City & Politics, City Hall, Planning

Downtown dog park dilemma unnecessary

Dog park master plan. Only a bureaucrat would string together those words in earnest, which is precisely what one did when recently asked by Councillor Brian Mayes (St. Vital) about the feasibility of Mayor Brian Bowman’s campaign pledge to create just such a park within Winnipeg’s inner city.

Brad Sacher, director of Public Works, cautioned councillors at a recent meeting of the Downtown Development Committee that the City could not designate an off-leash dog park situated downtown without first having a dog park master plan in place. “I recognize the importance of locating a dog park downtown,” said Sacher. “But obviously it’s a very complex issue.” So complex, apparently, it requires additional funding to undertake a yearlong study to determine whether or not to even proceed with creating one.

[related_content slugs=”winnipeg-one-racist-city,has-winnipeg-lost-its-bowmentum,determined-by-those-who-showed-up,17956″ description=”More from Kris Ade” position=”right”]Not that Winnipeg is without dog parks. On the contrary, the City of Winnipeg currently lists 11 off-leash parks. Each and every one of those parks was designated or created without a master plan in place. Of course, it is one thing to designate wide swaths of pre-existing parkland in the City’s suburbs as areas where it is acceptable to unleash dogs, but it is another to do so within the confines of the denser, more urban downtown area, in which parkland is typically smaller and abuts already-built residential and commercial developments.

Nevertheless, the question remains: what about a downtown dog park is so complicated it requires the City to spend at least a year studying the idea, let alone actually designating one? Sure, there are the issues of distances from curbs and heights of fences. The noise. The poop. And of course the children! Still, it should be noted the Great War was fought and won in four years, and it took America less than a decade to put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Winnipeg, we have a problem.

Some context: to those who might dismiss dog parks as a boutique policy issue only applicable to a minority of residents, think again. A 2013 survey by Ipsos found 57 per cent of Canadians own a pet, and nearly a third of households own a dog. Moreover, it is not as if dogs are some new trend like, say, bicycles or rapid transit, the popularity of which seem to have taken our city planners by surprise; dogs have been at the side of humans, living as companions, partners and friends, since, well, before we were humans. Indeed, humans’ near-symbiotic relationship with dogs is so ancient, many evolutionary biologists now believe that relationship has become a part of dogs’ DNA. In short, the dogs aren’t going anywhere, so cities ought to adapt and accommodate.

While it ought to go without saying, despite already having eleven off-leash parks the reason there remains a need for a twelfth one situated in downtown Winnipeg has everything to do with serving people less able to take their dogs to the suburbs to run off-leash and with making the downtown a more attractive place for people to live (with their dogs) car-free.

As if the reluctance of City bureaucrats to take seriously this need were problem enough, the speed with which they are proposing to address it is especially problematic. Simply put, governments—of the municipal sort in particular, which are so directly connected to the people they serve because of the nature of the services they provide—ought to be able to respond more nimbly and adapt more quickly to challenges and needs as they arise. It is simply unacceptable something as, frankly, inconsequential as a dog park would require so much time, effort and money. Just get it done, already.

Arms flapping, shrieks of horror, legal opinions overwhelming departmental inboxes.

Yes, to a certain extent the risk aversion that has become endemic of bureaucracies is necessary: the work of government is often complex, the stakes that much higher than any sort of private sector equivalent, the metrics used to measure success much less tangible than, say, mere profit margins. Due diligence is important. So too is establishing sensible principles to guide developments and projects. But dog parks? Come on. Besides, it is not as if the City of Winnipeg has a sterling record when it comes to following procedures and adhering to guidelines when planning and development are concerned. (See: fire halls, police stations, transit corridors.)

Even more worrying, however, than the City bureaucracy’s reluctance to acknowledge the need for a dog park downtown and the leisurely pace at which they intend to respond to it is the fact creating such an off-leash park was a part of Mayor Bowman’s campaign platform. Given all the other issues swirling about City Hall, including the abrupt and unusual suspension of the City’s acting CAO, there would seem to be some evidence, albeit anecdotal, of a power struggle waging between the bureaucracy and the council. This has to stop. Council must reassert its control (ahem, perhaps by meeting more than once a month) and the City’s public administration must be less obstinate and resentful of that control.

The public service after all, be it federal provincial or municipal, by its nature takes its marching orders from the public through our elected representatives. They work for us. And our dogs.