We Cantabrigians pride ourselves on being progressive, but has Brookline scooped us with its Green Dog Program? Open, green space is at a premium in both places, and shared use is a front-burner issue that often boils over around the question of dogs in parks. In response, Cambridge and Brookline are piloting different types of off-leash programs, and while demographics and budgets have driven some of the policy decisions, I’m wondering what we can learn from each other.
Denser and Denser: Equally proximate to Boston, Brookline and Cambridge both feel more urban than suburban, yet bustling Brookline quaintly persists in calling itself a town, while cosmopolitan Cambridge is a city of close-knit neighborhoods. Cambridge and Brookline are about the same size in land area (6.4 and 6.8 square miles, respectively), and each classifies a comparable amount of its land base as “protected open space” (11% and 14%, respectively). But Cambridge has almost twice as many residents as Brookline (105,000 vs. 59,000 in 2010) as well as a greater number of nonresidents who commute to jobs in the city. This, combined with the large student population not reflected in the census figures, makes some areas of Cambridge almost as densely peopled as downtown Boston. The extra bit of breathing room Brookline residents enjoy may be one of the driving factors in the town’s higher per capita dog population; Brookline residents registered about 2,100 dogs in 2010 compared to about 2,900 in Cambridge the same year.
Dog Parks or Dogs in Parks? Brookline and Cambridge approach this thorny question differently. There are no dedicated dog parks in Brookline, and until 2005 dogs were not allowed unleashed in any of the town’s parks. To better accommodate dog owners, the town introduced an innovative off-leash program (see Green Dog Park Map), that now includes 14 parks. For its part, Cambridge recently created two dedicated dog parks and has designated four other areas where dogs may be off-leash with some restrictions ( two other locations are under consideration for off-leash use in the early morning). Off-leash hours in Cambridge are restricted to the very early morning, except at Fresh Pond Reservation, where dogs are allowed off-leash all day long. By contrast, several of Brookline’s parks offer off-leash hours from dawn to 1 p.m., and Larz Anderson Park permits off-leash use from dawn to dusk during the winter months. Still, for a good many residents in both places, visiting an off-leash area requires a car to get there.
Separate but Equal? I know I probably shouldn’t look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, but I am not a big fan of dedicated dog parks. I think segregating dogs (and their owners) from other park users reinforces the public perception that dogs (and their owners) cannot be trusted to behave civilly. Neighborhood parks where dogs are allowed off leash at times when their presence does not interfere with other recreational uses (e.g. after-school athletics, picnics) helps build neighborhood community. Cambridge’s two dog parks don’t offer the same benefit, since they attract users from across the city whose only connection is owning a dog; a community of dog owners is a weaker and shorter-lived tie than a community of neighbors, or one of parents in a magnet school. Personally, I find it off-putting to be penned in what’s essentially an outdoor litter box, as the dog parks are surfaced with small pebbles (pea stone) that absorbs the dogs’ urine and produces a fine dust with a pungent odor that my long-haired dog carries home.
Pay to Play? All dogs with a valid Cambridge license ($8 per year for a neutered dog) may use any of the city’s off-leash areas (nonresidents’ dogs must remain leashed). By contrast, Brookline charges both residents and nonresident an extra user fee for off-leash privileges. Not surprisingly, the fee sparked controversy when it was introduced this year, but the town says it is necessary to cover the additional expense (about $55,000 annually) to administer, promote and enforce the Green Dog Program. For Brookline residents, the Green Dog fee is $50 per year per dog, but others pay substantially more ($100 for nonresidents and resident dog walkers; $200 for nonresident dog walkers). Visitors may purchase a two-day or weeklong guest pass. Dogs participating in the Green Dog Program must wear a special green tag along with their compulsory town license tag ($20 per year for a neutered dog). About 1,300 dogs currently are enrolled in the Green Dog program, including about 200 non-resident dogs.
There was no additional fee when Brookline first launched its Green Dog Program, and charging for anything that used to be free is always a tough sell, as any media company can tell you these days. But Brookline’s off-leash fee is nominal (less than a dollar a week for regular users), and, in return, off-leash dogs gain fiscal standing rather than mere grudging tolerance in the eyes of the parks department and other park users. A modest fee serves to remind everyone that public parks and playing fields are a valuable resource requiring regular maintenance and proper care and treatment by all users. The Green Dog Program includes education and outreach to dog-owners and non-dog-owners alike about the program’s rules and etiquette, which helps foster the mutual respect and civility that the shared use of any limited public space requires to succeed. The Green Dog fees go toward the salary of a full-time program manager in the parks department, who works closely with volunteer liaisons in each location to help monitor use and enforce the rules. Green Dog uses these liaisons and Twitter (@BrooklineDogs) to get the word out when the fields are too wet for use or temporarily closed for other reasons.
Bottom Line: If you own a dog and want to let it off leash legally, it will cost you more in Brookline than in Cambridge ($70 vs. $8 annually). But, at the risk of incurring the wrath of other dog owners in Cambridge, I’m going to wonder aloud whether additional off-leash hours might be offered in more neighborhood parks if a similar “fido fee” were imposed. Or, if a flat fee is too regressive for the People’s Republic of Cambridge, then maybe the fee could be assessed on a sliding scale based on an algorithm of household income, the number and size of a person’s dogs and his/her proximity to parks?
I live in what’s been called “the world’s most opinionated zip code” (02138), so I’m sure there will be no shortage of opinions – bring ’em on!