Bars have happy hours. Highways have rush hours. Now some North Denver residents are hoping our city parks can have designated off-leash dog hours. A change.org petition directed at Councilwoman Sandoval and Denver Parks and Recreation, started by two North Denver residents, has garnered around 1,400 signatures as of March 15. The proposal would allow dogs off-leash in Denver parks early in the morning or late at night when there’s few other park users. The proposal came about, in part, after an incident where several puppies were playing off-leash in a city park and a woman pepper-sprayed the dogs in their faces.
Armed with talking points and an adorable puppy named Hailey, Valdez Elementary 5th grader Sydney Gilpin is making her case to allow dogs to play off-leash in neighborhood parks. “There’s 158,000 dogs in Denver and only 12 dog parks,” said Gilpin. “They’re overcrowded.”
Gilpin went on to explain that she takes her dog to their neighborhood park many mornings before school. She wants the puppy they adopted last May to have the chance to socialize with other dogs. While she can walk the short distance to a neighborhood park, her family driving to the closest dog park takes too long. “I’d be late for school,” arguing that the policy change would benefit her education.
Gilpin is getting help from an adult family friend and neighbor, Mary Francis. Francis and the Gilpins were looking at different ideas when Francis learned about New York City’s policy that creates off-leash dog hours in their parks and based their proposal on NYC’s. Francis also cites the lack of dog parks in many communities and their overcrowdedness. “We all live in our community and pay for the park. It’s a nice space.” Francis noted that having to drive to dog parks puts more cars on the road and doesn’t build community, unlike neighbors (and their dogs) meeting in their closest park. “There’s something about your community park,” she added. Francis also commented that neighborhood parks are often nicer than dog parks, which are usually gravel with few to no plants.
Councilwoman Sandoval said she’s talking with the proponents, the parks department, and animal control about the idea and what it would take to have a pilot program. In the last few weeks since community members started hearing about the proposal, she’s heard from constituents who are strong advocates and others who oppose the change.
Scott Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director for Parks and Recreation, is among those with concerns — both in the proposal itself and the method proponents are using. “Making policy changes like this is not simple,” said Gilmore, adding that “a petition on change.org isn’t how you make changes.”
Gilmore cited the city’s process for public input and the dog park master plans the city has designed for dog park expansion as the best way to give input on new parks. That process appears to be set up to select new dog park locations though, not change park policies. A dog owner himself, Gilmore said he’s not unsympathetic and his department is “working really hard on getting dog parks spread out across the city.”
“You just don’t go put a dog park in,” adding that change needs “a ton of community engagement.” Dog parks can be divisive, with people staunchly on one side or the other.
Gilmore raised what he sees as a number of problems with this specific proposal: parks aren’t fenced and many are near major roads, increasing the possibility of dogs getting hit by cars or running away. Additionally, off-leash dogs may jump on people or even attack; he said the current policy is set up to “err on the side of safety for all park users.” Many of Denver’s parks aren’t lit at night, adding safety concerns and reducing the likelihood of dog owners cleaning up after their pets. “People aren’t even picking up their poop in the day.”
The city has identified areas in need of more parks, and they welcome community input on locations. Regarding the quality of dog parks and the materials used, he explained that’s an aspect of space and use. The density of dogs urinating and defecating in smaller parks means that the gravel mixture is the best to absorb the waste. Dog parks are specially designed so they can be “flushed” if they become too gross. Creating dog parks cost tens of thousands of dollars on the low end and up to a half million dollars for larger urban parks.
While many suburban dog parks have native grasses or manicured lawns, Gilmore noted that those communities have enough space for multi-acre dog parks, which can reduce the density of waste, and that urban living has trade-offs. “If someone wants to move to the suburbs so they can have a better dog park that’s fine.”
Whether the city embraces dog hours in parks, adds more dog parks, or finds another solution, Denver’s growing dog population will continue to be a topic of discussion, especially as the weather warms up and more people are seeking outdoor options for their four legged friends.
The online petition can be found on change.org’s website: https://www.change.org/p/denver-district-one-council-woman-amanda-sandoval-addressing-denver-off-leash-dog
If you have thoughts or suggestions about dog parks and want to contact the city, email firstname.lastname@example.org