PUBLIC SKATEPARKS: HOW WE GOT HERE & WHERE WE
To anybody who skated the neighborhood curb for hours each day this is nothing short of shocking. Skateboarding by definition was a renegade activity.
For those of us who came of age on skateboards in the 1980s these are unprecedented times. As groms, we barged street spots across towns where the ubiquitous overweight security guard was always a half-step behind. We could not have imagined a time when local governments would be jockeying to provide the best possible skatepark in the region. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that the smartest towns—those with the best skateparks—are empowering us, skaters, to drive the skatepark development process.
To anybody who skated the neighborhood curb for hours each day this is nothing short of shocking. Skateboarding by definition was a renegade activity. Soaring liability costs and reduced demand killed the private skatepark era, leaving only the very privileged with regular access to permission tranny in backyards. Unless your dad was as cool as Lance Mountain’s and hooked you up in the backyard, you had a fundamental choice: quit or survive on the streets.
It was a good time to be a grom. Whereas some old-guard pros struggled in vain to stay relevant in the new terrain, being young meant being adaptable. Gonz and Natas stepped into the hero vacuum and we took dutiful notes each month from the Thrasher/Transworld textbook. We didn’t care who got the covers as long as the skating continued to be skating, that is to say as long as it continued to destroy barriers.
Natas Kaupas ramp to wall ride – Street Skating on the rise…
Yet each time my friends and I would get busted skating a loading dock at midnight or a ditch at town’s edge we grumbled aloud about why we couldn’t just have some place to call home. Criminality has its privileges, but so does skating in peace. “I don’t make the rules around here, I just enforce them” was the party line we heard from the occasionally compassionate strain of Mr. Man, anxious to get back to his football game being broadcast on the radio with tape delay.
“Maybe one day there will be skateparks, free, just like basketball courts and horseshoe pits,” we’d laugh out loud. “Curbs, banks to curb, banks to wall, benches, a handrail that wasn’t too high.” Getting more ridiculous, “A mini ramp with spine… what if you bowled it?” And the final laugh, “What about a pool? Concrete, tiles, blocks, death box…”
In the 1990s ridiculous finally yielded to reason, and two important developments ignited the public skatepark phenomenon. Changes in states’ laws shielded public recreation providers, like municipalities, from legal liability when accidents occur. And skaters began to take a more active role in terrain development. Burnside, in particular, played a pivotal role. There a core group of skaters was left alone to apply their creativity and diligence to an outcome constrained by only their vision.
One should not ignore or underestimate the significance of Burnside’s development. It is not uncommon for recreation interest groups to partner with public agencies to work collaboratively for new facility development, e.g. trail advocates and land management agencies in tandem on new trail development. However there is essentially no precedent for an interest group to start building without permission, obtain public support along the way, and have the outcome be accepted into a city’s portfolio of public infrastructure.
Burnside’s storied legacy leaves at least two profound developments relevant to skatepark development. First, skaters—and only skaters—controlled the design outcome. Second, Burnside’s design, which bleeds together 8,000 square feet of elements, established a design template now used by nearly skatepark designer. Even when park designs segregate elements per a 1970s/1980s park template, today they almost always include a “flow” section. The contemporary working model of flow was born at Burnside.
Fast forward to today where public skateparks mushroom as the new American recreational “must have.” Planned communities in places like Arizona, Nevada, and California now advertise the presence of a neighborhood skatepark to entice families to purchase homes. As the public skatepark avalanche engulfs even the most remote of towns the level of sophistication in design and construction awareness increases dramatically.
To tap the awareness, many communities are recognizing that their best sources of skatepark knowledge are often local, the kids of the 80s and 90s who have now grown to become adults that remain passionate about skateboarding. Frequently this generation of skaters turned advocates compliment their decades of personal experience on skateboards with information gleaned from non-profit organizations like Skaters for Public Skateparks, whose website has quickly become the leading portal of knowledge on matters of skatepark development.
