Let it be clear from the start: We love the work our park districts do in Champaign-Urbana. They continually provide the public with access to wonderful spaces to be together, and program activity opportunities across the board, for all ages. We are supporters of both organizations, and we are continually impressed with just about everything they do. 

But we believe that it is time for both of them to expand upon one of their best assets, and create more dog parks inside their districts, accessible to more neighborhoods, and to people who have limited mobility. Currently, the two that exist are massive pieces of land on the very outskirts of town: Champaign Bark District at the corner of Windsor Road and Rising Road, and UPD Dog Park at Perkins Road and I-74

These are wonderful spaces for people who own dogs. They are designed to be a place where dog owners can let their dogs off the leash to play with other dogs. It’s also a wonderful chance for people who own dogs to get together with their friends and be outside with one another. This carries the mission of most any park district, and we applaud it.

A small, fenced in dog park with a few tall, thin trees inside of it. There are two dogs running around inside the park, and a person wearing a pink shirt is standing near the dogs. Photo by Seth Fein. Photo by Seth Fein.

But recently, both Champaign and Urbana park districts began charging an annual fee (the prices are linked above) for people to use their “Bark Districts”. The fact that they are offering residents access to one another’s parks for a mere $10 extra is appreciated, however, these fees also add an additional layer of inaccessibility to the discussion. Fewer people will use these parks with any fee, of course, especially if they have to spend upwards of 30+ minutes round trip to travel there and home. As such, we believe it would behoove both park districts to start carving out space in their current system to find space for “mini-dog parks” so that people in different neighborhoods are offered the same type of access to this amenity that others currently are. All of a sudden, paying for access seems a little more meaningful for tens of thousands of people living within walking distance. 

We asked Tim Bartlett, the Executive Director of the Urbana Park District, about whether or not Urbana had ever considered expanding their program to different parks as well. He responded:

We don’t have any current sites or parks situated for an additional dog park in Urbana. Most people do use their local parks with the pets on a leash and take advantage of the many local trails for walking purposes. I believe our dog park membership numbers — while relatively level over the years since we opened — have not spiked in recent years to suggest Urbana needs a second location at this time.

Chelsea Norton, Marketing Director for Champaign Park District, concurred:

At this time, we are not considering expanding to a second dog park location for various reasons including lack of community feedback for a need for it, current updates happening at our existing dog park, and other major capital projects happening throughout the District.

We disagree with the notion that the parks wouldn’t be utilized. We took an informal survey of 30 people from around the community, all of whom own dogs, and asked them if they’d use a dog park if it were within a 15 minute walk from their home. An astounding 90% of them said yes, and most of the answers came with exclamation marks. 

There are more reasons to consider this beyond our own small sample size. Boise, Idaho — a city of 225,000 people — is home to more dog parks per capita than any other city in the entire country. We asked Toby Norton, the Parks Resource Planning Manager for the City of Boise, how this came to be, and he told us that this was a “build it and they will come” philosophy, starting in 1997, and materializing into an entire program designed to build out as many as possible. 

"The Boise community is passionate about its dog parks,” Toby Norton said. “We receive overwhelmingly positive feedback any time a new dog park opens and attendance at some of our newest locations… has been extremely high."

And they aren’t even done yet, according to Toby Norton. “Finally, more off-leash spaces are planned for and will be developed as funding comes available. This includes fenced in DOLA’s (Dog Off Leash Area) at Molenaar, Magnolia, Borah, and Bowler Parks.”

Screenshot of new dog park proposal in Boise, Idaho. Image by City of Boise. Image by City of Boise.

Basically, Boise is using existing park space to retrofit areas for dogs to run around, and for their owners to be together with other owners. Currently, the City of Boise has a total of 14 Dog Parks: five dedicated parks and nine additional areas. 

C-U needs to find as many ways as possible to bring people together in the real world, away from computers, off their couches, and into the fresh air. We need low cost, high value solutions for programming that allows our parks to be utilized twelve months a year, with good intention and execution. 

Dog parks are wonderful, and very inexpensive from a programming perspective. They require very little upkeep. According to Caty Roland, the Business Manager for UPD:

In Fiscal Year 2019 (May 1, 2018 through April 30, 2019) the district spent $16,726.27 on direct costs at the Dog Park. This included maintenance salaries, supplies, utilities, and contractual services. $9,402.80 was covered with membership fees (annual members and daily admissions). $861.50 came from a donation, and the remainder was subsidized by the District’s property tax dollars. For Fiscal Year 2020 (May 1, 2019 through April 30, 2020) we have so far incurred $15,319.49 in direct costs. We have seen an uptick in membership fees since the installation of the secure entry gate system, with membership fees bringing in $12,260.52.

For a taxing body, we’d say these are pretty solid numbers. Adding additional, smaller parks, would of course incur new expenses, but we bet that the difference could be easily overcome in many more membership fees, as well as donors and sponsorship. A campaign to raise funds for dog parks seems like a no-brainer. People love their dogs — just look at Instagram or Facebook. They literally love them as others do their children, and for good reason: Dogs bring us closer to our own humanity; they are members of our family, and bring us all the love and attention we could ever want.

A fluffy black dog with a gray maw and floppy ears stands in a park with very green grass. The dog's mouth is open and its tongue is black and pink. Photo by Jessica Hammie. Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Our suggestions for Champaign are West Side Park, Eisner Park, and Douglass Park, to start. In Urbana, Larson Park, Crystal Lake Park, and Carle Park. Each of these parks are situated inside of residential neighborhoods, and are home to thousands of dogs within walking distance. Our assessment is that they all have robust excess space wherein fences with gates could be installed, without damaging current access to what is currently programmed. 

We’re hoping that our park districts will consider this idea. It will require a movement of people to get them to respond, of course, but something we love about our park districts is how well they listen and enact changes as people request. We also need them leading a new era of togetherness by using our collective resources to bring people together as often as possible. 

Utilizing something so many of us love the most — our dogs — would be an affordable and powerful step in an even better direction than our parks are already headed. 

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.