The most valuable trait that a neighborhood can have is people. This statement may sound obvious, but to paraphrase Jane Jacobs; people are drawn to other people. Our culture, unfortunately, has mostly forgotten or shunned this universal truth. This is the reason that Washington Avenue will still carry 6 lanes of traffic after an $8 million makeover. This is why even just three good urban blocks will become a regional destination (Uptown, Northeast, Grand Avenue, Linden Hills, Nicollet Mall, 50th and France, Cathedral Hill, Dinkytown). We struggle as a culture to build, cultivate, and disseminate vibrant environments. Much of this shortcoming is due to the fact that America has a very short collective memory. Luckily, dogs have even shorter memories.
Dogs live for the moment, and they implore their people to do the same. Gracen Johnson, the creator of the Another Place For Me video series has done a marvelous short piece explaining exactly why dogs can enliven or even revitalize urban neighborhoods. The simplest and most important point that she makes is that dogs need to go on walks – especially if their owners don’t have a yard. If you own a dog, it is almost certain that you will be out and about at least twice a day. Chances are good that you will run in to the same people and the same dogs whom are also out and about twice every day. Even if your daily exchange is as simple as a smile and a quick hello, you are building your own sense of community. The presence of this joviality, as small as it may be, is discernible. Not only are dog owners’ experience of their neighborhood made a little better by additional human contact, passersby notice it too.
There are measures that apartment buildings, business owners, neighborhood associations, and even individual home owners can take to harness in the benefits of dog-friendliness. Something as simple as setting out a water bowl can signal to a dog-walker that they are welcome here. A repeat visit will increase foot traffic, which will increase eyes on the street, which is a boon to business or a benefit to home value. Walkable neighborhoods command higher property values than car-centric neighborhoods and are healthier on average (although health causation is debatable). The act of welcoming dogs and their owners in to a neighborhood can help to activate the process of increasing walkability.
The next step for a dog-friendly neighborhood might be a coordinated effort to make errands possible with dog in tow. I accept that there are limitations, especially when it comes to health code, but being able to add some productivity to daily walks would be an immense benefit to urban neighborhoods. I have no illusions of walking my dog down the aisles at Kowalski’s, but I will admit that CB2′s dog-friendliness has enticed me to spend more on furniture than I otherwise would have. By stopping in during walks I am more likely to grow fond of the store and come back later to buy.
The ability to bring your dog along is just one more much needed nudge toward shopping locally. A small publicity campaign to advertise that a majority of establishments in a given retail corridor are dog-friendly could be immensely helpful in bringing vitality to the street. Most business owners with a storefront don’t need anyone to explain to them that vibrancy means money. Most homeowners would rather see people out walking around than to live on a deserted street (although a small but vocal minority of homeowners will fight any attempt to make their neighborhoods more lively, amiright Bill?)
My own neighborhood of Lyn-Lake and nearby Uptown are both relatively dog friendly and I take advantage of that fact. It’s interesting to parse which stores I feel comfortable to wander in to and which I will stay out of with my dog. I always look for some sort of indication that the business is dog friendly and use common sense. If a high number of stores in a given area display a sign indicating dog friendliness I am more likely to feel empowered to wander in to nearby stores as well. The retail stretch of Hennepin between Lake and 31st is very good for shopping with a dog, and I have made several unplanned purchases while wandering in or taking respite from the weather. These businesses benefit from a perceived sense of dog-friendliness.
There is a familiar refrain to be made about cities, well-being, vibrancy, and the resulting human happiness. The bottom line is that good cities are the product of a chain reaction. They can not be faked or decreed. It is a process of growth and renewal that builds and improves upon preceding successes. There are very few positive interjections that can be made at any point during this process (but many possible disastrous interventions). Since they are so rare, I get very excited when I come across a beneficial action that communities can take without prohibitive costs or prerequisites. Dog-friendliness is one of these actions. Regardless of any other external conditions, dog owners need to take their dogs outside at least twice a day. Smart neighborhoods will greet them with open arms and handsomely displayed merchandise.