Illinois Dog Park Survey

Illinois Dog Park Survey

Peter Dyke

Off leash dog facilities provide an attractive environment where dog owners can exercise their dogs. The social experience also extends to the human side of the equation.

Parks serve multiple purpose: they provide an escape from the realities of everyday life, a chance to unwind and be with nature at its bucolic best. Parks also exist as social gathering places where friends can get together to play a game of touch football or softball, or as place to bring man’s best friend, his dog.

This has become more common as dog ownership has exploded in the United States, and is evidenced by the proliferation of dog parks opening across the country in recent years. From San Francisco to Seattle to Minneapolis, park districts are setting aside open space in existing parks or developing stand-alone dog parks where dogs can run off-leash.

The reasons that park districts are looking at developing dog parks are twofold: first and foremost, park districts see dog parks as a way to bring order to an existing park system. In many parks, conflicts between dogs and people are becoming more common every day, with numerous incidents of dogs biting people and dogs scaring them away from the parks. Dogs can also cause other problems that infringe upon peoples’ enjoyment of parks, such as dog waste and noise, but dog parks give districts more control over the situation by reducing these potential conflicts and separating dog owners and non-dog owners.

On the other hand, many parks around the country enforce policies that prohibit dogs in parks or permit them only if they are leashed. Because of this, dog owners feel as though they are being squeezed out of the existing parks, and are becoming more vocal in their desire for more land dedicated to off-leash dog use. This is the second reason that several Illinois park districts are developing dog parks.

What impact have the dog parks had on existing park systems and what does this movement mean for the future? To better understand this new trend in park design, Thompson Dyke & Associates in Northbrook, Illinois recently conducted a survey of 139 Illinois park districts to obtain their opinions on dog parks. Survey respondents were divided into three main categories: Park districts that had a dog park, park districts that did not have a dog park, and park districts that were considering developing a dog park.

Of the 70 Illinois park districts that responded to the survey, 10 of them already had dog parks. For the most part, these parks have been enthusiastically received by their communities. According to the park districts, the dog parks have provided a safe, off-leash environment where people can bring their pets. Also, by bringing a positive attribute to their communities, the park districts are reaping the benefits of good public relations.

One of the main issues for developing dog parks is location, which can mean the difference between success or failure. Many existing dog parks in Illinois are either sub-areas of larger nature preserves or separate, standalone dog parks. Most Illinois park districts have incorporated dog parks into their existing park systems by setting aside a separate section of their parks for off-leash dog use. While dogs are not allowed in one area of the park, in another section dogs are allowed on a leash and in another section dogs are allowed off-leash. This has led to confusion over park rules, as different rules apply to each section of the park.

Such is the case at a dog park in Hinsdale, Illinois, where there are no physical boundaries to separate the dog park from the rest of the park. This has resulted in some user conflicts, where people leave the off-leash dog areas and go into areas where dogs must be on leash. Although the dog park does have fencing, this has not solved the problem. According to the park district, the community response to the dog park has been generally negative because of the various user conflicts.

A potential solution to these confusing separations may be physical boundaries, such as a wetland or a ditch, separating the different areas. A dog park in Waukegan, Illinois is surrounded by a wetland and a bike path. These physical features make it easier to separate non-dog owners in the park, such as bicyclists, and dog owners. Additionally, the park is surrounded by a three-rail split cedar fence, which also helps keep the park users separated; according to the Waukegan Park District, the community response to the dog park has been quite positive.

Ultimately, unless parks can develop a better policy to enforce rules regarding where people can bring their dogs, the solution might be to build a stand-alone dog park. This eliminates the possibility altogether of user conflicts among parkgoers, and provides a separate, safe, off-leash environment where people can bring their pets. Several Illinois Park Districts have developed stand-alone dog parks, including the City of Chicago, which has several in the Lincoln Park area, and they have done a good job acting as social gathering points for their communities.

As people become more demanding, the park districts must act accordingly to provide a wide range of amenities in their dog parks. Among the typical amenities found in Illinois dog parks are shade trees, picnic tables, benches, dog swimming areas, trails, and a dog playground. While the basic function of the dog park is to act as a place where people and dogs can socialize with each other, more and more park districts are incorporating dog exercise areas into their parks so people can train and exercise their dogs.

Illinois park districts are also becoming more creative in the design of dog parks for incorporating varied events and activities. A dog park at the DuPage County Forest Preserve features dog agility trials and tracking tests. While most Illinois dog parks don’t offer programmed events, this idea is an untapped resource that could catch on and include such things as races, contests, and guest speakers. Park districts are looking to provide a fun environment in their dog parks, where people can enjoy a sense of community with others who share their love of dogs. Tom Cook, a member of a citizen’s advisory panel in Minneapolis said that “the socialization people acquire (at a dog park) is no different then what banjo players, Shriners, or nuclear physicists feel after attending a conference of their own people.” Dog owners get together with other people who have similar interests, resulting in a bonding experience among them.

Fourteen of the Illinois park districts that responded to the survey (20 percent), are considering developing a dog park, due mainly to community support from dog owners. Community involvement is a key element that will more then likely dictate whether or not a park district will decide to build a dog park. The goal is not to force this new type of park on the community, but to listen, and to move ahead on the issue if there is a need and local support. One park district gave the go-ahead to a dog park because of “strong, vocal support for an off-leash area from a segment of our residents.”

Community opposition also has to be taken into account. Three Illinois park districts currently considering developing a dog park have said that there has been organized opposition to a dog park. Among the issues that most concern community residents, according to the park districts, are the possibility of dog bites, noise, waste issues, and the fact that some people fear dogs. If one looks at the existing dog parks in Illinois, a way to soothe these fears might be to provide adequate fencing for these dog parks, as well as to separate them from other areas of parks and adjacent roads through the use of physical boundaries, like paths, creeks, and wetlands. This was handled well in a Lake County Forest Preserve District dog exercise area.

Forty-four (63 percent) out of the 70 Illinois park districts that responded to the survey are not considering developing a dog park in the future, due to several factors such as cost and safety issues, as well as a lack of community involvement and a lack of open space. One park district summed up the feelings of many when they responded “open space is considered very valuable–too valuable to use for other purposes.” Another said “It would appear to be a poor PR decision to build a dog park instead of a playground or skate park.”

Therein lies the problem. Dog parks are still a relatively new phenomenon that park districts are beginning to explore and consider. As they gradually become more common and gain acceptance in suburban and urban communities and park operation issues are resolved, park districts will become more comfortable with the idea of developing a dog park. As the number of people owning dogs increases every year, these citizens will suely demand a place where they can exercise their dogs off-leash. According to most of the Illinois park districts surveyed, existing dog parks have proven to be capable of satisfying dog owners’ desires to exercise their pets in a fun, unleashed environment.

Peter Dyke, AICP, is president of Thompson Dyke & Associates, and also serves on the Park Board of the Glencoe, Illinois Park District. Dyke received a 1994 honor award from the Illinois Association of Cities for his article on open space master planning and a 1996 honor award for the TD&A publication Trends, Cycles and Patterns. Michael Phillips is a planner with TD&A, Ltd. He has a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and much of his work has dealt with planning GIS applications. These authors explain the rise in demand for dog parks, and reveal the enlightening results of their survey of park districts.

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