Integrating four-legged city dwellers into the CBD – where is the space?

By Joanna Peter – Residents 3000

For the more than 3700 dogs registered with the City of Melbourne (COM) in February 2021, the lack of readily accessible, safe open spaces for city doggies to play, remains an unresolved issue.

In early February 2022, Premier Dan Andrews reported that “more than one in three Victorians own a dog and with more people choosing to live in apartments or units without a backyard, dog parks provide a place where they can get outdoors, socialise and exercise their pets safely and close to home.” He announced that the government’s Local Parks program was looking into creating more dedicated parks for pets in Victoria. The same month saw the opening of the 21st dog park in metro Victoria – with 10 more planned, but sadly not one is inside the CBD for the city doggies.

For CBD dogs, their “backyard” is likely to be made up from the existing parks in the city – space which needs to be shared by the whole CBD community.

The City of Melbourne’s Domestic Animal Management Plan (2017-2021) predicted an average growth of 1000 dog registrations a year (though also acknowledging a similar amount may leave the city each year). Nevertheless, nearly 148,000 people called the CBD their home, and despite the pandemic, with some people moving out of the city, the dog population remained, if not increased. As people begin to move back to the city, we can only predict the number of pets in the city will increase and hence there is an urgency to address the needs of this significant group in the community.

Flagstaff Dog Pawrents, a local dog group of about 100 residents and their dogs in the northside of the CBD, have been campaigning for an off-leash area since early 2020. A petition with 480 signatures (20 per cent of which were non-dog owners from the city) asked the council to look at current spaces within the city parks to allow for accessible and safe off-leash areas where city dogs could exercise by playing with their owners and other dogs. Currently owners need to travel for more than 30 minutes from the city to find the nearest “backyard” for their dogs. Think of getting yourself to the gym where you must walk 30 minutes one way, every day before or after work regardless of the weather!

The City of Melbourne, through Participate Melbourne, had already planned to conduct a community consultation called Open Spaces for Dogs. The consultation took place between March and May 2021 (phases one and two) via an online survey, face-to-face survey, pop-ups, focus groups and the like. The interest and participation were the largest for the CBD with more than 1000 completed online surveys and a further 290 responses from other means (participate.melbourne.vic.gov.au/dogs-open-space/community-consultation).

The main findings were:

  • Safety from traffic. Fences were mentioned frequently.
  • Sociability: people like the sense of community they find among dog owners
  • Facilities: people appreciate dog waste bag dispenser bins, shade, lighting and shelter for themselves in off-leash areas.
  • Nature: trees and grass.
  • The City of Melbourne needs more dog off-leash spaces.
  • Some support “timed access” for dog off-leash dog areas (e.g. off-leash times limited to certain hours each day).
  • Dog off-leash spaces can co-exist with other users, provided people are responsible and observe the rules.

The survey, however, asked the public about the eight existing dog parks near but outside the CBD – most of which are not easily accessible to those who reside within the CBD.

Despite an overwhelming call for utilising existing parks within the CBD like Flagstaff Gardens and Carlton Gardens, these were not included in the consultation due to the “current policy and regulations relating to the heritage status of these parks.” These parks have already installed facilities that are not usually aligned with the “heritage status”. For example, playgrounds, ball courts, barbecue areas.

In November 2021, phase three of the consultation began, whereby alternatives for the CBD (Eades Park for Flagstaff Gardens and Murchison Square for Carlton Gardens) received “a good response from the community in the earlier phases of the consultation, so further views were being sought”. The results are still pending.

Residents including members from the Flagstaff Dog Pawrents have concerns over the use of Eades Park. The park has a long history of local children using this area as a playground. There is inadequate fencing at the Chetwynd St park, which is next to Kings St and dogs off-leash in a children’s playground is not a good mix. There has also been calls for “timed access” where certain times of the day, these parks are used by dogs and other times by humans. This poses a higher risk for unnecessary angst between dog owners and other residents, as we all know people no longer have regimented lives.

This brings us back to the original question posed by these CBD dog owners, “why wouldn’t the council and Parks Victoria review ways of integrating off-leash areas into existing parks of a certain size in the CBD that will benefit all in the local community?”

The Open Spaces for Dogs project is one that has been long overdue and as a CBD resident for the past 16 years and a member of the Flagstaff Dog Pawrents, I strongly believe there is still scope for refinement of the plans to produce results better aligned with CBD dog community needs. The result will hopefully lead to existing park areas being better used, shared and maintained, rather than resources wasted on new areas that will not serve the thousands of dogs in the CBD community •

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