Feature Article - October 2015
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Attracting Teens, Reducing Trouble

Skateparks & Bike Parks Engage Hard-to-Reach Demographics & Improve Communities

By Chris Gelbach


How Programs Beget Patrons

A skatepark's ongoing success depends not only on listening to advocacy groups from the onset, but also in creating opportunities to introduce new skaters to the sport. Educator and skateboarding expert Ben Wixon sees this potential opportunity as huge, citing that a recent study showed that skateboarding was the number-one activity in terms of the gap between the people who do it and who want to do it. "It helps to have programs to help ease the kids into the skatepark environment. It can be really intimidating to new skaters, adults alike," Wixon said.

A recent study showed that skateboarding was the number-one activity in terms of the gap between the people who do it and who want to do it.

As a result, programming that creates a safe learning environment can boost participation. Wixon's Drop In to Skateboarding program has partnered with Skaters for Public Skateparks on the SPS/Drop-In Instructor Accreditation Program to prepare instructors to do just that. It provides guidance in skateboarding instruction, including the critical first weeks of learning the basics, when an estimated one-third of all skateboard injuries occur.

To find potential instructors, Wixon recommends that park departments reach out to local skate shops, since they typically have their finger on the pulse of the skate community and may employ kids who are potential instructors. According to Whitley, "The one thing you shouldn't do is try to show up in your tan polo shirt and khakis and try to speak skater lingo with the kids."

Because these retail shops have strong relationships with skateboarding companies, they can also help attract sponsors for events like skateboarding contests and jams. "When you have the shops involved, the companies value those accounts," Wixon said. "So one phone call from the shop that's been around for 10 years will get a ton of free gear, and it helps legitimize the programs to the kids, too."

Since the facilities will attract teens who value independence, it's also helpful to stay away from too many regulations. "The age is what's tricky," Whitley said. "Sixteen-year-olds are fickle and they want to be able to come and go as they please. They don't want to be restricted to a particular time, and they don't want to be told to wear helmets and elbow and knee pads and wrist guards."

Instead, Whitley and Dennis both recommend that any information about protective gear be posted as recommendations. Explicit rules requiring gear can propel skaters who've been going helmet-free their whole lives back into the streets, where most skateboarding deaths and serious injuries occur. Facilities are also likely to be most successful with scheduling-averse teens when they don't limit access to the park too much, or create rules designating certain days for BMX or skating.

Likewise, Wixon recommends scheduling classes at off-peak hours. "If you're displacing 50 or 60 skaters to teach five skaters, that can be problematic," Wixon said. "But most of the public parks being built now are big enough that you can use different areas [for lessons] and move around without displacing the entire skatepark."

Bike Parks Gain Speed

Like skateparks, bike parks for mountain biking, BMX and even cyclocross are growing in popularity. These, too, are being used in some cases to revitalize troubled areas. One example is the recent addition of mountain bike trails to Tacoma's Swan Creek Park. It even features a trail called Braking Bad. It's a nod to the TV show and to the previous drug activity in the area that the trail is helping to eliminate.

Judd de Vall, founder and principal owner of a company that builds bike parks based in Whistler, British Columbia, is seeing a similar approach being employed for an expansive bike park he's working on for the City of Denver. "They have a number of unsolicited uses in these parks, and so they want to see eyes and ears on the ground. And so our work there is going to create a lot of self-guided use of the facility that will reduce unwanted uses."

Like skateparks, bike parks normally come to fruition after the passionate and often lengthy labors of local advocacy groups. But once built, they are different than concrete skateparks in requiring considerably more ongoing maintenance.