- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

Parks, parks, parks.

The District is full of them. The city has more National Park Service land than any other urban area. In fact, a quarter of all property in the city belongs to the park service.

In addition to that vast green space, there are 354 city parks, managed by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

“All the green space adds to the uniqueness of Washington,” says NPS spokesman Bill Line. “There’s something for everyone — the C&O; Canal, Rock Creek Park, the East Potomac public golf course, one of the most used golf courses in the country.”

Sounds idyllic and not exactly the type of place where people — and dogs — with different agendas would step on each other’s toes — or paws — right?

Wrong.

The city’s parks department gets frequent calls from dog people and non-dog people about the use of public green space.

Mostly, non-dog people call to complain about dogs off leash. (Fortunately for dogs and dog owners, the city soon will have designated dog parks where the canines can run off leash; see www.dpr.dc.gov.)

“I’ve never seen an issue be so charged as this one,” says Clark Ray, director of the department

The clashes between these groups — and the occasional unkempt bench-sleeper — raise questions about public space:

Who has what rights to it? And how do Americans view public space?

As it turns out, Americans have spent the past six decades focusing on privatizing their recreating space, says Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana who looked at the issue of public versus private space through the lens of 20th-century swimming pools in his book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.”

“During the postwar experience, there’s been a shift of emphasis away from public recreation toward private recreation,” Mr. Wiltse says. “Americans wanted to control the social environment in which they were recreating — and private space allowed them to do that.”

Meaning that many moved away from the public neighborhood playground in favor of the private play set in the back yard and away from the public neighborhood swimming pool toward the private club pool or — for those who could afford it — backyard pool.

“There’s been a shift from front porches to back decks,” Mr. Wiltse says. “Our outdoor space used to be oriented toward the community. Now it’s oriented away from the community.”

This privatizing enables us to control who gets access to our space, he says, and we tend to invite those most like us, indirectly denying access to those of other racial and economic backgrounds.

Not so with public space — which is exactly that. Joe Homeless has the same rights and access as Joe Richguy.

“This is not my space. It’s our space. It’s there for everyone to experience,” says Mr. Ray, the city’s head of recreation.

As long as Joe Homeless isn’t indecent or drinking alcohol, he has the same rights to park benches at local playgrounds as any toddler or preschooler.

“[In the District of Columbia] there’s no law against sleeping on a bench,” says Mr. Ray, whose department oversees the 354 parks, hundreds of recreation facilities, 31 pools, 144 tennis courts, 125 playgrounds and 124 athletic fields. “As long as you’re not pitching a tent.”

For people worried or annoyed by dogs or homeless people using playgrounds, though, Mr. Ray welcomes them to contact his department at dpr@dc.gov or 202/673-7665 unless it’s a matter of personal safety. In that case, a call to 911 is in order.

Park tensions are not unique to the city. NPS has them, too. On the Mall, for example, sports enthusiasts are so numerous that permits must be issued to ensure space. Clashes occur occasionally when members of one sport or team infringe on the space and time reserved by official permit by another group.

“It’s regulated because of the volume,” NPS spokesman Mr. Line says. “Even HBO has to get a permit.”

HBO is behind the popular “Screen on the Green” outdoor film series that takes place on the Mall between Fourth and Seventh streets every summer.

In essence, HBO and Joe Softball are — literally — on the same playing field.

Green space, in other words, could be seen as an equalizer, Mr. Wiltse says.

“Public space can break down social divisions that are still very prevalent in American society,” Mr. Wiltse says.

“But public space is much less used and much less prioritized than in the past, and community life suffers significantly from that because public space can provide a venue for people in a community to interact; a place where you can develop a shared sense of interest and responsibility.”

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