Dog Park Divide

A recent report sheds new light on Chicago’s legendary inequalities.

By Zach Mortice 

Fred Anderson Dog Park in Chicago. Photo courtesy Chicago Park District.

“Dog-friendly areas,” known as DFAs in Chicago Park District parlance, don’t come about easily in Chicago. But, says Nicole Machuca, the director of environmental education and neighborhood parks for Chicago’s Friends of the Parks (FOTP), “There is no doubt in my mind that communities all across the city want dog parks.”

But not all communities have them. A recent FOTP State of the Parks Report points out that the city’s wealthier, whiter North Side had 23 park district dog parks; the poorer, largely African American and Latinx South and West Sides had, until very recently, none. One dog park was added in the South Side’s Calumet Park last fall. There is also a completely independent dog park that’s not run by the city located in Jackson Park called Jackson Bark.

Currently, the park district’s process to establish new dog areas requires considerable grassroots community effort for support, organization, and funding. The park district’s 17-page manual
guides neighbors through the process. It notes: “In effect, you will become park developers. This is a long-term responsibility which will require community support and dedicated, ongoing commitment by all members of the DFA committee.”

Until this fall, there were no dog parks south of 18th Street, a typical neighborhood demarcation of where the city’s South Side begins. Image courtesy Friends of the Parks.

First, neighbors have to form a community organization to lead the development of the dog park. If they wish to convert existing park space into a dog park, they must host three community meetings, make a maintenance plan, and complete up to a dozen site documentation visits. Dog park advocates must also gain the support of their city council member, Park Advisory Council, and other neighbors. They must raise $150,000 to build the park before any construction can begin (though groups that have recently gotten new DFAs under way say it costs far more). Community groups have been responsible for fully funding parks since 2008, according to the park district. In addition to divesting the park district of financial, administrative, and maintenance responsibility for DFAs, a waiver in the manual also dispels the district’s legal liability and places it on the community organization. Wealthier communities have had more time and resources to become the de facto community developers dog parks require.

Now four new dog parks are in the works for the South and West Sides, including three in the Bronzeville and Oakland neighborhoods and one in the McKinley Park neighborhood.

“Progress is happening,” says Ben Gerhold, a board member for the Bronzeville Association for Recreation with Canines (BARC), which led the effort to establish three dog parks. “It’s happening slowly, but it’s certainly happening.”

The Chicago Park District estimates that dog parks cost $150,000 to develop. Courtesy Chicago Park District.

Gerhold says that his dog parks will cost $600,000 each, provided by funding from a local city council member, open space funds that subsidize public park space diverted from developers, and tax-increment financing, or TIF, funding. (TIFs draw money from special tax districts with benchmarked property values. Any subsequent rise in property value, and thus tax, is diverted into a TIF fund.). Beyond start-up costs, BARC will be responsible for maintenance fees. “We’ll have to do ongoing fund-raising,” Gerhold says.

Carina Trudell, a co-president of the McKinley Dog Park Advisory Council, thinks that resistance to dog parks arises from scarce park space resources. DFAs are perceived as a benefit for just a few dog owners taking park space at the expense of the rest of the neighborhood. The McKinley Park DFA will cost $400,000, gathered from TIF funds, with critical city council support. “Raising the funds is nearly impossible if you’re doing it without the assistance of the alderman,” she says.

“The park district isn’t going to take you seriously until it’s the alderman’s office that contacts [them],” says Gerhold. “It’s a reactive system, not a proactive system.”

Park district spokespeople say the extreme dog park inequality across the city is not their fault: “The park district has not taken any action or made any decision toward the distribution of DFAs across the city.”

Which is exactly the issue. “[With] nobody being held accountable for the even distribution of the dog parks,” says Trudell, “it does make it a little bit unfair.”

 Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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