Homes for Boarders and Bikers
Ultimate skate park designs for style, safety and performance
By Kyle Ryan
I could have picked a less stressful way to spend my free time.
Skateboarding in my hometown of Houston in the late '80s wasn't easy. The city had one (private) skate park, located nowhere near my house. Lacking driver's licenses, my friends and I had to cajole parents to give us the occasional ride.
Otherwise, we rode launch ramps in the street—not terribly safe or popular with motorists—or skated drainage canals (even less safe). We'd skate at shopping centers until we were kicked out (or hauled away) by security guards or police. Even when we could skate without their interference, there was always a chance of getting beaten up.
Skateboarding entailed guerrilla-style recreation: always moving, always alert and ready to escape quickly. Sounds fun, doesn't it?
We did have a good time, but a nearby skate park would have made it easier. The same holds true today, but parks have become a lot more common.
That's due in part to a surge in the sport's popularity. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, skateboarding has seen a more than 50 percent jump in participation during the past seven years. Since 1992, it's seen a nearly 90 percent increase. In the United States, there are nearly 10 million skateboarders, 4 million aggressive inline skaters and another 1 million freestyle bikers—and they all need a place to go.
Designing and constructing a skate park has never been more necessary— or easier.
Historically, ,skateboarding, inline skating and BMX biking are not park-based sports. They have long traditions of creating their own space, whether it's a municipal parking lot or the handrails outside a bank.
"No matter what, if there's a skate park or not, skateboarders will still utilize what's around them," says Mike Coleman, editor of the skateboard magazine Bail. "That's just the nature of the creatures we are."
Good skate parks can dramatically reduce this activity, though. If you planned to build a golf course, you wouldn't let just anyone design it. Although skate parks may seem relatively simple, designing them is a complex process. One mistake can severely limit a park or, even worse, render it useless.
"Designing a skate park in a certain site that's available to a certain budget is a lot harder than people think," says Colby Carter, a skate park designer. "Everything affects everything. You constantly have to be running that stuff through your mind when you're designing."
That's why the experts have to be involved. Local skaters should be consulted, and if you hire a design firm, choose one that has skate park experience and skaters on staff.
"It's tough to get through to a parks and rec guy who doesn't have any comprehension of what a skateboarder wants," says Rod Rubino, a sales and marketing representative for a skate park design firm. "If I'm a local resident and know that 100,000 of my tax dollars went to it, and it's empty, I'm not going to be happy."
The city of Chicago learned that lesson the hard way when it opened a skate park at 31st Street on the city's South Side. According to Carter, who designed a newer park on Wilson Street on the city's North Side, the 31st Street park was designed by a local landscape architect who underbid other contractors.
That inexperience resulted in the placement of half-inch expansion joints (space between pieces of concrete that allows them to expand) at the bottom of transitions around the park. Although most of them are filled with putty, the seams' size is ideal for catching skateboard wheels. Skaters, if unprepared, can be thrown from their boards or at least have their momentum greatly reduced, another hazard in itself.
To make matters worse, the concrete below the skaters at 31st Street is unusually rough, which not only slows them down but can cause severe abrasions during falls. But at least it's skateable. According to the Skate Park Association of the United States of America (SPAUSA), a $100,000 skate park in Barnstable, Mass., that had "brushed" concrete ended up being completely unskateable and unrepairable.
"If you don't have skateboarders involved throughout the entire process, from design and development, issues will arise," Coleman says. "You may complete the project somewhat successfully, but it could be total hazard. You have, however, many tons of concrete that are not usable, and it's a more costly endeavor in the future just to get it back to where it should have been had that decision been made with the knowledge of how you're supposed to do it correctly."
When the existing skating area at Mount Trashmore park in Virginia Beach, Va., became dilapidated, the city enlisted the help of locals to plan the new park. Called the Skatepark Planning and Advisory Committee, it consisted of about 30 amateur and pro skaters, BMX bikers, inline skaters, parents and younger users. The city followed the committee's lead on a number of items, such as what type of park to build and how difficult its obstacles should be.
At the new Stonewave SK8 Park in Pa'ia on the island of Maui in Hawaii, kids play an even bigger role. The concrete park is adjacent to the Pa'ia Youth & Cultural Center (PYCC), a beachside facility where kids take classes and learn skills through hands-on activities. During the seven-year process of fund-raising, designing and building the park, kids were always present.
"They are intimately involved with every step," says Blaze Anderson, deputy director of the PYCC. "Many of our kids have learned basic construction techniques and skills during this project."
Now that the skate park's open, kids will supervise the park, earning money and picking up managerial skills in the process. A connected stage for bands will help the kids learn about booking and promoting shows, and a planned snack bar will help the center earn money and teach kids how to operate a kitchen.
Such symbiosis is impressive but not necessarily feasible in other locations. At the very least, skaters' input needs to be taken into consideration, in addition to other work.
"They really need to do research and couple that with the ideas the kids have," says Jim Moss, director of operations and marketing for a skate park manufacturer. "Either one of them by themselves is not going to be a good situation."
