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June 01, 2017

Has the public realm gone to the dogs? The challenges of incorporating dog ownership into planning

As Toronto's core continues to grow vertically, parks are taking on new roles in the City's landscape. Downtown parks are being reinvented as backyards, front porches and even as public living rooms for new populations in the downtown core. In particular, growing numbers of seniors and families with young children rely on public parks for a good quality of life. But these same parks are also having to address another energetic, rapidly growing and noisy population: dogs.
Estimating dog populations is challenging – most people don't license their animals – but an informal survey conducted by a pet store in the Fort York Neighbourhood reported a ballpark figure of seven dogs per floor in each of these condo buildings. Multiply this by the boom of towers Toronto's core has seen in recent years and the issue of how to manage our four-legged friends becomes evident.

Ask any parks planner and they will tell you dogs are top of the agenda in public consultations for the design of parks. The challenge is finding the land to accommodate dogs-off-leash areas in high-demand parks in the city's core. Clarence Square in the King-Spadina neighbourhood is a prime example. In a neighbourhood with very limited green space and a growing population, a dogs-off-leash area now takes up a third of the park. So how can we deal with the need to provide space for our four-legged friends and their companions while ensuring that parks can be equitably accessed by those around it?

The size of the dogs-off-leash area in Clarence Square in the King-Spadina neighbourhood of Toronto. Source:

The biochemical challenge alone is daunting: A 40-storey condo building can produce around 437 bathtubs full of dog waste a year, and an equivalent amount of urine. Private dog amenities provided by buildings are often little more than doggy urinals meant for a dog's quick relief. Often, nearby parks cannot cope with the intensive use associated with dog traffic. 

New developments must incorporate high quality amenity space not only for human residents, but also for dogs. One of the best examples of well-rounded and adequate dog amenities is Urban Capital's planned Emma Park, a 4,360 square foot off-leash park for the use of residents. Private open spaces like this improve quality of life for residents, both human and canine, and lift some of the burden off of public parks, allowing them to be more things to more people. 
Proposal for Emma Park, a private dog off-leash amenity in River City Phase 3. Source:

Dogs and their owners should be welcome in public park spaces – deliberate design choices can allow dogs and non-dog uses to coexist. Attractive dog amenities can concentrate dog uses in appropriate areas, taking pressure off of other spaces. Berzcy Park, a small park opening this spring, is designed to celebrate dog ownership through an offbeat fountain that celebrates dog goofiness. It accommodates on-leash dog walking in a mural garden with a specially irrigated pea gravel surface to address dog waste issues. By acknowledging, celebrating and designing for dogs in a portion of the park, it frees the rest of the park to serve other people and uses.
Planning isn't the whole solution. Good behaviour – from dogs, dog owners, and non-owners – is key. When owners fail to stoop and scoop, or allow their animals to harass other dogs and people, they make parks hostile to other users, particularly vulnerable individuals like children and the elderly. Enforcement and educational campaigns can be expensive, but they might go a long way in mitigating some of the challenges associated with a dense dog population.
Dog behaviour can be positive: dogs' natural friendliness and curiosity can encourage owners to explore and interact with the city in a new way. Public non-park spaces can be designed and programmed to encourage exploration, dogs in hand. This can help to distribute canine use of public spaces, mitigating the intensity of dogs' use of parks.
Dogs are a welcome but challenging and relatively recent addition to downtown living. As we redesign our public spaces to accommodate our four-legged friends, we must ensure that we do not lose sight of equitable access to parks for all residents. Creating spaces that work for dogs is possible, but it takes conscientious decision-making and deliberate design choices to ensure that dogs' energy does not monopolize public space. 

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Barbara Carou, RPP and Bria Aird

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