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By Lorraine Sanders
At Upper Douglass Dog Park, a designated off-leash area at the corner of Douglass and 27th streets, some pet owners have been taking cues from their canine pals. No, they haven't been eating mud, stealing tennis balls, and scampering up the cliffs behind the three-acre park. Rather, they've been developing an enthusiasm for another doggie trait: the pack mentality.
In recent months, the park's bipedal users have banded together, both to protect the park as a safe place for their pets and to organize efforts for future park improvements.
"While many people in the group have worked for years as individuals or in small groups to ensure a safe, enjoyable, and well-maintained park environment, it is only over the last four or five months that we have begun to coalesce into a more organized group," says Eden Halbert, a Noe Valley resident who runs the dog-care company SF DogZone with a little help from her "assistant," a stately Siberian husky mix named Luna.
Halbert is no stranger to park improvement projects. As a co-founder of Friends of Noe Courts Park, she has worked with residents to raise almost $500,000 towards improvements for the playground at the corner of Douglass and 24th streets. She also organized a community cleanup day at Upper Douglass Dog Park in October that drew about 35 people who pitched in to pick up stray poop, fill in holes in the ground, and patch parts of the fence that borders the off-leash area.
As more and more people expressed interest in maintaining and improving the space, Halbert, who sits on the board of Friends of Noe Valley, joined with Carrie Varoquiers, a fellow board member who visits the park daily with her dog Malone, to formally establish a neighborhood group dedicated to the park. In 2007, they have set up a Google group that currently counts about 100 members to discuss park issues and to work towards a prioritized list of ideas for park betterment. The group recently held a community park cleanup day at the end of February, and a Friends of Upper Douglass Dog Park web site is also in the works.
While the official Friends of Upper Douglass Dog Park group is just getting started, its formation reflects a sense of community that has existed at the park for a long time.
"We originally formed the group because there are all these things that we keep talking about, and we just wanted to see where the consensus was," says Denise Spielman, a loyal park user who visits the park daily with her dog Yasmin.
Many of the regulars were already familiar with each other before the group formed. Indeed, on any given day, park users can be found chatting in small groups, catching up on each other's day-to-day lives, and trading pet stories while their dogs romp on the park's grassy terrain. "For [Yasmin], it's like the ideal place. For me, it's a great social interaction," Spielman says.
The hope is that the new group will not only make communication among frequent park users easier and more efficient, but will also aid active dog walkers and owners when they interact with the city's Recreation and Park Department and launch fundraising efforts for park projects, such as a new dog water fountain, a working irrigation system, and a gated front entrance.
According to Colleen Flynn, stewardship program manager for the Neighborhood Parks Council (SFNPC), forming an organized and solid park group is a key element of park upkeep and improvement in the face of park and recreation budget cuts, which she estimates will reach $1 million in the city this year. "We firmly believe that building stewardship for the neighborhood helps to maintain the space and keep it active and helps the city maintain the space," Flynn says.
Forming a park group can also have financial benefits. Each year, the SFNPC selects three San Francisco park groups to receive a $2,500 prize to be used toward future improvements. Winners are selected for exceptional volunteer work in the following categories: Outstanding Environmental Achievement, Outstanding Effort for a Capital Project, and Outstanding Park Group. The deadline for 2007 nominations is March 15.
In the coming months, the Friends of Upper Douglass Dog Park will be working to determine which issues are most important to park users. Currently, water fountains, better drainage, and fencing repairs are the most common items mentioned on an ongoing survey posted on the Google group page.
But even with a cohesive group working to create a better park for dogs and humans alike, changes must ultimately be approved by the city.
"Things don't happen overnight. There are processes there for a reason, and it's easy to get frustrated by what we perceive as red tape, but these are public lands, there's a process in place for making sure that the public has input," Halbert said.
To join or learn more about the Friends of Upper Douglass Dog Park, visit http://groups .google.com/group/UpperDouglass or e-mail Halbert at firstname.lastname@example.org. Neighbors concerned about excessive noise, barking, or other park issues may also contact Halbert via e-mail.