Ramp It Up

New-generation skateparks appeals to skaters young and old

By Emily Tipping

rom the X Games to neighborhood kids mastering their first ollie, there's no denying the increasing popularity of skateboarding. It would be a stretch—and an unwelcome one to skaters—to say that skating has gone "mainstream," but there have been many discussions over the past few years about making skateboarding an Olympic sport. And what's more mainstream than that? Skating icon Tony Hawk responded to the idea of skateboarding as an Olympic sport in an interview with Time in May 2005, saying that "the Olympics needs skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics," citing skating's ability to bring in younger viewers through its "cool" factor.

But whatever your view of skating—in your neighborhood or in the Olympics—you can't avoid skateboarding's increasing sway among people of all ages. In their ongoing attempts to lure more students with the recreational activities they're looking for, even universities have started adding skateparks.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), between 1995 and 2000, the number of boys between 7 and 17 years old who skateboard increased by 129 percent. The same time period saw decreases in participation in baseball, football and basketball. There are more than 12 million skateboarders in the United States, according to market research form BoardTrac.

You can find a baseball diamond, a football field and a basketball court in most communities, but not every community provides local skaters with a place to show off their athletic skill, or challenge themselves with new tricks and terrain. This is changing, as more and more communities realize that it's better to provide kids with a safe place to skate than to have them skating on the street and in public places like downtown districts—dangerous for skaters and not always welcome to local businesses.

"According to www.spausa.org, skateparks are the number-one choice for teens when polled by local park and recreation departments," said the team at SITE Design Group, a landscape architecture firm that offers site planning, public facilitation, design, construction documentation and construction management, and is led by Mike McIntyre, who has been skating for more than 20 years.

They also mentioned that the Skate Park Association of the United States of America (SPAUSA) has emphasized that in the 6-to-18 age bracket, skateboarding is one of the most popular sports nationwide. "With such a young population utilizing skate facilities, it makes sense that by providing additional facilities, communities can provide safe places for users to go and take part in constructive activities," they added.

The Skaters for Public Skateparks (SPS) Web site reminds us that skateboarding is an athletic pursuit, and with an obesity epidemic threatening our children, we have to acknowledge skateboarding as a pastime that gets them out from in front of the screen. "Skateboarding builds confidence, fosters discipline and teaches youth the health benefit of staying in shape for life," SPS states.

If you haven't yet added a skatepark to your community, you're likely considering it. And if you've already got a skatepark, you might be looking for ways to increase participation and create new challenges for your skaters. Let's take a look at some of the trends and challenges associated with skatepark planning, design, construction and maintenance.

Get everyone involved

Building a skatepark is a cooperative process that includes the input of local skateboarders, city and park planners or other site administrators, landscape architects, insurance professionals, attorneys and more.

SITE Design Group collects this input through multiple community design workshops. "Some of today's challenges in skatepark design are trying to make sure that the overall design appeals to all the different skill levels and age groups that make up the skating community," they said.

"These workshops should be conducted by a professional skatepark designer who actually skates and will be able to speak the skater's lingo and translate this information to the non-skating community and city officials so that they understand what the skatepark has the potential to look like," they added. "The professional skatepark designer will be able to decipher between the different types of terrain that have been requested by the varying groups and skill levels."

Luke Russell, a manufacturer's rep in the Southeast who was part of the design team that worked on the skatepark at the Ross Norton Recreation Complex in the City of Clearwater, Fla., said that they meet first with the park and rec department or the city planners and work with them to determine the best site and figure out a budget.

"Once location, space and budget are set, then we like to meet with users, and preferably mature users—late teens, early 20s—skaters, bikers and inline skaters. We can do a presentation right online where we can get their ideas of what they want and start building the skatepark—virtually—right in front of them," he said. "We like to incorporate the skaters whenever we can."

In Paducah, Ky., the skatepark at Noble Park was born of a master plan that was finalized in 2002. "In that master plan, it mentioned the skatepark," said Mark H. Thompson, director of Paducah Parks Services. "Some people took that as a little bit of a shock, but the skateboarders read that it was one of the items we had talked about, so from 2002 to early 2006, we were working and working and working."

