Sunday, January 10, 2010

Can a Dog Park Reduce Crime? Some Say "Yes"


(Photo Credit: www.aolcdn.com)
That's what Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein asserts in his recent post, "Why Dog Owners Make the Best Citizens." The headline is a bit inflammatory, especially to cat owners, and the article contains a few irreverent barbs to non dog owners that were meant in good fun... and probably to get more comments. The overarching point of the article holds true, though:
My neighborhood isn't the world's best, but nor is it the world's worst. After dark, the streets fill with dog walkers. A couple per block, at least. In the winter, they're the only people on the streets. Without them, the neighborhood would be lot emptier, and the streets would feel a lot more forbidding.

One of the key crime prevention techniques is increasing the number of "eyes on the street". One way to get this is to build street fronting businesses. In residential neighborhoods, this isn't an option. Dog owners are habitual walkers, because their dogs will generally drive them nuts without the periodic w-a-l-k.

I don't own a dog, but I dog sat for a month for a friend in the hospital and occasionally for the in-laws, and I walked their dogs twice a day, every day. I have too small a yard to get a dog any meaningful exercise by just putting them out back, so I had no choice. My wife and I are walkers anyway, frequently heading to Shirlington, Old Town, or just a loop through various neighborhoods at least weekly. Still, we have never walked as frequently as when we were dog sitting.


On this 25 degree afternoon, a bold soul walks by the new Reed Ave open space site

Most neighborhoods as close to DC as Arlandria have to fight and scrap for every piece of open space they can, but the City found itself the proud new owner of a former Dominion Power substation site this past year (map of site with possible dog park superimposed). Since then, Dominion Power removed the substation, remediated the polluted soil, and seeded the property. It is now officially City open space. The problem with the space is that, with a curtain of dense trees blocking views into the entire space, it provides a hidden pocket for criminal activity. Additionally, it doesn't lend itself to too many things as it is too small and broken up by those same dense trees.



In the blog linked at top, Mr. Klein jokes that "the city is building a big park/open air drug market near my house." He goes on to explain that the park he's referencing might actually work because a dog park, playground, etc. will create a place people will use and that alone deters crime. Now that we're left with our new open space, we need to find a way to get a use out of it so it doesn't become a magnet for problems. Based on a conversation I had with our community officer, he hopes for a fenced use so that it can close after hours and trespassing becomes more enforceable.

Readers of the Arlandrian will probably remember a dog park survey and results summary article from last year. If not, here is the link to the post. To avoid repeating myself, please give it a read. The Reed Ave site provides us a centralized location between densely populated neighborhoods that is far from any other fenced-in dog park. The neighborhoods are shaking off crime problems of years past and the extra eyes on the street are exactly what we need. The City might have other long-term ideas for this property, but, at least for the interim years, why not provide the amenity on a site that will receive little use, otherwise.

By installing a fence, a trash can, and mulching over most of the site, it could be quickly and cheaply turned into to a dog park. I've spoken to the chairman of the Parks and Recreation commission, City Council members, and the City's Open Space Coordinator. Some City Councilmembers seemed amenable to the idea. However the idea of a temporary Dog Park makes some people nervous. Removing it later could get ugly, even if people are warned of its temporary nature on a daily basis through signage. The key here is that everyone maintains an open mind. City staff should understand that a dog park could fill a need for some people temporarily and citizens should understand that the site might eventually be used for a more pressing need. That said, the fenced-in dog park could become hugely popular and become a permanant fixture that fills a pressing need. Time will tell.

The adjacent apartment complex, Glebe House, sent a letter to the City requesting the space not be used for a dog park, but the majority of citizens that replied to the survey in September (both dog owners and non dog owners) picked a fenced dog park as their preferred use for this location. We even had a number of people contact us to volunteer to help should we get the City to approve the creation of a fenced dog park at this location. The site's proximity to the apartment is a problem that doesn't jibe with the City's Dog Park Guidelines (recommend a 50 ft setback), but the guidelines don't take things like greenscreening the site with trees and shrubs into account. They are just guidelines, after all.


One corner of Glebe House Apartments comes close to the potential Dog Park site


I've contributed my input to the Park and Recreation Commission, so we should have at least some feedback in the next few weeks. If you'd like to provide input to the Commission, member e-mail addresses are located at this link.
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