Feature Article - February 2010
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Riding High

Getting Skateparks Done Right

By Stacy St. Clair

An incredible thing happened in the 1990s.

Tired of being shunned from parks and turned away from loading docks, skaters across the country launched grassroots movements to build their own skateparks, places where they could noseslide, ollie and pop shove-it without fear of rebuke.

But that's not the amazing part. The extraordinary thing about those efforts is that they worked. Cities and park districts responded to the movement by building thousands of parks over the decade, launching recreation managers into an area that was both foreign and exciting.

While the industry should be commended for blazing a trail in the '90s, there is still much left to do. Those pioneering parks are now aging, suffering from poor design, constant use and outdated thinking. Communities that don't adapt to 21st-century thinking are poised for a major wipeout. Today's cutting-edge parks are free-flowing, inviting and eco-friendly.

"We've learned a lot in the past 20 or so years," said Peter Whitley of Skaters for Public Skateparks, a national advocacy group. "There have been a lot of well-meaning mistakes made, but they can be fixed.

That's the good news."

Out of the Starting Gate

Perhaps the biggest mistake recreation managers made in the 1990s was believing their work was done once the facilities were built. They assumed it was enough to just pour the concrete, establish a few rules and put up some fencing. They didn't concern themselves with programming, landscaping or aesthetics

Skating classes remain a largely untapped resource for many parks departments. In addition to being a potential revenue source, instructional programs also introduce newbies to the sport and ensure continued use for years to come. Likewise, events and competitions can draw potential patrons and help venues gain popularity.

"You wouldn't design a soccer field or a baseball diamond and expect it to be successful on its own," Whitley said. "You need programming, you need to evaluate your amenities to see if they're serving the public's needs, just as you would any other facility or park you built."

From Whitley's perspective, state-of-the-art skateparks must be inclusive venues and be open for broad interaction. In order to accomplish this, managers must literally tear down the fences at facilities in order to make them more inviting places. Though originally intended to manage access and secure the park after closing time, the chain-link barriers have had another effect. In addition to being eyesores, skaters refer to them as "skate jails" because of their exercise yard appearance. Fences simply send the wrong message to skaters and the general public about the activity occurring within their perimeters, Whitley said.

"The fences need to come down," Whitley added. "All the fences do is reinforce that this is a restrictive environment. There's no reason to make the kids feel like they're pariahs."

Fences often create a barrier to prevent loose boards from leaving the park, but experts argue there are more creative ways to address this issue. Carefully positioned ledges and low concrete bunkers can accomplish the same thing. Recreation managers often argue they need the fences to delineate where skaters can and cannot roll, but Whitley believes there are more aesthetically pleasing options.

"The most effective barriers for skateboarders are wet areas and deeply textured or rough surfaces," he said. "They do the trick while enhancing the park site. It's really the best way."

Tearing down the fences is the first step, Whitley said, in creating an inviting facility for skaters and non-skaters alike. Recreation managers can make their parks even more attractive to visitors by adding amenities such as water fountains, shade structures, restrooms and power outlets. Experts also suggest installing seating so spectators can stop and watch the dazzling displays. By improving the sight lines and making visitors comfortable, the public can better understand the need for skateparks and glean some enjoyment from them, as well.

Skaters appreciate having an audience, too. For the younger patrons, it gives their parents a place to sit comfortably while they use the park. And for older, more experienced skaters, it gives them a chance to demonstrate their skills for a welcomed audience.

"Skaters love to show off," Whitley said. "It's a win-win for everyone."