Feature Article - February 2010
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Riding High

Getting Skateparks Done Right

By Stacy St. Clair

Greening Up

Recreation officials in Portland, Ore., scored a major victory in 2009 when they opened the Ed Benedict Skatepark, a 16,000-square-foot venue hailed as the city's first plaza-style facility. It doesn't look like your typical skatepark, and that's completely intentional.

This skatepark has trees, plants, rocks and dirt. Rather than a concrete exercise yard, it looks like—gasp!—an actual park.

As one of the Pacific Northwest's first "green" skatepark developments, the design serves as a warning to recreation managers across the country, informing them that ugly, gray slabs are now passé. A truly modern park incorporates greenery and sustainable features.

"We're trying to say there's so much opportunity to create amazing spaces for skateboarding, and go beyond just building a skatepark but to really make something that everybody can enjoy," project manager Taj Hanson said. "Vegetation is the center of the project. You don't see that at any other skatepark, especially to the degrees we have native vegetation integrated into the plans."

In a rainy area like the Pacific Northwest, however, an eco-friendly design means more than just planting a few trees. It also includes responsibly managing the water that typically cascades off the concrete during a storm. Ed Benedict Park features two "bio filtration islands" that help the water to re-enter the ground more gradually.

"We really made the stormwater features one of the highlights of our project," Hanson said. "It benefits not only the environmental aspects of the site but also the skateboarding aspects as well. It represented what people would think of a good skate spot by merging everything together. Synergy was a major theme."

Skateparks have long been a critical issue in Portland, where skateboarders, freestyle BMX riders and in-line skaters first petitioned for a legal place to call their own in 1977. Voters backed their efforts in November 2002, by approving a park levy that, among other things, provided for two new skateparks in Pier and Glenhaven Parks in north and northeast Portland. The Portland Parks Foundation later helped secure funding for a skatespot in the new Holly Farm Park in southwest Portland. In 2006, the city council joined the effort by allocating money for two new parks, including Ed Benedict Park in southeast Portland.

City officials knew they wanted the Ed Benedict facility to have sustainable features and blend in with the existing area. They looked for other skateparks to model their plan after, but they could find nothing as progressive as they envisioned. There was one park in Helsinki, Finland, but it did not have a protocol like the one Portland needed. Together with their chosen design firm and a creative landscape architect with a passion for skateboarding, they jumped into the future.

"We thought if we could push the envelope on an innovative, sustainable design, we could draw in younger users," Hanson said. "It would be a passive learning opportunity by having them interact with new concepts and question why there are trees here, etc. This was one of the many layers of this project."

The city had a long list of techniques and procedures the design needed to follow in order to be considered in concert with the green building industry and attain LEED certification. In addition to stormwater management and tree preservation, their requirements included incorporating "fly ash" into the concrete mix and using recycled crushed concrete for a base rock under the concrete.

It also required the inclusion of the interpretive signage to explain the various green measures. It was extremely important to Portland officials that the skatepark's future users—many of them kids—understood the eco-friendly techniques and the reasons behind them.

The park is set in an urban area, and Hanson knew the skateboarders craved city-style features that replicate street skating. But he also wanted them to interact with nature, to gain appreciation for the green movement that aims to stop Portland from becoming a concrete jungle.

"Part of my interest was integrating nature back into urban cities and bringing people in cities back to nature," he said. "We embraced the whole concept of skateboarding and environmental sustainability. What a great way to start promoting these green design and construction techniques."

The result was a skatepark that thrilled both skaters and environmental advocates. Skaters praise the facility as a "real Portland" spot that makes them feel like part of the community. For Taj Hanson, a skater himself, there could be no higher praise.

"Portland is an environmental leader and a leader among skatepark planning," Hanson said. "We're leading the way, and we wanted to make it a transparent and replicable plan."