I’m not sure what it is, but something about the downtown to the unincorporated Washington DC suburb of Sliver Spring, Maryland seems have spawned a number of unusual urban forms: acute angles, bizarre protrusions, and neglected little corners. I’ve written about this once before: how a building’s orientation and street frontage created a little storefront that has no windows. I’m sure the developer could have avoided this, but the fact remains that it didn’t, perhaps deliberately. And the weird little pocket store seems to make sense in Silver Spring. Perhaps it’s the unusual orientation of the downtown street grid, clearly visible in the map below:
As this map proves, the core comprises of a three-sided figure through the intersections of Colesville Road, Wayne Avenue, and US Highway 29 (Georgia Avenue) into three separate vertices. The best descriptor I can come up with is “concentric trianguloids”, since the other streets parallel this imperfect three-sided form. It’s nearly as confusing as central Boston, but it does create an interesting texture: long viewsheds are rare, since the bends and curves prevent contiguous lines of sight for more than a block or two.
And buildings perch at these wedge-shaped intersections with massing that is completely antithetical to a typical suburb, or even a heavily built “edge city”, for which Silver Spring more than fits the bill. It’s not always pleasing to the eye (though aesthetics are highly subjective) but it’s rarely drab. And the confluence of metro lines and major highways, combined with its fortuitous location just a quarter mile from the border to the District of Columbia, all ensure that Silver Spring boasts a vibrant downtown scene, including a block of Ellsworth Street that seems to work quite well as a pedestrian-only zone, which is a rare phenomenon in the United States.
But all those acute angles echo result in some inexplicable nooks and crannies that the development community has sometimes struggled to put to use…but then they come up with an unlikely solution. Here’s one just a few blocks away from the heart of downtown Silver Spring, part of an expansive multi-building apartment development called The Blairs.
The little orange sculpture out front should provide a clue: it’s a dog park. Or, in this case, a bark park. But if you’re anything like me, that orange dog was the only real signal that there might be a dog park nearby. Because look at the park itself:
It’s tiny. I’m not a great judge of area measurements, but I’m not an entirely terrible one either. I’d wager that this space is less than 500 square feet. It’s well-maintained and securely fenced, but it is fundamentally little more than an afterthought that endows a precise use to an awkward, wedge of land, created largely from the acute angle formed by the wall of the Blair apartment building and its adjacent parking garage. The trees give it considerable shade, and it has a human-scaled bench, but the ground material is an odd choice: gravel that is smaller than the rocks immediately outside the bark park. I suspect the smaller rocks are actually more comfortable on dogs’ paws, but it makes it impossible for them to run. Perhaps that’s all the better, since the spatial constraints fundamentally prohibit running anyway. And the gravel may be conducive for dogs who have to go number one, but it also makes it impossible to disguise when number two nature calls. The dog-parents will feel tremendous pressure to pick it up. All fine and good, but those dog-parents who fail to do so will leave the park far more undesirable than if it had been mulch or turf grass. At least the poop is easy to spot.
This bark park serves little purpose beyond a tiny niche where owners can take their dogs (presumably small ones) off leash to do their business, wander around, and, if other dogs are present, to sniff a few butts. But are there ever any butts to sniff? Does it get use? Incidentally, I visited the space again a few hours later, after dark, and a dog-dad was there with his mutt. This dog-dad informed me that he does routinely take his dog there for precisely that purpose: living in an urban setting, in a high-rise apartment building without a yard of his own, he and most residents of The Blairs must always keep their dogs on leash when outdoors. On occasion, his dog has found a canine companion during those brief visits to this tiny bark park. It helps that it is unrestricted; the gate latches but there’s no key or fob activation, so anyone can bring a dog in. It only has a single gate, however, so owners who worry about their dog running free if the first gate is open must take care, due to the lack of a back-up. (The back gate closing the gap is permanently closed.) It’s a placeholder bark park. No faucet for filing water dishes, no obstacle courses, no restrictions for large or unlicensed dogs. Amenity free.
The dog-dad informed me, however, that a larger, better bark park existed not so far away, elsewhere within the Blair Apartments campus that consists of the five or six buildings and their surrounding, amenity laden grounds.
It was about a five minute walk away, amidst grounds that featured picnic areas with (if my memory serves me correctly) a fire pit, a children’s playground, a swimming pool, and a community garden with leasable plots.
Unlike the tiny wedge featured in the daylight photos, this larger bark park was more restricted and monitored. And yes, it was bigger. But does it really fit the conventional standard for a dog park? It consisted of a linear expanse of land that was no wider than the wedge-shaped bark park. Possibly narrower. The entrance was in the middle, with separate gates forking out to the west and east ends. The west end was quite small.
And the eastern end, though larger, was only longer but no wider.
At the very least, this bifurcated bark park at least offers opportunities for dogs to play fetch, with the western end well-suited to smaller dogs and the eastern end to larger ones. According to The Blairs website, it totals 5,000 square feet in size. I can’t vouch for the truth of this measurement, but if it’s accurate, these bark parks owe this area to their length and not their width.
If more than three or four medium sized dogs were together in either enclosure, it would likely feel cramped, and amidst their rambunctiousness, a dog-mom or dog-dad may find their playful pups inadvertently colliding into the wrought-iron fence. But at least they have room for fetch.
According to the dog-dad I informally interviewed, this larger park was double-gated but also broadly promoted as open to the public, ostensibly as a sort of dedicated space within an otherwise private complex that, perhaps through an easement, allows unrestricted community access, when the other adjacent amenities for residents only. It has well-groomed turf and excellent lighting, as well as a double gate (on both the east and west ends) to prevent dogs from escaping. But it still feels like an afterthought: a strip of land between a pedestrian walkway and a grade-separated row of off-street parking that needed a dedicated use. From a property management angle, I can respect this; it’s a more visible amenity than mere landscaping, conferring clear benefit to the community and probably requiring less day-to-day maintenance than many flowers, trees, and shrubs. But if Silver Spring residents want a bark park where their pups can run, fetch, chase squirrels, dig, slurp water, or sniff a huge variety of doggie butts, their best option is the Ellsworth Urban Dog Park about a mile northwest of The Blairs. Much like a dog park in Jersey City that I wrote about a few years ago, Ellsworth apparently segregates the dogs by size: those under twenty pounds get a smaller park, but safer from potential big dog aggression.
This article admittedly isn’t particularly revelatory, but it does reaffirm two premises: dog parks have become so appealing that they are now an expected amenity in areas where multifamily housing is abundant and yards are scarce; and that almost any otherwise neglected patch of land will suffice. All it takes is an adequate fence. A few years ago, at Urban Indy, I wrote about a proposed development on the site of a vacant charter school, which, thanks to its intact perimeter fence, served as a de facto dog park for a sizable downtown Indianapolis population nearby—a decision the property owner made in part to help build rapport with residents of the historic neighborhood, since he was planning on demolishing the non-historic school to build a higher density condo building with first-floor retail.
But my favorite example proves what I suspected all along: in highly urbanized neighborhoods where fenced yards—or any yards—are scarce, people will settle for any opportunity for some off-leash time with Marley or Jessica (yes, I know of a Golden Retriever named Jessica). It might get so bad, in fact, that property owners have to admonish the general public, as this private business do in the colonial neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria (Virginia).
When your doggo’s got to roam (and doo), anything’ll do.