A Dog Park in Ward 8?

Why is This an Issue?

Ward 8 contains some of DC's largest green spaces, including Oxon Run Park, Fort Stanton, Anacostia Park, and Shepard Parkway, but while there are more than 30 free public fenced-in dog parks in the DC metropolitan area—half of which of which are located in the district itself—none of them are located in Wards 7 or 8. Zero. Just take a look at the map below. East of the river is a dog park desert. That means most of DC's Black community doesn't enjoy equal access to the benefits dog parks provide—and disproportionately bears the burdens of not having any nearby dog parks.

Ward 8 residents get the short end of the stick when it comes to a lot of public infrastructure—grocery stores, medical facilities, polling places—and then the infrastructure we do have is often poorly maintained, including our roads, sidewalks, playgrounds, and public parks. Ward 8 also struggles with more serious problems, including poverty, violent crime, and inequality. We can and should organize to address those issues. But we also deserve nice things. We deserve the same amenities other wards in DC enjoy, and we need targeted investments from our city government to build and maintain them.

A free public fenced-in dog run in Oxon Run Park ought to be one of those investments, but we need strong community mobilization to ensure it and any other new developments here serve the interests of Ward 8 residents and strengthen the Black community instead of laying the groundwork for its displacement. The threat of gentrification and widening inequality is real, and protecting the environment must be a priority, too.

This is the fight for a dog park in Ward 8.

It’s about creating a fun and safe space for our community to come together in one of the district’s biggest and most beautiful parks, and it’s about using that space—and the process of getting it approved—to organize and elevate the issues that matter most to Ward 8 residents.

How It Started: Friends of Oxon Run Dog Park Group

As people across the country found themselves cooped up in their homes and unable to safely visit family and friends during the pandemic, the demand for domestic dog-pals and pet-friendly public spaces skyrocketed.

Although the changes in many people's day-to-day lives may have made caring for a new addition to the family at home easier, the dramatic increase in the adoption of pets was largely driven by the need for positivity and emotional support. According to a survey by Rover.com, a whopping 93% of new adopters said their ‘pandemic pet’ "improved their mental and/or physical well-being” in the last year and over 80% said it made "working from home and being at home during the pandemic more enjoyable."

If you’re a pet owner, you probably feel the same way. We take care of them, but they often take care of us, too. But as the pandemic changed our needs and expectations for amenities closer to home, dog owners in Ward 8 looking to take better care of their dogs became increasingly frustrated by our lack of access to designated spaces to let our dogs run free off-leash with other dogs. And with the increasing focus on racial injustice in America following the sickening murder of George Floyd, it was clear that even something as trivial as the lack of dog parks in Ward 8 was just another glaring example of DC's own history of racial injustice and a lack of investment in Black communities.

Now, Ward 8 residents have come together to form the Friends of Oxon Run Dog Park Group and do something about it.

Dogs, in Ward 8?

Across all of DC, about 1 in 4 households have dogs. However, nationwide dog ownership rates are lower among low-income and Black households compared to high-income and white households, and they're also lower among those who rent or live in apartments compared to those who own their homes, so dog ownership rates in Ward 8 are almost certainly lower than elsewhere in the city. If you've seen your neighbors walking their dogs around the neighborhood, though, (or the poop some them leave behind; more on that later) you know there are still plenty of dog owners living in Ward 8.

Parris Weaver is one of them.

Parris's French bulldog Marble enjoys going to the dog parks in Northeast and Navy Yard, but would prefer something closer to home.

Parris and her husband Allan welcomed their pet child, Marble, into their family two years ago. As Ward 8 (Congress Heights) residents for the past 3 years, they have enjoyed walking through Oxon Run Park on cool days to keep Marble active. Allan, who is a native Washingtonian from Northeast, has always had dogs in his family, so it was only natural to want a place for Marble to run around off-leash.

Parris spoke in person to her local ANC commissioner, Salim Adofo, during the 2020 election season about the need for equitable facilities within Ward 8. She happened to be walking her dog that day, so she used a dog park as an example. "I was irritated with the fact that I had to drive across town for something that could be conveniently located a mile away at the local park," Parris says. Their conversation sparked an ongoing dialogue about the need for a local dog park in Ward 8, and Parris began reaching out to neighbors on her morning and afternoon walks.

Nationwide, about 22% of Black households like Parris's have a dog. And while the cost of adopting and owning a dog is a larger financial barrier for thousands of our neighbors in Ward 8 who struggle with poverty, 25-28% of households making under $35,000 a year (Ward 8's median income) have a dog, too. 32% of people who rent and 21% of people who live in apartments or condos have dogs. Any way you slice and dice the numbers, it's hard to imagine any less than 10% of Ward 8 residents owning a dog—and that'd be nearly 10,000 people!

