For downtown dogs, outside life on a leash is the deal.
For humans in Minneapolis, exercising a downtown dog is a little freer – and friendlier – if owner and pooch can find their way to Loring Park.
10 years ago, Ray Harris harnessed a growing trend and unleashed a big idea in the public park right outside his door in a small, but impactful way.
Loring Park had long been a bustling destination for downtown recreation, replete with a pond and a public building, a well-loved playground, full court basketball, horseshoes and shuffleboard, walking paths, gorgeous gardens and tennis courts. Dogs, however, had been relegated to on-leash status only: Sorry, Rover, no romping in Loring’s wide-open spaces for you.
An early riser, Ray and a neighbor often exercised their dogs in the fenced tennis courts of Loring Park. Unleashed, the dogs would chase tennis balls before rush hour foot traffic and tennis players arrived to activate the park. Using the tennis courts for off-leash dog play was unauthorized, but not uncommon. “The dogs loved it. I loved it. I didn’t have to get in a car to exercise my dog. But I wondered if we could do it another way.”
Ray has a history of wondering “what if?” and “why not?” He spent his 60-year professional career developing spaces for human enterprise – Calhoun Square retail block in Uptown and Greenway Gables town homes downtown are just two of his better-known city projects. Throughout his entire career, Ray developed spaces to benefit the human spirit, not just the bottom line.
“I come from a family of artists,” Ray says, “and I could never draw. But, I have the ability to see: not what is, but what could be." Family circumstances shaped his sensibilities in other ways as well: “I am a middle child and my parents didn’t pay a lot of attention to me. That allowed me a lot of freedom and crazy time to think up crazy things.”
Ray’s imagination is matched by his get-up-and-go, even at age 89.
“I question why it is in America that we can’t undertake solving community problems – affordable housing, education, health care?” Ray asks. “Why can’t we create more places to bring people together? A lot of people have good ideas, what we need is action. I’m at a point in my career where I can say, ‘this is going to happen, and I’m going to make it happen.’”
One place that bears his particular imprint is the Dog Grounds Off Leash Dog Park in Loring Park.
According to Trust for Public Land, dog parks are among the fastest growing amenities in parks across the US. Dog parks are popular in cities because they not only provide a place for dogs to let loose and expend energy (and relieve themselves), they provide a place for dog owners to gather and socialize as well.
Dog parks don’t just happen. TPL’s research shows that what makes dog parks successful is “strong collaboration between the public parks agency, the surrounding community, and a local dog advocacy group – primarily volunteers who have a strong ownership stake in the dog park.” (Link to study below).
Ray knew this early on. Collaborating with his pal, Minneapolis City Council member Lisa Goodman, and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board staff and commissioners, Ray negotiated a 10-year lease to build and operate an off-leash site in Loring Park. It would be a true public/private partnership, something relatively new in the Minneapolis parks: the Park Board owned the land, private money would pay for the amenities, and a not-for-profit advocacy group, Dog Grounds, would operate and maintain the dog park.
Ray conceived of the original design of the park – a long, narrow slice of the park’s northern most boundary, just .22 acres – after reading a book about Chicago’s dog parks. He envisioned a truly urban experience: views of downtown skyscrapers, plenty of foot traffic hustling by, and an opportunity for local dog owners to “release the hounds” while getting to know one another.
“This dog park is a great spot for young people to meet other young people,” Ray observes. He sees dog owners of all ages there every day when he takes his own dog, Amery, to play: “It’s a great social connector.”
Ray paid for all the improvements inside the fence (about $30,00 total), and negotiated with local builder, Kraus-Anderson, to install the fence at-cost. Not wanting “any old dog park,” Ray sought artistic elements and places to sit, commissioned a playful “Bridge to Erehwon” (“Nowhere” spelled backward), and made sure the Park Board kept the bordering pine trees inside the park’s perimeter to add structure and shade for humans and dogs alike.
Prominent in the park is a 16-foot tall, carved wooden totem pole by sculptor Bill Blaxley. It depicts 7 dogs stacked on top of one another. “Bill used photos of local Loring Park dogs for his design,” Ray says. “I wanted a tank at the bottom that would draw fresh water with a pump for the dogs to drink from, and we included that in the design. The tank was a huge failure – the dogs rolled in the water and peed in it.”
Prototypes, a lengthy public process, re-designs and all, what motivates Ray to add spaces like Dog Grounds to the public realm?
“I’ve had community betterment on my mind from my first project. And while I didn’t have money to give to big ideas in the beginning,” Ray offers, “I did have development knowledge and project expertise.”
Ray’s financial security and his commitment to public improvements have both strengthened over the years. He offers, “I needed to make money so my kids could eat, but I decided early on to commit 1/3 of my time to special projects. I knew I could always give my time to make the community better.”
For more information:
Photo Credits: Tracy Nordstrom, Ray Harris, FB/Loring Dog Park