The dog park: more possibilities than you can shake a stick at.

Much like murals, bike lanes, and decorative sidewalk benches, the dog park has become a fundamental amenity in urban settings…and not just the alpha and beta cities. The gamma, delta, and yes, even the communities that many would hesitate to call a city—virtually all of them face escalating demand among constituents for a dog-themed playground of sorts. Since I’ve blogged about each of the first three amenities, I was due sooner or later to take a stab at the fourth. Though we may have little to no reason to visit a dog park, most of us at least know what they look like…right?

Not necessarily.

It’s not as simple as that, which is why these pet provisions have gotten a lot more interesting. As they’ve evolved from a novelty to a routine amenity, the standards for what constitutes a superlative dog park have morphed in tandem. The ascension of the dog parks at least partly reflects shifting constituent demand, but it also owes a great deal to collective reactions from previous mistakes—often leaning the hard way and facing the consequences through litigation. Unmaintained and unregulated dog parks have on occasion resulted in injuries, not just to people but to other dogs. It’s rare—perhaps even unheard of—for a municipally sponsored dog park to consist of a mere chain link fence, a gate and a scruffy patch of grass. These days, they have rules. Often lots of them.


IMG_4358The photo above comes from a prominently located dog park in Hamilton Park, the center of a neighborhood in Jersey City that shares the park’s name. The park itself has all the trappings of an urban space that America’s original urbanophile, Jane Jacobs (of The Death and Life of Great American Cities fame, among many other works), would have lauded. It broadly shares the built form, the mixture of uses, the population density, and the variety of building ages in common with her favorite civic plazas: places like Washington Square in Greenwich Village Manhattan or Rittenhouse Square in Center City Philadelphia. All the ingredients that encourage a thriving public space are fully visible in Hamilton Park. And, though my photos sadly fail to capture it, the park is filled with other perks:

IMG_4360IMG_4359Playgrounds, water features, a large gazebo…you name it. These recreational enhancements no doubt amplify the appeal to the park, but, as I cynically wrote about Campus Martius in downtown Detroit a few years ago, loading a small public space with allurements doesn’t always achieve the desired effect. That said, if a park already has the ingredients for vibrancy—the ingredients that Jacobs loved about Rittenhouse Square—it’ll probably enjoy a flourishing life and round-the-clock usage, regardless of the other trifles the local Parks and Rec Department installs. And Hamilton Park has got it in spades. And a dog park too.

Now, about that dog park…IMG_4353Long before they became ubiquitous, these canine communes enjoyed a vibrant life in busy urban centers…places like Hamilton Park in Jersey City. Affluent young urban professionals, who are as likely to own a dog as they are unlikely to spawn a child, naturally sought spaces for Fifi and Fido to roam, particularly given the scarcity of large, contained green spaces in most cities, where people rarely enjoy back yards of any great size. The dog park fulfilled that demand. And I suspect that the earliest dog parks consisted of little more than a chain-link fence, a gate, a possibly a low-lying faucet hooked to public water, for refilling the dog dish.

These days, they’re a lot more complicated. My first real experience with a dog park was in Greenwood, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis, which had an attractive space with an acre enclosed in reliable fencing.Dogpark 001Dogpark 002At the time of these photos, the park—about a year old in 2009—featured rudimentary obstacle courses for dogs, drinking fountains, and little baggies for picking up their poo. But it also had an fob-activated electronic gate, and the only way to get a fob (and thus to access the dog park) was to pay a monthly fee to Greenwood Parks and Recreation, while providing proof that the pooch was up-to-date in all the standard vaccinations (rabies, heartworm, distemper). But the dog-owners also had to prove their pets had received vaccinations against the less-common kennel cough, which any many cases required them to make a separate trip to the local veterinarian and incur an additional charge. Quite a few hoops to jump through. It didn’t seem to deter that many people, though, and on a comfortable summer day, one could usually find a handful of dog-owners with their pups (or two or three), giving plenty of opportunity for Manchester Terriers to romp with Miniature Schnauzers, along with Dobermans and Dachshunds.

