After more than a decade of lobbying for an off-leash dog park in the Boston Common, Boston dog owners finally have a place – or places – to let their doodles, dachshund and Dalmatians romp freely without having to keep an eye out for an approaching Park Ranger.
Freely, that is, as long as their unleashed furry friends stay within designated areas of the park, as set forth in a new program of rotating off-leash dog recreation sites launched June 2 by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department.
For the owners, dog parks are not only about socializing their pups. They are about building community among each other as they meet, talk and sip lattes daily. This week, however, much of their conversation has been about the size and location of the new areas, which many feel are too small for their dogs to adequately exercise and dangerously close to busy pedestrian walkways.
The five areas – three along Beacon Street, the fourth partly on the Parade Grounds and the fifth near the Parkman Bandstand – have been named off-leash dog sites. Two will be used at a time, most likely for six months, while the remaining three will be rested, reseeded and rejuvenated with funds raised by the Friends of the Public Garden (FOPG) and The Common Canine, its subcommittee of dog owners.
The play areas are marked with sandwich board signs rather than fences, which are opposed by the Parks Department in accordance with the 1996 Boston Common Management Plan that recommends against further segmentation of the multi-use park for specific interest groups. This is the first time the city has sanctioned unfenced areas for use as dog parks, according to FOPG Executive Director Liz Vizza.
It was a long road getting to this point. Dogs have always played on the Common, although in the 18th century those over 14 inches in height were banned so that meandering cows wouldn’t have their udders bitten, according to a book published by the FOPG in 2005. They are allowed to run anywhere in the historic park when on leash.
Jim Whitters has exercised his dogs on the Parade Grounds for 45 years. In the late 1990s, he worked with other dog owners, including former Beacon Hillers Beth Rogers and Jackie Meaney, to bring to the Common an off-leash pilot program – the first that anyone can remember.
“At that time, dog owners were mad because we were constantly being harassed by the Park Rangers for letting our dogs run unleashed,” said Rogers. “We formed the Boston DOG (Dog Owners Group) and designed a postcard imploring the mayor to let our dogs play freely on the Parade Grounds,” she said.
By the time the group called for an appointment, the overwhelmed mayor had received more than 100 cards, said Rogers. Because other groups and elected officials also supported the request, he agreed to an off-leash trial on the Parade Grounds for several hours both in the morning and evening. It was at the same time the city was working with South End residents to create Peters Park on Shawmut Avenue.
The dog owners were happy. Time moved on. Boston DOG languished, its purpose accomplished. Dogs and their owners became accustomed to running, fetching balls and socializing on the Parade Grounds, an area favored because of its ample size.
But in 2007 several large festivals held on the Grounds wreaked havoc on its turf. The Parks Department fenced it off for extensive restoration and deemed it no longer a candidate for a dog park.
Dogs and their owners were relocated to a smaller space near the Joy Street steps. “At the time, it had a seedy element with discarded needles and condoms,” said Beacon Hiller Susana Lopez. “The parcel slanted toward the playground and had water drainage problems. People didn’t want to use it.”
Many migrated back to the Parade Grounds, once again keeping an eye out for Park Rangers. J. Alain Ferry, a Back Bay resident, and Beacon Hiller Jenna Blum re-energized dog owners and put forth a proposal to have the dog park rotate among three areas, including one near the former Pink Palace – a proposal discarded when the idea of having a restaurant there surfaced.
Responding to a survey conducted by the FOPG about three years ago, an overwhelming majority of dog owners again said they wanted space for unleashed dogs to run, according to Lopes. FOPG formed The Common Canine to work with the Parks Department on issues surrounding dogs, including requests for an off-leash dog area. After reviewing the Dog Recreation Ordinance established in 2004, the FOPG and Common Canine submitted the proposal for rotating off-leash areas to the Parks Department, which approved it in 2013.
It took the FOPG and Common Canine another year to navigate their way through the application process and raise the requisite $10,000 to pay for the renovation of the Joy Street area. Many factors were taken into account when the Parks Department, working with the two groups, selected the recreation areas, such as current and competing uses, and sun and shade requirements, according to Vizza.
However, Whitters and others don’t think the new areas work well for the dogs because they are too small for them to gain sufficient exercise. He worries that many dog owners will leave to find larger spaces elsewhere, and outcome that could break up the sense of community he treasures. “My interaction with other dog owners has been an enrichment to my life,” he said. “Over the years I have met so many people that are doing such interesting thing in their lives. I don’t want to see that lost.”
“But it is important to recognize that we finally have a permitted dog park,” said Lopes, who thinks the new program, although full of compromises, is a good beginning. “Now we need to make sure we work with the city, police ourselves and rotate through the areas in order to show that we are responsible,” she said
“It’s a great step in the right direction,” added Paul Odelson, also of Beacon Hill. “We have to be conscious that we are in the Common. That is exactly what it is, a common area for everyone. We need to respect that.
“As soon as the Parks Department realizes how many dogs from Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Downtown and the Leather District use the park and that we are responsible, I am sure we will work our way up to having a bigger space.”