In Honor of National Dog Day

My smallest one - Dobby.

My smallest one - Dobby.

In honor of National Dog Day, I have included here an excerpt from my forthcoming new book, The Emotional Infrastructure of Places. This section deals with the increasing importance of dogs in our lives and in our cities.

The Emotional Infrastructure of Places -  Canine Infrastructure

          As much as we love our cars and our phones, there is perhaps one love that might eclipse that emotional connection. That is our deep and abiding love affair with our dogs, which has dramatically expanded in recent generations, and is necessitating a new conversation and practice around the infrastructure to support our four-footed friends. 

“Whoever can solve the dogshit problem can be elected mayor of (the city), even President of the United States,” said iconic San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk in the early 1970s.[i]Milk, best known as a champion of LGBTQ rights, initially came to prominence through the issue of dogs in the city. It was, and is, a quality of life issue for urban residents. Dogs have been living with us in our cities for centuries now, but the recent return to cities, especially downtowns, has brought to the forefront the issue of how we integrate and accommodate these creatures into our lives and our places. 

I am a dog owner. Actually, let me clarify that statement—I am a ‘dog parent.’ I now have three lovely, sometimes crazy dogs, and no kids. I dote on the dogs, dressing them up for the appropriate holidays, taking them on play dates with other dogs, and spending a lot of money on their overall health and wellbeing. I am a dog parent—and there are a lot of us. 

According the American Veterinary Medical Association, 36.5% of U.S. households, or over 43 million households, own dogs.[ii]This equates to over 70 million dogs in the U.S. In Europe, the percentages are not quite as high; Germany and the U.K. top the list in terms of dog ownership. Germany has over 8.6 million dogs (roughly 10% of the population) and the U.K. has 8.5 million dogs (over 16% of the population).[iii]In Japan, a country that is seeing declining population growth, the number of registered pets outnumbers children by several million.[iv]

Consider the all-important Millennial age cohort. Their attitudes and values are becoming the defining age segment in U.S. and around the world. According to studies, 2018 was the key year that Millennial purchasing power eclipsed that of Baby Boomers[v]and made them the most economically significant age group. As discussed earlier in reference to 21stcentury infrastructure, the importance of Millennials tastes and preferences has forced cities to re-evaluate their thinking and practice as it relates to this group. 

As we look at the Millennial cohort, the importance of dogs is even more pronounced. Surveys indicate that 44% Millennials see dogs as “starter children”[vi]and perhaps even replacements for children.[vii]I don’t think we fully appreciate the impacts of that attitude. Cities in pursuit of Millennial residents will have to up their game around the infrastructure needed to support dog ownership. 

In For the Love of Cities, I wrote about how dog-friendly cities are lovable cities. They benefit from the externalities of dog ownership: street level activity, green space, safety, social interaction, and increased social capital. Dogs help humanize cities and force us to interact with each other, largely to the benefit of our cities. Dog parks and green spaces have become even more valued and seen as critical elements in making choices about where to live. No longer just nice to have, these spaces are becoming ‘must haves’ for cities.

In my further research around this area I was struck by an extraordinary statistic: the growing number of cities where dogs outnumber children. Seattle appears to be the first U.S. city that documented this phenomenon as far back as 1997.[viii]San Francisco, with statistically the fewest children of any major city in the U.S., follows suit. According to the 2010 census, San Francisco had 107,524 people under the age of 18 and over 150,000 dogs.[ix]Seattle and San Francisco are not outliers, they are bellwethers for other cities. The decline of children in major urban areas has been well documented and discussed. What has been less discussed is the need for dog-related urban design. 

How many cities have declared themselves great places for families and kids? I hear it all the time—that orientation in design and development has driven our urban design and policy decisions for generations. Consider how much of our city is designed around the idea of supporting families with children. As Millennials delay or forego traditional parenting and turn toward pets as viable lifestyle alternatives, our cities need to rethink our fundamental approach to policy and design.

Let me be absolutely clear—I am not advocating for the supremacy or prioritization of animals over children. What I am suggesting is that attitudinal and demographic shifts need to be accounted for and included in our thinking about for whom and what our cities are designed. Significantly, these additions and accommodations are far less expensive than our education systems and other child-related infrastructure. 