The financial burden and cramped living spaces aren't the only factors contributing to different attitudes toward dog ownership in Ward 8, though. For some Black people growing up in America, dogs come with a fraught history of violence and oppression. They are not “sweet, lovable companions or surrogate children, but rather, terrifying or utilitarian animals.” Images of police dogs lunging at unarmed Civil Rights protesters aren’t easy to forget, and selection for aggressive guard dogs in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by violent crime (and poorly served by law enforcement) cannot be ignored either.

However, the Black community is not a monolith, and fixating on these factors risks propagating racist and outdated stereotypes that hold back progress. After all, there are plenty of positive stories of Black Americans and canine companions, especially in recent memory. The reality today is that many Black DC residents have happy and wholesome relationships with their pets—and many of the problems we do have with aggressive dogs in Ward 8 could be remedied by building a freely-accessible dog run in Oxon Run Park.

Benefits of a Dog Park

A recent poll conducted by the National Recreation and Park Association shows that 91% of Americans believe dog parks provide benefits to the communities they serve. Do Ward 8 residents feel the same way? Parris and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C chair Salim Adofo started a petition to find out. And it turns out that more than 200 Ward 8 residents agree: dog parks give dogs a safe space to exercise and roam around freely, they allow dogs to safely socialize with other dogs, and they give owners a chance to be physically active with their pet in an enclosed environment. But a dog park in Ward 8 specifically could help our community in a variety of other ways, too.

Expand the points below to learn more!

1. Bring the community together.

Beyond the well-documented health and wellness benefits of green common spaces, research shows that residents with parks nearby are also “more likely to enjoy stronger social ties than those who live surrounded by barren concrete.” Regular attendance and activities in the dog park will not only make the whole area safer, friendlier, and more welcoming; getting more people into Oxon Run Park more often—meeting each other’s dogs, enjoying nature, and building positive connections throughout the neighborhood—will help us build a stronger, more unified Ward 8. And those connections could pay especially powerful dividends when it's time to organize around other issues facing the community.

2. Meet more people who live in the neighborhood.

It's implied in bringing the community together, but the personal impact of a dog park can't be understated. It's not just for the dogs! It's a place to meet and socialize with other dog owners and where that shared interest and experience makes it much easier to start conversations and join group activities. Especially after a year of being cooped up in their homes, Ward 8 residents need more reasons and opportunities to connect with each other.

3. Promote responsible dog ownership.

Dog parks in DC are governed by clearly publicized rules posted on the gate, empowering local dog owners to educate others about those rules and help enforce them. Through peer pressure and positive experiences, a dog park would help spread norms and expectations for responsible dog ownership throughout Ward 8including picking up your dog’s poop and keeping dogs on a leash everywhere else. Dog parks also include trash barrels and free poop bag dispensers stocked by volunteers in the Congress Heights Dog Park Group to make disposal of dog poop even easier. We even plan to organize dog training and communication events that will help Ward 8 residents better understand and control their dogs. There may always be people who ignore the rules and act irresponsibly, but a centralized network of dog owners sustained by a dog park will help us combat those problems in the community and hold people accountable.

4. Reduce aggression and other problem behaviors.

Ward 8 residents would have far fewer problems with aggressive dogs if we had a dog park. An enormous body of research shows that dogs who are properly socialized (both with other dogs and other people) are happier, healthier, and better-behaved, and that a lack of socialization contributes to fearful and aggressive behaviors that put people, property, and other pets at risk. Dog parks are more beneficial to a dog’s mental health than simply playing in the yard or walking around the neighborhood because it gives them a chance to get some real playtime stimulation. And while no dog is born bad, natural instincts such as hunting, barking, and herding can be suppressed when caged or kept indoors too long, leading to dangerous or embarrassing outbursts when they finally do see other dogs and people. Regularly attending a dog park lets dogs get that energy out in small, healthy doses while simultaneously building the confidence and social skills to handle more stressful situations elsewhere.

5. Reduce the burden and danger of dog ownership in Ward 8.

In addition to the costs associated with poorly socialized dogs—including expensive hospital visits from dog attacks, property damage from misbehavior, and excessive stress-inducing barking—many Ward 8 residents are forced to choose between walking their dog in a neighborhood where they don't always feel safe or taking the time and gas to travel to another ward or outside the city to let their dog socialize outdoors with other dogs. For those of us who live in neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime, going to a public dog park may feel safer than taking the dog for a walk around the block. But, like crossing the river to seek medical care or waiting in long lines at the grocery store, the extra 30 minutes Ward 8 residents have to take out of their day to get to and from a dog park outside Ward 8 is another tax on our time and resources. Building a dog run in Oxon Run Park, at the center of our community, would eliminate that commute and give us a safe alternative in our own neighborhood. We also hope to organize dog health screening events and vaccination clinics to make veterinary care more accessible to Ward 8 residents.

