Inquirer. “Go ahead and walk your dogs. But it just isn’t right for people to think they can just come in and take over.”
Wolch goes on to state that while the challenges of gentrification can’t be discounted, nobody wins when the discourse around dog parks is about kids-versus-pups. “If you make dog parks a villain of gentrification, you’re saying to people that live in these communities who are not gentrifiers that their dogs don’t deserve a place to play,” she says. “It’s kind of an unacceptable position. Everyone you share a city with has to have some ethical consideration.”
Consider that, on Chicago’s predominantly black South Side, there’s not a single designated dog park, despite the efforts of local dog-owners and city aldermen. To address the needs of lower-income communities like this—as well as gentrifying ones—planners should approach dog parks as they do any other, says Wolch: listen to, and account for, their needs in an open way. To mitigate the displacement effects of a property value pick-up, affordable housing solutions should come to the dog-park planning table, too.