When experienced skaters are tasked with leadership responsibilities, key trends emerge. Concrete—the magical mix of gravel, sand, Portland cement, and water—is rightly taking its place as the premiere surface for skatepark development. Nouveau plastics may always retain a niche for smaller or private indoor skateparks but nearly every town now seems to be aware that concrete, while a greater capital investment, yields a much greater return over the long term. (Skate-lite Disciples, anyone?) Boutique surfaces such as granite and marble add touches of streetscape authenticity to complement concrete construction.
As concrete takes its form, other advancements follow. Most broadly, the scope of a skatepark is expanding. The first decade of public skatepark development saw well-intentioned but uninformed city decision-makers guesstimate skatepark development in budgets yielding blocks of generally 10,000 square feet. First-generation public skateparks brought awe and joy to skaters initially as most thought public skateparks would never happen. However, frustration and resentment quickly followed as all participants recognized the inherent constraints of just 10,000 square feet.
Des Moines WA. is an example of an early skatepark that had no lines
Credible reproduction of the street skating experience took the biggest hit, with the majority of skatepark terrain focused on transitions. Street skating in skateparks devolved to a hybridized mini quarter-pipe experience of clashing lines and knee-high “handrails.” Transitions fared better generally but roundwall vert was nowhere to be found outside of the Pacific Northwest parks. With skaters in charge, the message is slowly being delivered that 10,000 square feet can be appropriate—as one of many parks in a town.
When the quantity of skatepark terrain expands, design advancements continue. Larger-scale skate plazas blend the specific needs of skateable street terrain with the traditional aesthetic of a town square, providing value to both skaters and non-skaters. In the long term plazas may benefit not just street skaters but transition fans as well. Plaza development forces communities to address the need for aesthetically appropriate—and appropriately scaled—skateable street terrain.
Recognition expands everyday that street skating has very specific spatial needs that cannot be met in a mixed-terrain 10,000 square foot block. (For details, see http://www.skatersforpublicskateparks.com/visual_glossary_street.html). By providing for a credible street skating experience in the form of a plaza, towns are free to deliver transition-centric terrain, including vert, without encumbrance. Ideally the two styles of terrain are built adjacent to each other allowing skaters to enjoy both as whim strikes. Each can be divided, however, if spatial, budgetary, or other constraints require.
Roundwall vert has finally taken root in the media mothership of the skate world: Southern California. Clairemont, Encinitas, San Pedro, Washington Street, and just some of the skateparks with true concrete vert to complement the presence of those competition-ready half pipe superstructures at Clairemont and Encinitas.
The oververt phenomenon continues to spread beyond its original launch in Port Orford, Oregon (following the successful beta model in Rattenberg, Austria). One might expect to see increasingly high-stakes lines like Airspeed’s make-or-break “doughnut” design in Florence, Oregon and its full loop funnel down the coast in Reedsport. An early concept for the new Ballard bowl in Seattle from Airspeed showed a pierced cradle.
However, its later removal during Grindline’s construction may signal a trend towards a “back to the basics” philosophy, which Ballard’s end product aptly represents. Dreamland’s design for the Pier Park redevelopment in Portland also follows this philosophy in an effort to ensure the park’s design accommodates the widest range of skaters possible. There skaters/advocates encouraged a simple design to ensure park success in the hopes of growing public support for future skatepark development in the city. In the end the trends are not mutually exclusive and one should expect to see development of radical, oververt terrain paired with traditional, tried-n-true concepts to maximize the skate experience.
2006 sees skatepark development in the early stages of adolescence. Glaring errors like totally incompetent design and rough surface finishes are increasingly rare as skaters emerge as an interest group willing to assert itself to control its own destiny. Nobody could have predicted the incredible sea-change in attitude and delivery we’re seeing today with the proliferation of public skateparks. The more everyday skaters are willing to involve themselves in the skatepark development process, the better the scene gets everyday.