In addition to the skatepark, Noble Park offers tennis courts, basketball courts, an outdoor swimming pool, picnic shelters, an outdoor amphitheater, a handicapped-accessible nature trail, multiple playgrounds and baseball/softball fields. And there are plans to add even more amenities to the site.

Another big challenge in the planning process is establishing a budget. You have money allocated for the project, but not necessarily enough to build your—and your local skaters'—dream-park.

One way to deal with a small budget is to take a phased approach. Start out with a smaller park, and build additional phases every couple of years. An extra bonus to this approach is the way it can draw skaters looking for new challenges.

"Budget is the number-one challenge," Russell said. "There's not as much of a stigma attached to skaters anymore. But still, if it's going to be in a residential area, you'll have somebody wanting to know about noise and afraid of all these kids invading the neighborhood. But usually, most skateparks are designed where that's not an issue anymore."

Modular components make it easy to build a skatepark in phases. In addition, you might be able to move some components around from time to time to create new approaches and challenges for skaters.

The skatepark at the Ross Norton Recreation Complex opened in early 2005. "This was part of a big recreation complex or community center with a swimming pool," Russell said. "It's in a part of town that's being revitalized."

He added, "We called some community meetings where we had some giveaways to get some kids to come and give their input. As long as it gets advertised correctly, we usually get a fair amount of kids to show up and have some fun with it."

X marks the skate spot

Before you can plan anything in detail, you need to know where it's going to end up. There's a lot to take into consideration when it comes to selecting a site.

Thompson said the city of Paducah had a couple of "false starts" when it came to selecting a site. "We looked at a couple of different sites, taking into consideration connection with the community, sidewalks, roads—those types of access," he said. "Different parts of [Noble Park] were a little more passive, and to put in an active facility like that would have changed the atmosphere of different parts of the park."

Now, the 116-acre park is divided into active and passive areas. The active area includes the skatepark and plans for an eventual community center, aquatic center and sports complex.

Once again, getting everyone involved can be a key consideration—not just in the planning process, but in the park itself. SITE Design Group, for example, recommends considering "adding amenities such as bathrooms, water fountains, vending machines, public phone, bleachers and ample parking. Instead of just making the skatepark a 'concrete shell' with a fence around it, think about how you can make the surrounding environment feel like the skatepark is actually part of the overall park. Put a dog park next to the skatepark so that the whole family can make a day out of it!"

One of the benefits of the Noble Park skate facility is its proximity to the Great White Trail. "There's a lot of folks that will be coming by to be passive observers," Thompson said. "We're amazed with the continual use—even in cold weather. If it's above 30 degrees and it's dry, the skaters are out there. It's also interesting the number of folks who will grab a sack lunch and go out and watch, so we get lots of casual observers."

Skatepark advocates and landscape architects recommend taking several key factors into consideration when selecting a site:
Visibility—for security's sake.
Accessibility—it should be easy to get to for the crowd you're trying to draw, whether they're local or regional skaters.
Acceptance—how ready are the neighbors for a skatepark? Will they approve or fight it tooth and nail?
Exposure—it's great if casual observers are drawn to the park to watch the skaters.
Infrastructure—are there existing facilities, like water, restrooms, lighting and so on?

Open to All, All of the Time?

Skaters for Public Skateparks suggests that gating is not a good idea, because it forces skaters who are not free on weekends or evenings back to the street. "If the park is not accessible day and night, then skaters will go back to the street spots, where they cause the same problems with noise and property damage that made skateparks seem like an attractive solution in the first place," the organization explains on its Web site.

That doesn't mean you should not install fencing. Fences are definitely a good idea—not for keeping skaters out, but for keeping them—and their boards—in. In other words, fencing can keep skateboards and bikes from flying out of the skating area and hitting passive observers.

Many parks are only open until dusk. If you have appropriate lighting, you should consider keeping the skatepark open later to provide a place for kids to skate and hang out. Remember, they're safer here than they are on the street, and you should laud them for their athleticism. Many localities have laws that prevent skaters from practicing their art legally anywhere but on their own driveway and in the skatepark.

