- 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.”

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