Even those who are anti-dog benefit from the effects of dogs and dog-related infrastructure in their neighborhood. Installing more green spaces and parklets in more areas of town adds economic value to those areas. Adding a dog park to an existing green space and playground brings more citizens together, enhances neighborhood safety, and enriches the community experience for all. Even those who don’t own a dog can go and sit in the dog park and watch the puppies play. (Similar behavior at a playground full of kids might get you arrested!)

In response to demand, more cities have opened dog parks, and expanded parks and public green space. However, we are also seeing communities and the private sector respond with new and innovative approaches that show how far we are moving beyond this standard playbook and how dogs actually can be used to help solve many other problems. 

In April 2018, the Jacksonville Jaguars announced that they would be opening a dog park at their home stadium for the 2018 NFL season.[x]The team collaborated with pet boarding and day camp Pet Paradise to provide a 2,000 square foot park complete with a doggie pool, high speed internet, and cameras so that fans can check in on their dogs during the game. If big businesses like the NFL are paying attention to the relationship we have with our dogs, many more are soon to follow. 

In downtown Las Vegas, there is a dog park called the Hydrant Club. Unlike most other dog parks, this one is a private, members-only dog park that is more like a dog country club than a park. Over 15,000 square feet of both indoor and outdoor space, the park includes water features, play equipment, and just about anything your dog would like to play with. The Hydrant Club was founded in 2013 by Cathy Brooks, a Silicon Valley transplant to downtown Las Vegas. Brooks credits a meeting she had with Tony Hsieh, the visionary CEO of Zappos, for the inspiration to move to Las Vegas. Hsieh and his company have championed the Downtown Project, which has reshaped downtown Las Vegas. Zappos not only purchased and repurposed the old City Hall into its corporate headquarters, the company has taken over several other buildings as corporate housing, and actively recruited new businesses and start-up entrepreneurs into the area, including Brooks. 

As many of Zappos employees moved downtown, it became evident that they needed support services including dog walking and day care. In fact, at a Zappos all-hands meeting, Brooks heard from employees that their number one request was for doggy day care downtown. Brooks realized that this was much needed and fun opportunity for her to step into this community. 

Brooks told me that the Hydrant Club is just that—a club with members who form a community. The Club acts as a dog park at its most basic level, but it also offers a range of concierge services for dogs and their parent-owners, including the much-needed daycare service for working people. The Hydrant Club is Brooks’ full-time job now, along with six other part-time employees. The park is open seven days a week with daycare offered Monday through Friday. Zappos CEO Tony Hseih’s dog Blizzy is a member. The Club has influenced other aspects of its neighborhood: the ongoing speaker series downtown is called “Speak,” and there are several Yappy Hour events in the restaurants and bars. The Hydrant Club is a valuable piece of infrastructure, just like a supermarket or a transportation node, in the jobs-business-lifestyle calculus that is modern economic development.

Seattle, Washington, already one of the most dog friendly cities in the world, saw several innovative developments in 2017. Amazon, which is headquartered in downtown Seattle, opened a 2,000 square foot dog park on its campus.[xi]Primarily for its employees, the park is also open to the public. While certainly a positive perk for happy employees, studies also show that dogs in workplaces create positive environments for creativity, collaboration and social interaction[xii]. Companies like Amazon and Zappos are not just doing this to be cool places to work. They clearly see the bottom-line benefit to the company in having a happy, satisfied, collaborative, and creative workforce. 

In the summer of 2017, the Downtown Seattle Association created a series of “pop up” dog parks. The association brought in live grass and food trucks into downtown areas such as Pioneer Park on the second Sundays of June, July and August. The main objective was to further activate these downtown areas, but there was a significant secondary benefit as well. The activation of spaces directly addresses street crime, and in an indirect way, homelessness and panhandling. Active, vibrant spaces are not conducive to illicit activity, so dog parks (whether pop-up or permanent) are bulwarks against crime.[xiii]And while these parks do not directly address the challenges of homelessness in our communities, they do address its visibility. 