Scoping out the terrain

Everyone seems to agree that most skateparks are adding more street or plaza elements these days. Plazas include such components as planters, stairs and rails, platforms, tables, benches and so on—all of which combine to mimic the real street environment where many skaters learn their first tricks. This trend is away from days past when transition terrain, which allows skaters to perform the bigger aerial tricks, was most common.

"Skateparks started as ramps—quarter-pipes, half-pipes and other configurations—but as kids started to wander onto the streets in search of new things to do, those things have incorporated themselves naturally into skateparks," Russell said.

"One of today's top trends in skatepark design has got to be incorporating real urban streetscape features that are commonly found downtown in big cities, libraries, amphitheaters and schools," the team at SITE Design Group explained. "Otherwise known as 'skate plazas,' these are designed specifically to replicate what the skaters or bikers are riding before their city even gets a skatepark. Obstacles such as stairs, ledges, handrails, benches, curbs and planters can all be added to your skatepark design to give it that authentic street feel."

Skaters for Public Skateparks recommends distributing terrain between transition and street, with 60 percent devoted to street. Why? Street skaters need more space, the organization claims.

The Ross Norton Recreation Complex includes many street elements. Russell said the site is divided into sections: a beginner area with wedges, transition-style ramps and a pyramid; a center street area with staircases, handrails, planters, picnic tables and benches; and an area with large transition-style jumps for inline skaters and BMXers.

"As you walk through the community center, it opens into a big elevated concrete patio area, and we incorporated some of our ramps coming off of that patio area and into the skateboard area," Russell said. "The concrete steps and a lot of the landscaping borders and things like that were made skateable with metal edging. Everything in there was designed to be skated on."

If you include skaters as part of the planning process, SITE Design Group recommends finding a balance not only between age groups and skill levels, but also between those who prefer to ride transition and those who prefer to ride street. "This will help make sure that all these different groups are well represented and have equal say in the skatepark design," they said. "It also helps if the professional skatepark design team meets the same criteria.

Materials and maintenance

Once you've decided what types of terrain you want to include in your park, you'll need to make up your mind on materials. Skatepark components generally can be found in three kinds of material—wood, steel and concrete—and depending on which one you go with, your initial cost and ongoing maintenance needs will be very different.

Russell said wood has a cheap initial cost, but higher maintenance cost. In Florida, for example, wood will last three to five years before it needs renovating, he said. Metal generally comes with a long warranty, so you know it will last longer, but the initial cost might be higher. Ongoing maintenance for steel parts means checking to see that bolts are tightened. Concrete requires the highest initial investment, but maintenance is relatively simple, as long as no major repairs are required.

Thompson said that the city of Paducah also had a couple of "false starts" when it came to selecting a product. "Site location was one large challenge, and then actually understanding that you have a limited budget and you're only going to get so much for your dollar," he said. "We had a design for an in-ground facility, and at the start with the money we had, we were only going to get half of what we wanted. With that, we started looking for alternatives."

Skaters for Public Skateparks claims on its site that concrete is "widely accepted as the favored material by skateboarders and park planners due to its design flexibility and low maintenance requirements."

With concrete, you have different maintenance concerns, such as ensuring proper drainage and removing debris. While repairs might be less common with concrete, you should be aware that when they are required, they can get fairly expensive.

Modular skateparks are cheaper at the outset. Modular parks combine freestanding elements on an existing concrete slab. Many cities build them on unused tennis courts, for example. That way, site amenities like lighting, water and perhaps restrooms are already there.

One benefit of modular components is that you can move the elements around from time to time, creating new challenges for your skaters. You can also add more components in a phased approach, building your skatepark over time.

Skateparks are often heavily used, and your maintenance program should take this into account. If you are proactive about minor maintenance and repairs, as well as graffiti, you can keep your skatepark in like-new condition. Skaters will be more likely to take ownership of a well-maintained skatepark, and will take care of some of the maintenance issues for you. For example, skaters are likely to remove debris from the park before skating it, since it creates a hazard on the surface.

A couple of things to consider when developing your maintenance plan: Keep a record of your inspections and any maintenance or repairs. (This is especially important if you end up facing any type of lawsuit related to the facility.) If repairs are needed, close things off to prevent accidents and injuries. Also, remember that skaters will probably try to skate pretty much anything that's around, so as you're outfitting the site, you might want to think about getting heavier materials that can be bolted down.