Before the design process can really begin, you have to determine who will be using the park and what they need. Basically, there are three groups of users: skateboarders, inline skaters and BMX bikers. With each activity come specific requirements.
While inline skaters and skateboarders can generally use the same facilities (though the finish on inline skate wheels can cause surfaces to become slippery), BMX bikes require everything to be bigger: transitions, ramps, obstacles.
"If you're trying to average between all these things, ultimately what happens is you create a mediocre experience for everybody," Coleman says.
Many skate park designers will accommodate bikes in the design, but they're often banned in skate parks or only allowed with restrictions. Bike pegs can dent the metal coping on the lips of ramps and bowls (though heavy-gauge coping might withstand it), which create hazards for skaters when they grind. Damaged coping can be an expensive item to repair.
"Coping's hard to replace because it's metal that's set into the concrete while they're pouring it," Coleman says. "So they basically have to break out the lip of that ramp to replace the whole thing, which ultimately screws up the construction because you've basically got to repour the entire transition for it to be as smooth as it originally was."
As expensive as the possible equipment damage can be, it's not the main problem when it comes to multiple user groups.
"Mixing causes problems, not necessarily the structures," Coleman says. "Everybody has a different way of approaching an obstacle—different speed, different conditions—you get a lot of collisions between the various groups."
Different users will have different runs, and they will often dangerously intersect. To decrease the risk of collisions, some parks will design separate areas for each user group. A lower cost alternative is to offer separate sessions for each activity.
No matter who's using the park, the design needs a certain flow—bowls that empty into street areas, street courses with starting ramps on each end, and so on. Designers crunched for space will underestimate the amount of space people need to start their runs. A related problem comes from trying to cram too many obstacles in too small a space.
To maintain proper distance between obstacles, Moss recommends making the pad (the slab of concrete or asphalt on which everything's built) at least 90 feet long, with each obstacle being 16 feet to 20 feet apart. (See sidebar on page 16 for types of obstacles.)
SPAUSA lists three different types of parks on its Web site: portable/modular, steel-frame and concrete. According to SPAUSA, portable parks range in price from $3,000 to $100,000, with the average 10,000-square-foot park costing $25,000. The components can be made from numerous materials, and the parks are movable and mostly affordable, though they require regular maintenance. Modular parks like these are also easy to expand if money comes in phases.
Steel-frame parks are permanent and have metal or composite skating surfaces. They require some maintenance and are mostly weather-resistant. They're bolted to the existing concrete, but can be reconfigured if necessary. The average 10,000-square-foot steel-frame park starts at $30,000, according to SPAUSA.
Concrete tends to inspire passion from both sides. Drew Hines, president of a skate park design company, says he "doesn't believe" in concrete. While, one design article in TransWorld Skateboarding Business Magazine said there "is no good reason" not to use it. Although building a concrete park is more expensive and complicated, its proponents claim it's time and money well spent.
Depending on the surrounding environment, building a concrete skate park can cost between $10 and $25 per square foot. That means an average 10,000-square-foot park will set you back about $140,000. You've got to plan for drainage, get the right type of concrete and work with experienced builders to pull it off. If building concrete parks is expensive, repairing mistakes makes them more so. Still, they're permanent, flexible and require little maintenance.
Just as important as what type of park you have is what the skating surface will be. The wrong surface can wreck even the most perfect construction.
"The surface of a skate park is critical to the functionality of the park," says Mark DiOrio, who works for a surfacing company. "If a surface is too slick, riders will lose control and not be able to perform to their full potential. If the surface is too rough, it will be slow and dangerous when one falls. Surface durability is important to keep the park operational and to reduce maintenance costs."
The general consensus is to avoid wood, which doesn't last long and can be costly to replace. Nonconcrete parks typically use a composite material or powder-coated steel surface.
While there are all sorts of composite ramp surfaces available, one of the most well-known among them is Skatelite. It's made primarily from paper and is heat-sealed to resist water. Its proponents extol its smoothness, its resistance to heat and its minimal maintenance requirements. Skatelite also self-extinguishes in fires and is unaffected by cleansers used to remove graffiti.
Moss, whose company sells Skatelite, contends the wonder material does have some drawbacks. Screws holding Skatelite panels in place on wood-frame ramps will slowly pull out due to the flex of the ramp, so routine checks are necessary.
Even though Skatelite is weather-resistant, it still absorbs water and can suffer from thermal expansion. Although you can allow for expansion by placing panels 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch apart (unnoticeable to skaters), Moss says Skatelite starts to flake away eventually.
Powder-coated steel is another option, though it has the perception of being hot, slick and loud.
Just about anything exposed to the summer sun is going to get hot, metal especially. The concern with steel is that it could burn skaters who fall. Although temperature varies with color, Moss says powder-coated steel doesn't get dangerously hot. The treatment and material used also help absorb sound and grip skateboard wheels well. Steel is also weatherproof, and water can be removed from its surface by using a squeegee.