When homeless populations congregate, many non-homeless folks get nervous and avoid those areas. This creates a cascade effect; the homeless gravitate to places where they will not be bothered, further increasing their numbers and visibility, which in turn pushes other city dwellers away. To change this dynamic, you need create more activity that provides reasons for people to come to these areas. The pop-up dog parks were exactly that type of activity. They do not address the fundamental issues of homelessness, but they do help us collectively interact with each other and see that we can all share the city together. 

Again and again, we see the positive impacts on our communities by the inclusion of dogs in our design, yet I am still surprised by how many communities struggle with the idea of dog parks and pet-friendly ordinances. The “No Dogs” lobby is alive and well in many places, but its sway over communities is clearly waning. As communities make the case for dog parks based upon safety, community building, economic benefits, health benefits (both physical and emotional), productivity benefits, talent attraction and retention, and social capital, these benefits and the marginal costs to implement them should make the inclusion of dogs in our cities a no-brainer. 

Projects like the Hydrant Club and pop-up dog parks are exemplars of this movement. As I travel across the country, I see how commonplace these kinds of efforts are becoming. Most are not as nice as the Hydrant Club, but the general idea is becoming standard practice for businesses, governments, and anyone involved in placemaking efforts. I believe this goes beyond the economics of making attractive, interesting spaces and is addressing a deeper, emotional, perhaps even spiritual, need.

The relationship people have with their dogs today feels manifestly different from a generation or two ago. Granted we have changed a lot, and we no doubt treat our dogs better, and with more sensitivity to their needs than we did a few decades ago. There is also a racial component to dog ownership that is changing over time as well. White households are on average about three times more likely to have a dog than African American or Hispanic households. Dog ownership is an expense, and lagging economic progress impedes on the adoption of dogs into households. I would also be remiss to not mention that dogs were used as weapons against the African American community within the lifetimes of many community members. That emotional awareness needs to be part of the conversation. Certainly, this feels different amongst the Millennial cohort, and their attitudes about dogs will be the prevailing standard for years to come. 

But that progression alone does not explain the elevated, some might say privileged, position that dogs now play in our lives. The emergence of private parks for dogs, ever increasing comfort animals in airports, high-end dog hotels, restaurants that accommodate both two- and four-footed patrons—all this speaks to a greater need.

I believe that we are using our pets, specifically our dogs, as an antidote to the physical, cultural and technological environment we have created. When we built our interstate highway system, we did not overtly intend to create a car culture that isolated us, but we did. When we built gated communities and suburban homes, we did not intend to isolate ourselves from our neighbors, but we did. When we created smart phones, social media and ubiquitous, persistent connectivity, we thought we were connecting people together. In many, many ways we did—but, again, one of the unintended consequences is the isolation of being alone among many, even while physically together and technologically connected. This same technology has fueled some of our baser instincts as well. We may always have been self-centered, stimulus-seeking, and motivated by instant gratification, but our technology has empowered those motivations and taken them to unhealthy, and even dangerous, heights. In this complex environment our basic need for human connection is even more essential. 

Kathy Brooks said to me, “We can utilize our dogs to help us be more human.” At our best, this is certainly true. Dog ownership, dog parenting, is a responsibility. We think of something beyond ourselves. Dogs require us to get out of our house and interact with our environments. In doing so, we may see other people and, even if we only nod a greeting, we connect with other human beings. A less generous interpretation of this affinity would suggest that our dogs are merely an extension of our self-absorption and narcissism. Is it any wonder that a creature who looks at us with love and adoration, as if we are the most special person on Earth, is going to do well in our self-absorbed, selfie-taking society? Unlike a child, the dog is the perfect accessory to our modern lifestyle. Our dogs have helped fill a very real emotional gap in our modern lives. 

Regardless of the ultimate motivation people have for including a dog in their lives, as city builders, as place-makers, we need to be thinking about this reality. In an immediate sense, our places need to allow for this relationship and support it. Over the longer term, we need to think about how we created this need in people and how we might improve the systems that make up our cities. I am not suggesting that we will design the dog out of our lives—absolutely not. Thousands of years of evolution has made us uniquely well-suited companions, to the betterment of both species. What our dogs have actually done is help fill the gaps in our systems and point to the issues that require our attention. In that sense, these remarkable creatures have proven again to be our best friends—friends who love us unconditionally as we are, yet whose very companionship elevates us and points to our better selves. 


End Notes