Graffiti should be removed promptly, but you should first connect with the manufacturer to make sure you're using the right tools to get rid of it. Sandblasting—even paint—can alter the surface, creating a hazard.

What About Bikes?

We've been talking about skateparks in terms of skateboarding, but most skateparks will also be used by inline skaters and BMX bikers, and depending on whom you ask, this can be good or bad.

Luke Russell, a local manufacturer's rep who helped build the skatepark in Clearwater, Fla., said that it's important to get all three disciplines—skateboarders, inline skaters and BMXers—into the park. "When you exclude one of the disciplines, it causes a sticky situation," he said. "From a design standpoint, it's not hard to figure out how to make the park work for skateboards, bikes and inline skaters."

Skaters for Public Skateparks advocates against allowing bikes to use skatepark facilities, citing the tendency of bikes to damage components such as rails and coping, as well as their threat to safety of skaters, who generally travel at slower speeds.

Alternately, the Skate Park Association of the United States of America (SPAUSA) says that cities should always allow bikes to use the skateparks. For several years the organization has been surveying parks and says that they've not seen any evidence that bikes cause more wear and tear.

One thing to keep in mind is that BMX riders will likely prefer bigger transition-type terrain. One way to cope with the different types of use is to design multiple areas, as was done in Clearwater, providing a place to skate for beginners and experts, and a separate place to bike for the freestyle bikers.

Make it safe

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission claims that more than 25,000 people are treated in emergency rooms annually with skateboard-related injuries. Most common are sprains, fractures, contusions and abrasions. Things like a lack of protective gear such as helmets and pads, poor board maintenance and irregular riding surfaces account for most of these accidents.

You'll need to decide early on about the kinds of safety rules you'll want for your skatepark. Talking with insurance carriers and attorneys—as well as other cities that already have skateparks—can help you determine what rules to establish. Signage throughout the park can help you get the message across.

Thompson said that while it's important to listen to your constituents, you also need them to listen to you. Let them know about the rules and regulations during the planning process, and restate those rules often so there are no surprises once the park is open.

"We had an issue where for months prior to the opening, we said that if there was vandalism or anything like that, we would close the park down to deal with it," he said. "We were tested: There was some graffiti a month in."

They closed the skatepark down, called the manufacturer and found out what product to use to remove the graffiti so they wouldn't damage the surface. In three days, the park was back in operation.

"At that time, we thought those were going to be the last good days of skating weather—60 degrees, bright and sunny—and we knew inclement weather was predicted over the next week," Thompson said. "We had some unhappy skaters, but the majority of them understood what we had been talking about."

Thanks to good police work, the graffiti artist was caught. During his interrogation, he told the police that his friends were mad at him, and that he didn't believe they would close the skatepark for what he had done.

The local television station, in its question of the night, asked local residents if they thought the city should have closed down the skatepark for graffiti, and people said yes. "We have not had another incident in the next three months," Thompson said. "So when you do set your rules, stick to your guns."

Skaters are required to wear helmets in Paducah, due to an ordinance recommended by the Kentucky League of Cities. One benefit of the helmet ordinance is that it gives the police a reason to go into the park to make sure safety concerns are addressed.

In 2006, 45 youth were killed skateboarding in the United States—mostly due to collision with motor vehicles. So remember that when kids are in your skatepark, they're probably a lot safer than if they were out skating the streets. Skateboarding is a physically challenging sport, and by providing a place for local skaters to try out their skills, you're likely preventing injuries.

All together now

Parks provide a central meeting place for kids of all ages—from toddlers and grade-school kids at the playground to the elderly taking advantage of trails and picnic areas, from preteens on the soccer field to high-school kids in the skatepark and parents taking part as passive observers and active participants in various activities.

SITE Design Group said that the number of park-oriented activities is increasing. "This yields the need for a place for local users, whether they are kids or adults, to go and enjoy themselves," they said. "Action sport complexes have been able to provide skatepark users with a safe and monitored place to practice their well-known hobby. Skateparks are used more than any other sports facility on any given day, which further supports the need for additional facilities nationwide."

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