The highly anticipated redesign of an off-leash dog park in downtown Toronto will will not only injure pooches' paws, but also make the much-needed space inaccessible for owners with disabilities, say some residents who live nearby.
The culprit is pea gravel — small, smooth stones the city plans to lay about a foot deep across about half of the fenced-in area at St. Andrew's Playground, which is located at Adelaide Street West and Brant Street.
The other half of the dog park will be artificial turf but as long as there's pea gravel, too, it won't be used to its full potential, says dog owner Melanie Lepp, a member of a group called the Toronto Dog Park Community.
"It's a dangerous surface," said Lepp.
The advocacy group is urging the city to change course and use only artificial turf or engineered wood chips before the park's completed later this year and for all its off-leash areas. The city says pea gravel is one of its recommended surfaces for dog parks because it's low maintenance and drains urine well.
But when dogs play and run through pea gravel, they slide, cutting their paws, and often avoid it altogether, Lepp says.
For humans, she says, it's like "walking on the sea. It's completely unbalanced," especially if they have mobility issues, use a wheelchair or, like Lepp, are visually impaired.
The Toronto Dog Park Community conducted a survey in 2019 that garnered more than 1,000 responses. Seventy-two per cent said pea gravel is a poor or unacceptable material to use in dog parks.
"The extreme dissatisfaction with pea gravel is crystal clear," said the group's founder Eric Code.
"The city's designing parks for urine at the expense of the people and dogs that use them."
The off-leash area at St. Andrew's Playground used to be covered in wood chips and would get muddy in wet weather, says Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York.
He says the design is based on extensive consultations with residents and both pea gravel and artificial turf will be used "to make sure there is space suitable for everyone."
City replacing pea gravel at another park
St. Andrew's Playground is not the first park where the city's gone with pea gravel, and faced a backlash from dog owners.
In 2016, the city spent $178,000 upgrading the off-leash area at Greenwood Park in Leslieville, replacing the dusty and smelly crushed stones, and covering the surface with pea gravel.
But some dogs injured themselves while playing, or refused to walk on the pea gravel at all.
Lepp says she would often go to Greenwood with her German shepherd, Semper. She says one time she walked across the pea gravel and slipped, adding that she saved herself from serious injury by catching herself with her white cane, which snapped in half.
After years of community frustration with the Greenwoord dog park, the city has agreed to swap out the pea gravel for 65 per cent artificial turf. The rest will be covered with natural turf. The process will begin later this month.
The changes, which will also include new pathways, shelter and irrigation system, will cost about $250,000, said Coun. Paula Fletcher, who pushed for it to be resurfaced.
"Pea gravel is large and unstable. People with disabilities couldn't get to their dogs," she said.
City of Toronto spokesperson Ainsley Murray said staff will continue using pea gravel and artificial turf throughout all the city's 70 off-leash areas.
"We appreciate that when finding an ideal off-leash surface for all dogs, there are different preferences among dog owners," she said in a statement on behalf of the parks department.
"The city takes the health and comfort of dogs, and the concerns of their owners seriously and aims to create a revitalized park that will be an asset for decades to come."