30 September 2014

Summit Conversations: Influences of pets in creating community

Image result for u of cAnn M. Toohey, PhD Candidate in Population and Public Health, Department of Community Health Sciences, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary
InfoStream Guest Author 

Understanding the influences of pets in creating community in urban settings is a timely topic to study, given that over a third of North American households include a pet. In fact, the many ways that our society accommodates the pets with whom we share our homes and neighbourhoods inevitably has an impact on the lives of pet-owners and non-owners alike.  

So, enticing urban planners and policymakers to consider ways that pets and people co-exist in neighbourhoods is an important step towards achieving the best possible sense of community in our urban neighbourhoods.

If we think for a moment about the presence of pets in our own neighbourhoods, for some, it might be the small annoyances, or even dreaded conflicts, that are top-of-mind: the neighbours who let their dog loose to “go” wherever he pleases, or the roaming cat who intimidates birds at the neighbours’ feeders. Indeed, we cannot ignore the fact that many people, nearly a quarter of those surveyed in one Norwegian study, may identify cats and dogs in their neighbourhoods as causing problems. 

In matters of sharing public space, for instance, we regularly hear about “pro” dog versus “anti” dog factions, pitted against each other in heated political debates. Sometimes, dogs themselves are unwanted (for instance, when viewed as invading safe havens for urban wildlife). Other times, dog-owners are accused of failing to respect the experiences of others (including other dog owners!) who are also trying to enjoy the same public spaces. 

Cats also get a bad rap for causing problems between neighbours, although a UK study of retired women living in subsidized housing found that the non-cat-owners in the complex were far more accepting of their neighbors’ cats than expected. The finding was so pronounced that a no-cats complex reversed their policy as a result. 

Overall, these different examples illustrate how points of both conflict and cohesion are critical for urban planners and policymakers to identify and understand, in considering pets in communities.

While we often hear about pet-related conflict as deterring sense of community, there are also many ways that pets can help to make people feel good about their neighbourhoods. Dog-walking has received a good deal of attention from researchers of late, alongside concerns over increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Many studies have linked dog-walking, a popular neighbourhood-based activity, with being more physically active. Several other studies have highlighted the increased – and at times enduring – social contact that takes place with dog-walkers. 

In fact, dogs can influence physical activity for both dog-owners and non-dog owners. Ideally, the influence will be a positive one, encouraging people to be out and about in their neighbourhoods. For example, some research has suggested that by seeing people out walking their dogs, we feel safer, we have a stronger sense of community, and we may be more inclined to go out walking ourselves. 

My own research has confirmed that older adults who are frequent neighbourhood dog-walkers also have more positive feelings about their neighbourhoods. In response to these findings, urban environments merit consideration for adopting designs and amenities that encourage dog-walking for people of all ages and abilities. Proactively planning for dog-ownership in new urban developments, as is beginning to happen in the UK, is an approach that merits consideration.

We also know that neighbours often get to know one-another through their pets. As a personal example, I once had an elderly neighbour who would walk up and down the sidewalk each evening, calling in her cat for the night. Not only was the elderly woman out walking and interacting with any neighbour she encountered (Have you seen Kitty?): simultaneously, her neighbours were informally keeping an eye on her, which was important since she lived alone, aside from her beloved cat. 

Studies of neighbourhoods have found that these informal roles we play, in terms of caring about our neighbours’ well-being and being willing to assist them in times of need, are fundamental to building strong communities. And often, these roles may be facilitated by the pets in our midst, especially if supported by things like pet-friendly features (including pet-friendly housing), social spaces, and careful policy that outlines the pet-owners’ rights alongside their responsibilities, both towards their pets and towards others.

The overall message, when it comes to considering the influence of pets in creating community, is to ensure that urban planning and related policy development is thinking through the ways that pet-friendly environments can benefit pet-owners and non-owners alike. The presence of pets in our neighbourhoods and public spaces affects how people relate to each other and to their environments. A forward-thinking approach can go a long way towards enabling the positive benefits of pets in urban environments, which can also help to create community.

The ninth annual Summit for Urban Animal Strategies is days away. Throughout the year, leaders in the industry have identified dilemmas and developed conversations to recast dilemmas into opportunities. 

The 2014 Urban Animal Forum™ on Friday, October 24th, develops industry conversations into strategies and tactics. InfoStream articles by recognized industry experts, are presented to prepare delegates for this activity.

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