Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sharing Our Parks


Few things rile veteran bird watcher Naish McHugh like dog owners who let their pets bound freely at public parks.
“I’ve been knocked over, bowled over, I’ve had dogs rip my pants, all while birding,” Mr. McHugh says.
Once, while he was quietly watching a hawk in a Toronto park, a large Labrador smacked into him, knocking him right off his feet.
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“It was bouncing around beside me and I got up … to kick it” in case it attacked, he recalls, when a second large dog appeared behind him. “And then this guy [came] shouting and screaming at me, ‘They won’t bite! They won’t bite!’ I mean, how do we know they’re not going to bite when they come at you like that?”
The ensuing dust-up with the owner had both parties parting ways in a huff, Mr. McHugh says.
Whether it’s bird watchers versus dog owners, cyclists versus inline skaters, or teenagers hanging out versus families gathered for barbecues, parks are the battlegrounds in the war for public space.
When one person’s picnic area is another’s football turf, clashes are almost inevitable.
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In Toronto this week, neighbourhood residents’ concerns about potentially dangerous debris from kite-fighting resulted in a ban on kites at Milliken Park, much to kite enthusiasts’ displeasure.
While some park users may feel his pastime is a nuisance, Gogi Malik, who is organizing a protest at Milliken Park on Saturday against the lack of consultation over the ban, says he has a pet peeve of his own: park litterbugs.
“The problem is that [on] Saturdays and Sundays, a lot of litter is left behind, unnecessarily. That’s what my concern is [that] should be addressed,” he says, adding his own group of kite fighters always cleans up after itself.
Mr. Malik says there have been instances when he’s confronted others to ask them to clean up their litter, but they’re not always responsive. A more effective solution, he says, would be to set out stricter codes of conduct for park users.
“I think more conditions need to laid down …,” he says. “I prefer a formal set of rules [like], ‘This area is designated for this purpose, but if you come here you have to clean up after yourself.’ ”
Keeping different groups separated is one solution to keeping the peace, says Bruce MacWilliam, a district recreation co-ordinator at Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.
Most conflicts, he says, involve people playing loud music, people intruding on others’ personal space and dog owners letting their pets off their leashes in on-leash areas.
“What we try and do is try and meet the needs of all the citizens and set up specific areas to ensure that can happen,” he says, adding that park staff help resolve disputes by directing people to the appropriate places where they can play sports, relax in peace or exercise their dogs. “I guess sometimes it’s just a matter of educating people where those are.”
Richmond, B.C., meanwhile, takes a pre-emptive approach to park peacekeeping by setting out etiquette guidelines in addition to bylaws, the city’s corporate communications officer Kim Decker says.
Its website and park signs spell out rules of courtesy, such as “ride, walk or jog in a predictable manner,” “keep to the right of the path,” and “form a single line when meeting others in a congested area.”
“A lot of these things you can’t even enforce,” Ms. Decker says, but notes that thus far, the pre-emptive approach appears to be working; there have been no reports of serious or recurring breaches of etiquette.
David Walker, co-chair of the Richmond Hill K9 Klub in Ontario, says a local off-leash dog park has been critical for allowing dog owners and general park users to live harmoniously.
But even within the designated off-leash area, not everyone plays by the rules. Under the city’s bylaw, children under 12 aren’t allowed in the dog park, but Mr. Walker says this rule is sometimes broken. Certain dogs, such as pit bulls, that are supposed to be on muzzles occasionally aren’t, and some owners neglect to clean up after their pets. Mr. Walker says he’s been known to pick up other dogs’ “rogue poops,” both within and beyond the off-leash park.
Moreover, not everyone is happy with the dog park’s location. Nearby residents, some of whom are dog owners themselves, have filed a petition against the off-leash park, citing consistent barking and congestion.
While no one is disputing the need for an off-leash park, Mr. Walker says, “they just don’t feel it should be in their backyard.”
But if some aren’t pleased with the downsides of the dog park, one K9 Klub member argues that public parks designated for children are even worse.
“[C]hildren are noisier, more destructive, and do not stay [within] the parameters of the park, not to mention the fact that parents of the older children are not usually there to supervise,” the member wrote on the club’s website. “Teenagers and young adults have been known to hang out and drink at parks, leaving their beer bottles lying around.”

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