Finally, there's the hard stuff. Concrete may be a durable material, but using the wrong type can render a park unskateable. The surface has to be smooth, and special attention should be paid to curing the concrete properly (spraying a synthetic resin with a hardening agent to create a protective outer layer), which will help keep the material durable.
Now for selecting components.
"I think they should use common sense when they apply the use of their funds," Hines says of those planning a skate park. "For instance, always make sure there are a few novice ramps, then handle the intermediate to advanced skaters. If the budget is restrictive, do the street course then the halfpipe. A halfpipe is used by one skater at a time, but you can have 40 kids at once on a street course. Build in phases if money is an issue."
That kind of give and take is necessary when working with budgetary constraints. Diversity of attractions is key, though, if a skate park will be relevant down the road.
Skate parks have gone through many phases over the past 30 years. In the 1970s, there were full pipes and lots of bowls. In the 1980s, ramps like halfpipes dominated. In the 1990s, the focus shifted to street skating. In 2003, it's all of the above.
"You need to give people bowls, you need to give people street courses, and you can even consider ramp construction," Coleman says. "I think for a successful skate park there needs to be a really comfortable balance between all those three."
Finding that balance can be tricky. Rubino says, generally, skaters over age 20 (not the majority) tend to favor halfpipes and bowls, while younger kids are more interested in street courses. Not only does your design need to address their differing interests but also their varying skill levels.
"With most of the work we do for municipalities, a lot of the kids that come to meetings are going to be better skaters and are going to want huge ramps," Moss says. "But the city person needs to realize these dollars are going to something most kids can use."
Maintaining a beginner-friendly park also helps keep people honest.
"Everybody thinks they're better than they are," Rubino says. Beginners need a place to practice without interfering with advanced skaters, but if you focus on them too much, the park becomes boring to other users.
"We were concerned about beginners, but [the skaters' committee] convinced us that the learning curve is so extraordinary that you want to keep them constantly challenged," says Brian Solis, a city planner for the Virginia Beach Department of Parks and Recreation. "We just erred on the side of taller components."
To accommodate those who lack advanced skills, designers put components no taller than 3 feet on one side of the park.
Height is critical to maintaining good flow in a skate park. For example, if you have start ramps on each side of the pad, they need to be tall enough to create the right amount of momentum for obstacles in the center. As a general rule, Moss advises making the start ramps twice the height of the center obstacles.
Similar proportions come into play with halfpipes and bowls. Moss suggests making the width of halfpipes about four times the height. Coping tricks are the most popular, and if a ramp isn't wide enough, skaters can't grind for long before they have to drop back in.
Depending on budgetary limits, nonskating items can make the park more self-contained and comfortable for users. Some are obvious, such as lights if the park has extended hours. Others, such as locking skateboard racks, might not be.
Water fountains are surprisingly often overlooked by skate park planners. Over the past 30 years, the athletic community has learned the importance of proper hydration, and skaters are no exception. Whether it's winter or summer, they will get dehydrated, which can be potentially serious. Make sure potable water is available.
Vending machines with sports drinks and other beverages or snacks help, too. They require little maintenance and can generate revenue for the park while making it more self-contained. For food, some parks have snack bars or concession stands as well. A prefabricated shelter to get skaters out of the sun while they eat can be purchased relatively cheaply.
Nature will inevitably call the skaters, so bathrooms can be good investments. If the budget is lean, portable toilets may do the trick.
The accumulation of garbage is another inevitability. Because they could be used by skateboarders as obstacles, trashcans need to be secured to the ground away from the skating area if you want them to stay usable.
A perimeter fence to delineate the skating area itself will help keep small children and animals out, and it will help keep errant skateboards from leaving the park. Beyond the fence, consider benches for a viewing area. Watching the skate park activity can be entertaining, and benches will give parents a place to relax as their kids skate. The benches also need to be secured to the ground, as skaters will use them as obstacles if possible.
Another overlooked skate park component is the pay phone. Even though cell phones are nearly ubiquitous, users still need a reliable way to make calls, especially during an emergency.
If the skate park is part of a larger recreational facility, like Mount Trashmore or the Stonewave SK8 Park, skaters might want a way to secure their boards if they need to go somewhere. A new product makes that possible. Essentially a bike rack for skateboards, you can add a rack that uses two low-rising types of U-shaped metal tubing that's bolted to the ground. Boards fit between the taller and shorter tubes, with the shorter tubes fitting between the skateboard's trucks. The rack secures up to six skateboards through interlocking metal rings. The rings, when padlocked, prevent the board from being raised out of the rack, and the smaller tubing between the skateboard's trucks prevents someone from sliding the board out horizontally.
While these types of features are nice, they aren't critical to the success of the park. You have to make those choices based on your budget.
"Every dollar spent on nonramps is just what it is," Hines says. "The purpose of a skate park is to provide ramps to skate, not buildings and bathrooms. Any kid will vote for a ramp, not a bathroom."
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