There's clearly a lot to be excited about, but despite the many benefits, some Ward 8 residents are rightly concerned about what this proposal means for our community—and whether a dog park would do more harm than good. After all, dog parks aren’t just a product of changing standards and expectations for dog owners; they’re often part of a pattern of structural inequality and a herald of neighborhood gentrification. We can't just add a new amenity to Oxon Run Park without considering how this new development could adversely affect many Ward 8 residents.

Resisting Gentrification

As neighborhoods become safer and see more development and amenities for residents, they tend to attract wealthier (and often whiter) newcomers who may accelerate these changes. Dog parks reek of this trend. Costly dog park proposals are presented by developers to city councils with sunny renderings of beautiful landscaping and happy dog owners. But if you ask a person of color to look at those renderings, their first reaction might be obvious: “That is a lot of white people with dogs.” The fact that dog ownership is higher among white people than Black people almost confirms the implied message: dog parks are a luxury for white people.

Gentrification as it is commonly understood is so harmful because the typical target of investment and development is property, not people, so the original residents are often left behind or even exploited in this process. The newer residents, ignorant or dismissive of their neighbors' lives, means, and needs, wield their power and economic muscle to reshape the neighborhood in their own interest, pricing out many of the original residents along the way.

James Earle is one of the Ward 8 residents concerned about this trend.

Cooper is a beagle-hound rescue who follows James wherever he goes, even to the dog parks across the river in Alexandria or Navy Yard where the other dogs are trying to teach him how to play.

James has lived in Ward 8 near Oxon Run with his wife, Jaclyn, their dog, Cooper, and their cat, Minerva, for since 2015. He was approached by Salim Adofo about the dog park petition while walking his dog in Oxon Run Park and has been working with Parris and nearby ANCs to get even more neighbors involved ever since. But James is still worried about what his involvement means. "It's not a great look," he admits. "I lack the lived experience of at least 90% of my neighbors, so I can't speak for them, but I am doing my best to listen to them and amplify their voices."

Together, James and Parris heard from residents and commissioners from ANCs 8C, D, and E to get their feedback and support, and much of the content on this website is based on what they learned. "I'm not Black, and neither of us were experts on this issue when we started," James says, "so I'm constantly checking myself, asking, 'Is that accurate? Is this what the community actually wants?' Thankfully, so far, I think we're on the right track."

'On the right track,' in this case, means keeping restorative justice in mind from start to finish and using the dog park to empower and enrich Ward 8's Black community instead of laying the groundwork for its displacement. Of particular note is the fact that millions of dollars in construction contracts are up for grabs. Imagine what that kind of money could do if it was used to hire contractors from Ward 8 and to buy materials from Black-owned businesses instead of just being funneled through some big corporate developer. ANCs and other local leaders have wisely included language in their letters of support calling for just that. Funding for a dog park would also come from DPR's budget, so it wouldn't even affect our ability to finance the work of other agencies and initiatives that are higher priorities for Ward 8 residents, but we also need a cost analysis to determine just how much of an investment a dog park would be.

If we can ensure Ward 8’s people are the targets of economic development instead of just its property, we can enjoy the fruits of our labor and be better prepared to afford the higher costs of living in a gentrifying neighborhood. Ward 8 could grow—and yes, change—without losing its essential character or driving out its original residents.

One thing that really shouldn't change, though, is Oxon Run Park.

Protecting the Environment

Oxon Run is a big park—DC's largest non-federal park, in fact—featuring over 100 acres of open greens, trees, sports areas, trails, playgrounds, and public facilities like the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center. A quick glance at the map shows there is plenty of space for even a quarter-acre (~10,000 square feet) dog run in the park, and there are several wide-open spaces that might be convenient locations for Ward 8 residents. But size isn't everything, as they say. The environmental impact of a dog run in Oxon Run Park must be carefully evaluated, too.

Friends of Oxon Run is a local nonprofit whose mission is to address the needs of conservation of natural resources and preservation of green space in Ward 8. Enhancing the community’s mental and physical well-being through events, exercise, and outdoor learning in Oxon Run Park is one of their top priorities, but finding the right balance between public use and environmental conservation is an ongoing challenge. Those of us fighting for a dog park in Ward 8 must keep this balance in mind as well.

