Feature Article - January 2004
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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.

Getting help

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."