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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Should urban planners care about dogs?

Fundamental to urban life is the ability for many people to live together in close proximity. Minimizing the nuisances that residents cause their neighbors is one of the most constant sources of friction and frustration. How dogs fit into this delicate balance is an interesting question. My contention is that despite a few challenges, dogs help draw together communities. We need to start considering the living conditions and infrastructure for dogs more fully and deliberately in urban planning.

First, we might consider how dogs could be nuisances to neighbors. After all, this has largely been the primary focus of governmental actions regarding pets for decades. So, how can the presence of dogs cause problems?
  • Biting
  • Spreading disease
  • Barking or whining
  • Pooping on the sidewalk
  • Killing plants with excessive amounts of urine
The first two items on the list are essentially non-issues today. They do require ongoing regulation and enforcement, but adequate measures have long been in place.  Licensing requirements established decades ago have effectively eliminated stray dogs. Significant concerns about disease are also well controlled with the vaccination requirements that come with licensing. Aggressive dogs can and do show up from time to time, but well-established responsibilities of dog owners keep this to a minimum. In all but the most rare cases, aggressive dogs are a deliberate product of antisocial owners who may find some other way to pose a threat to the public if denied the opportunity to keep their mean dog.

Barking and whining are still problems that occur with some frequency. Laws for the humane treatment of animals helps keep the worst of it in check, but there are certainly urban residents who suffer from a lack of peace and quiet due to a noisy dog next door or upstairs. In some cases, the offending noise from a dog is short-lived while a new canine resident arrives and has not yet become comfortable with the routines of the new home. 

Of all the problems, dog waste on the sidewalk is certainly the worst. Few things are more offensive than stepping in dog poop; it is unsurprising ranks at the top of quality of life complaints. In a desperate attempt to reign in the problem, signs exhorting owners to pick up the poop are installed by just about everybody (public agencies, non-profit organizations, private property owners, etc.). 

Closely associated is the concern about urine. Too many dogs relieving themselves on the same plants can become a threat to the limited sidewalk vegetation and small parks in some urban neighborhoods. Clearly, dog wastes are an issue that require additional attention to develop more effective solutions.

Dogs figure prominently in the
sense of community depicted at      
entrances to the Kingfield
neighborhood in Minneapolis
If there are problems associated with living with dogs, there must be some reason we continue to do it. When Manhattan residents with demanding schedules and small apartments still make room and time for their canine companion, it is clear that dogs are a permanent part of our social wellbeing.

The consensus in the medical community that dogs provide stress-reducing benefits for their human companions is well known. It is not necessary delving into it here. What is more interesting is the positive effects dog ownership can have on urban communities. 

Dog runs create neighbors. Dogs are social animals, and their interactions have the interesting effect of strengthening the social bonds within human communities. Strangers who take their dog down to the local dog run generally end up speaking with other dog owners, largely as a direct and sometimes unavoidable result of the interactions between their dogs. As the humans' work hours and the canine companions' daily needs establish relatively regular schedules, dog owners end up talking to each other on a regular basis. The result is a network of individuals sharing a significant space within the neighborhood, where community news is exchanged and sometimes real advocacy campaigns can be born. Part of what is so remarkable about the communities that form around dog runs is their diversity; people from the widest range of backgrounds (ethnic, economic, etc.) often find themselves drawn together because their dogs don't care about human prejudices.
It seems likely that providing more adequate dog runs would do a great deal to address the issues that come with dogs in dense urban neighborhoods. By and large, dog runs have been sited in the marginal, left-over portions of parks. I am aware of no substantive urban planning for dog runs anywhere.

My casual observations lead me to suspect that there is less dog poop on the sidewalks in areas that are served with a dog run. A research study would be very interesting. Is there actually a verifiable difference in behavior? I could speculate on reasons why: dog owners do not want the disapproval of their social circle at the dog run, or owners who really did just forget their bags have better access to them when their dogs relieve themselves at a dog run, or there is reciprocity in respect when dog owners feel their needs are not neglected. It would be great to explore these hypotheses. Moreover, I fully expect that improved access to dog runs would improve some of the issues with dogs that bark, and particularly those that whine, by creating the conditions where they would be more likely to get the exercise and stimulation they need.

Designated locations for dogs 
to relieve themselves, called 
"canisites," have been in use in 
France for many years

  (Image above via

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Ultimately, we need to bring these needs into our urban planning. We should be identifying locations for dog runs based on demographic needs, rather than just squeezing them into residual spaces in response to pressure from local dog owners. We should develop more appropriate infrastructure for dog waste, and a review and consideration of the French "canisites" would be a good starting point. That is not to say it will be easy; discussions about dog runs and dog poop are contentious and will continue to be so. Negotiating the uses of public space are never easy (just consider the recent heat about bike share programs!). At the end of the day, though, we will all benefit if these decisions can be guided through planning work instead of one-off advocacy campaigns, the vagaries of public pressure, and the misinformation that is so commonplace when the process is driven by the media and strong, yet often uninformed, personal opinions.

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