After several visits, I came to the conclusion that the Greenwood dog park was successful enough, employing the public sector’s police power to promote health, safety and welfare of the dogs (and their owners) without getting so bureaucratic that it turned too many people off. Then again, I saw it during the summer days when the Greenwood dog park really proved itself; if the weather was less than ideal, attendance at the park was sparse or even non-existent. While some dogs can still enjoy running around with their owners in an enclosed space alone, it usually doesn’t stimulate them for more than a few minutes, so it defeats the purpose of exercise. Therefore, the Greenwood dog park appeared only a moderate success, exacerbated the fact that most people in the Greenwood area are homeowners with ample back yards…thus affording their dogs plenty of opportunity to run around on their own.

Jersey City’s Hamilton Park offers another spin on the canine compound.


The rules are extensive, yet many of them suggest that, unlike the one in Greenwood, they rely on honesty as the best policy. No fob-activated gate, no evidence of vaccinations, and anything bad that happens to or because of your dog is your responsibility. Other dog-owners get to vote the more aggressive dogs (or the less discipline-minded owners) off of the island. Collective policing. I suspect this works well enough; if it didn’t, and numerous dog-owners sued the City Parks and Recreation Department, we wouldn’t witness such a laissez-faire approach, at least not when I visited these spaces last summer.

The Hamilton Dog Run offers one serious catch:IMG_4354IMG_4355It sequesters the dogs by size. Two parks in one, and if you try to bring a Mastiff into the park reserved for Shih Tzus, you will inevitably encounter resistance by the remaining dog owners. The City probably determined that this basic sequestration helped preclude the overwhelming majority of dangerous canine confrontations. But also fosters an interesting and none-too-surprising dichotomy. During this particular visit, the small breed dog run wasn’t terribly busy, but at other times, it’s been slammed. A thriving space for bipeds and quadrupeds. Here it is on a clear off day:Hamilton Park dog park Jersey CityI’m happy this crowded neighborhood features a centralized place for the animals to run and play, but let’s get real here: it doesn’t take a good pair of eyes to see that the dogs behind the wrought-iron gate were well over the 23-pound limit. So these people were breaking a fundamental rule; so much for that community policing.

Meanwhile, what about that large breed dog run?IMG_4356Not vibrant at all. Only one person and her bored-looking pooch just sitting there. My initial speculation would have been that the small breed dog run is more popular because of the urban setting, the smaller housing units, and the tendency for city folk to gravitate toward smaller breeds. But clearly that isn’t always the case, and it still doesn’t explain why most of the dog owners in the small breed dog run where willfully bringing their medium-sized or even large dogs behind the gates.

My pic doesn’t easily capture it, but the true dog-lover should be able to spot the reality. The single dog in the large breed dog run was a Chow Chow, or at least a Chow mix. Not only do adult Chows clearly exceed the 23-pound threshold, they have a reputation for aggression—not just with humans but other dogs. Unflaggingly loyal to their immediate masters but often no one else, Chows routinely fall onto regulatory lists of dangerous dog breeds, sometimes resulting in outright bans, depending on the municipality. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the other dog owners saw the Chow and intuitively sought the small run dog park in order to avoid any altercations. Thus, we witness a violation of a rule in the best interest of all parties involved.

I clearly captured the Hamilton Park dog park at a distinctive moment unlikely to replicate itself any time soon. If I had visited an hour later, I might have seen the two fenced-in areas operating exactly as they should, with equally vigorous use among dogs large and small, appropriately separated by iron. Regardless of what happens at this tiny partitioned plaza, it effectively demonstrates a variety of concurrent social signals, operating largely as one might expect. First of all, city folks will inevitably demand a well-managed and maintained dog park to a greater extent than their suburban or rural counterpart; almost all Jersey City’s denizens lack any yards to speak of. Secondly, the dog park represents an extension of what people crave in most urban spaces in general: an ecosystem that promotes random spontaneous encounters, not just between carefully monitored dogs but their masters. Well-honed urban environments achieve this in general (per Jane Jacobs); dog parks simply sharpen the focus. In this day and age, especially among yuppie types who dominate at Hamilton Park, dog owners voluntarily commune to exchange further signals about their tastes, professions, personality characteristics and even income levels, specifically by what type of breed they own. A dog park functions as a meet-up group, even if the rules at Hamilton Park specifically forbid them. Lastly, these breeds signal compatibility among the dogs themselves. In the example above, almost anyone with basic dog breed literacy could recognize a Chow Chow, and most know enough about how the Chow Chow’s teddy-bear-like appearance belies its often aggressive and distrusting personality.