Building in the park is a problem because it can detract from the availability and diversity of green space, fracture the environment, and introduce new sources of pollution. And while a dog run (a dog 'run' is just a dog park inside a larger park) in Oxon Run Park could be little more than some new fencing and benches carefully integrated into the natural environment, it would still essentially be an open-air dog toilet. Although concentrating the impact of dogs in one area might seem like a bad idea, DC's Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) claims that because of their design and location, dog parks actually "reduce TSS, nitrogen, phosphorous, and harmful bacteria flowing to Oxon Run." Volunteers also sanitize the park on a regular basis, and we can choose environmentally friendly cleaning solutions to further reduce the park's environmental impact. Buffer plants and distance from the Oxon Run stream bed can mitigate pollution concerns, too.

It's unclear whether a location anywhere in Oxon Run Park is suitably far enough from the stream bed, though. DC's 2021 environmental regulations indicate a dog park can't be built within 50 feet of the stream, and there are indeed several areas of the park that fulfill this criteria. However, DOEE wrote in 2010 that "dog parks should not be located in Oxon Run Park because it is directly adjacent to the stream." An updated assessment on the impact of a carefully designed and well-maintained dog park for Ward 8 residents in Oxon Run Park is clearly needed to resolve this discrepancy. Otherwise, the director of DPR is likely to reject any dog park proposal in such an environmentally sensitive area.

Working closely with Friends of Oxon Run, DPR, and DOEE to decide where and how to build a dog park isn't just important for assessing its environmental impact. They are also working together on a highly-ambitious stream restoration plan that could reshape the entire park and include significant excavation to reduce elevations in the park near Wheeler Road. Any proposal to build a dog park must account for this larger plan for the area. However, the recent approval of another big project in the parkThe Well at Oxon Run, a one-acre urban farm and community center to be built by the 200 black of Valley Ave—shows it must be possible to build sustainable and community-oriented spaces in the park without disrupting restoration plans.

Demand for a dog run in Oxon Run Park is loud and clear, but it's equally clear that it will take diligent research and careful planning to ensure any dog park in Ward 8 has a low environmental impact as well as a high value to the entire community. And doing all that is going to take a lot of work.

Getting Organized

As you can tell, a dog park in Ward 8 is complicated. But getting it right and addressing these issues head-on keeps everyone involved committed to ensuring our dog park will actually serve everyone in the community, and it means the work we're doing can educate and organize folks to tackle serious systemic injustices, too. At the end of the day, we’re not just fighting for a dog park; we’re fighting for equal opportunities, restorative justice, and environmental justice for Ward 8 residents and Black communities.

Notably, the fight for a dog park can help us build the community organizing apparatus to take on bigger challenges. A dog park is fun, and it can get people excited about civic engagement by providing a big win for residents. If we make a dog park the friendly face of a more serious campaign to deal with deeper structural injustices in Ward 8, we can support efforts to tackle those problems, too. An increased sense of community ownership of the park would also make it easier to fight for more frequent cleanup of trash and debris throughout Oxon Run Park and for better repairs and maintenance of the existing playgrounds for children.

Ward 8’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners can also use this effort as a low-stakes way to get their residents more involved in community meetings and public hearings. Then, when they come back to mobilize us for a more significant challenge, like the fight for a new hospital, it’s less intimidating. This is also a valuable opportunity to build closer relationships with DPR officials and mayoral appointees who oversee budgets and planning for these sorts of projects, ensuring Ward 8 residents have a greater voice in the decisions of government agencies about a wide slate of issues that affect our community.

Right now, we're focused on the path ahead: developing a community-driven, economically equitable, and environmentally sensible case for a dog park in Oxon Run Park. We need to work together to build it.

  • To add your voice to this fight, sign the petition and tell us why you support (or oppose) a dog park for Ward 8.

  • Take a look at what other local leaders are saying and contact us to learn more about submitting a letter of support on behalf of your business or organization.

  • Help us with advocacy and community engagement by joining the Friends of Oxon Run Dog Park Group—the group of volunteers who will eventually be responsible for cleaning and organizing events in the dog park. Contact us here to learn more.

Rules and Regulations

DC provides definitions, guidance, rules, and regulations for dog parks and dog park groups in Title 19, Chapter 7, Sections 730–799 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations. They cover the process of submitting a dog park application, the environmental and regulatory criteria DPR considers when evaluating a proposed dog park location, the rules all dog park attendees must follow, how we'll handle complaints and enforcement, and how DC defines terms like 'aggressive dog' and 'dog park group.' Take a look below!