Read more articles by Betsy Gardner

By Betsy Gardner • April 22, 2019

The dividing question used to be, are you a dog person or a cat person? Yet as our urban areas become denser and more expensive, the divide isn’t between the two animals, but between those dog people who have access to dog parks and those who don’t. At first this might seem like a niche area of urban development, but access to dog-friendly green spaces is rapidly becoming a symbol for deeper socioeconomic and racial disparities.

Dog parks are one of the fastest-growing green spaces in American cities, according to the Trust for Public Land. The demand for sanctioned off-leash spaces is growing, as urban pet owners seek out legal romping grounds for their dogs to socialize, sniff, and even swim. Yes, pool time for Fido is a design element of many new puppy parks; the sleek new Lincoln Yards development in Chicago even has a splash pad that mimics the famous Crown Fountain in Millennium Park.

When renderings of the new dog park were published, some noticed a conspicuous lack of people of color enjoying the luxury pet space. Although the 2017 American Housing Survey showed that families who identify as non-Hispanic white are more likely to have a pet, there is no distinction for type of animal, so dog ownership by race can’t be perfectly extrapolated from this data. And in Chicago, many South Side residents are dog owners who chafed at the lack of dog parks in the predominantly minority area of the city. There are nearly zero options for legally taking dogs off-leash, as this CityLab map shows (there is one unofficial “dog park”, Jackson Bark, on a tennis court in the 5th Ward).

Dog park map

The grossly uneven distribution of designated dog space means that people of color in Chicago lack more than just a dog run; they are also losing out of the auxiliary benefits of these additional green spaces. A recent study in the Journal of Urban Affairs supported the views of many dog owners, that neighborhood dog parks increase human social interactions and help foment community, strengthening the social fabric of that area. And there is ample evidence that exposure to urban green spaces can reduce “mortality, heart rate, and violence” and improve mood and attention.

A lack of dog spaces means that South Side Chicagoans can’t access the positive benefits; it also means they incur some negative side effects at a higher rate. The map below shows an inverse relationship between dog parks and leash law violations, with tickets concentrated in non-white neighborhoods.

Dog ticketing map

The cost of being caught with an unleashed dog in Chicago is $300. Not only are residents denied leash-free spaces, they are punished for trying to give their dogs a little freedom in their own neighborhoods. And Jackson Bark, the unsanctioned dog park/tennis court, is slated to be destroyed during the construction of a golf course.

It hasn’t escaped many community members that there is such a drastic and costly disparity. In 2017 the Chicago Tribune even questioned whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel was secretly a cat person, daring readers to find another explanation for the city's reluctance to build any dog parks further south than 18th Street. Finally, years of relentless advocating began to pay off, and in July 2018 construction started on a dog-friendly area in Calumet Park, with four other proposed locations for South Side dog parks planned.

Dog or cat person, the clear segregation of services and land in American cities is troubling. Maps of cities all around the country show that residents of color are far less likely to be homeowners and are spatially segregated both at work and at home. Data and mapping are two important ways of combating land use inequalities, because quantifying and seeing discrepancies brings them to a policy forefront.