I suspect that this Jersey City dog park has avoided most of the litigation that has largely transformed these whimsical spaces into a morass of different regulatory experiments, but even if it eventually gets as bureaucratic as the dog park in Greenwood, the well-heeled neighbors will shell out the money so they can take their pets there. After all, they have no other choice if they occasionally want to let their dogs run around off-leash; there’s no other big, open, enclosed space. The only condition that might cause these dog parks to fade is if a large, aggressive breed becomes super-trendy. But, as of July 2017, the dog breed du jour remains a goofy, friendly, stubborn, generally unthreatening French Bulldog. No harm no foul.

7 thoughts on “The dog park: more possibilities than you can shake a stick at.

  1. Astara

    We visited an adorable dog park in Ithaca, NY a month or so ago. It was lush and green with 2 sets of gates to ensure excited pups cannot escape. It also featured a small and large division, but unlike the park described in your piece, rules were being followed. Our small dog had 2 small playmates, while the large side had 4-5 large guests. A medium-height cyclone fence bisected the park, and the large and small guys enjoyed racing one another just out of contact.
    There is a dog park of the controlled variety being built near us in Canandaigua, and it seems the Rochester parks are largely controlled/regulated by fee as well. Interesting read, as always, Eric.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the observations as always, Astara! Though I admit that I had to look up to find out what a “cyclone fence” was. In my Jersey City example, I can’t help but think I was seeing a “one-off”. Probably most of the time, the people obey the rules like in Ithaca. But let’s face it: it wouldn’t matter if I had a Rottweiler or Pomeranian–if I saw nothing but a Chow Chow in the “big dog” area, I’d probably steer clear too. Beautiful animals, but their hit-or-miss reputation is deserved…

  2. Karen Mackey

    Sounds like a dog park I would visit with Chloe. She can be a little rough on the little ones.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You’d never think, with an elegant name like Chloe, that she’d be rough! Or is Chloe a Bullmastiff?

      1. Karen Mackey

        She is a 50-pound Alaskan Husky / Shepherd mix. She acts more like a Husky. I think she just forgets they are small and pounces on them. The little dog next door has learned to avoid that move.

  3. Carin

    Thanks for this well-observed post. In my experience as a regular at many, many dog parks in different states and cities, weight limits are rarely observed in small-dog areas, but the areas tend to be used by according to norms developed by a well-functioning community of regulars. Small dog areas are often used for older or frailer dogs, puppies, and those who are easily overwhelmed by rambunctious play. Also, many multi-dog families include dogs of different sizes, and owners will often rightly err on the side of taking the larger dog who’s used to little dogs into the small dog area rather than subjecting the smaller dog to the rougher environment of the big dog area with unknown dogs.

    As a matter of design: an advantage of most small-dog areas I’ve seen is that they are, well, SMALLER, which means it’s usually easy to talk over the gate and consult with everyone already there about whether their little dogs would be ok if some more medium-sized ones came in. Parks where it’s easy for humans to negotiate switching between the two areas are best for all concerned.

    Silver Spring, btw, has a fantastic newer dog park out Colesville just past downtown. It functions brilliantly as a community-building space for humans as well as dogs because it has abundant shade and places to sit. It was built around existing mature trees.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for these observations, Carin. I visited the Jersey City dog park again recently (and plan to update this blog article with better canine pics in the near future). The small-dog park was busy; the big-dog park only had one animal…once again. Many people in the small-dog park were clearly violating the size restrictions, but no one seemed to care. In fact, a Chow Chow was in the small dog park (perhaps the same one?) but was so placid that it didn’t even engage with the smaller dogs. I believe the Chow Chow was in its sunset years. Also, in this case, the big-dog park may have been less popular due to unforeseen engineering issues: lots of standing water covering close one-third of the space, making it less appealing than the neat, dry small-dog park.

      Shade is an appealing feature mostly absent from the Jersey City parks. The one in Greenwood–much larger and much grassier–had at least a few mature trees from what I recall.


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