Grind Into Action
Getting Your Skatepark Rolling
By Sue Marquette Poremba
"Involve the kids."
Ask anyone involved with building a skatepark, from the designers to those on city council, and the most important bit of advice they give is to include those who will be using the park from the very beginning of the park's conception.
When the community of Shelbyville, Tenn., began planning its park several years ago, the youth who would be using it were invited to help with the design.
"We thought we had exactly what the kids wanted," said Bryan Dial, assistant director of Shelbyville's parks and athletic leagues. "But the kids changed it completely."
Dial's experience is one echoed by others involved with park management, and it makes sense. By involving the youth (and sometimes the not-so-young skateboard enthusiasts) in the planning and design process, communities are better able to construct a facility that will get used. And that's the whole idea—to move skateboarding and in-line skating to an area that is made for the stunts and acrobatic moves.
"Why does a city need a skatepark? If you don't have one, the entire city becomes the skatepark," said Roger Harrell, a representative from Premise Immersive Marketing and former publisher of Skateboarder Magazine. With no other place to practice and hone their skills, skateboarders use—and sometimes destroy—public areas like park benches, stair railings and sidewalks. Harrell also points out that the majority of serious injuries and deaths due to accidents in skateboarding happen on city streets, usually involving cars.
"Skateparks provide protection," Harrell added.
Oftentimes it is the skateboarders themselves, along with their parents, who present the idea to their local city council that a skatepark is needed. But it's a slow process, one that can take a decade or more to bring to fruition. Dial said it took between four and five years before the skatepark in Shelbyville was approved.
"It took a lot of convincing," he said. "There was a misconception of what a skatepark was. And skateboarding today isn't the same as it was when we were kids." In addition, there were preconceived stereotypes of the skateboarders themselves that had to be overcome.
However, once the approval comes, skateboarders are often active participants in the entire process. They help with the design. They help with fundraising. And when the park is open, they come in droves. Even in the winter months, when snow and inclement weather keep the basketball and tennis players away, the skateboarders will come to the skatepark, shovels in hand, and continue skating.
"Once you've identified the need for a skatepark, you want to form a committee that includes local input of skateboarders from the community," Harrell said. "But the kids don't always know what they need, so you'll want to bring a park builder into the conversation. The kids will have good ideas, but they might also have some crazy ideas. Having a designer or builder on hand provides someone who can translate the desires of the kids into something that will become a reasonable park."
Communities may also want to consider breaking the initial committee into subgroups, added John McConkey, products manager of a manufacturer of modular skatepark systems. "Subgroups can be dedicated to issues like site selection, design, fund-raising, public relations. If there are a lot of people involved with the initial push to get the park started, this is a good strategy to have a number of young people working with city officials. The kids get to learn how the government process works."
So what should a community know about building a skatepark?
"What we've said for a long time is that the only thing a city needs to know about a skatepark is that it needs one," said Jim Moss, CEO of a company that designs and builds concrete and modular skateparks. "Very few park directors know much about skateparks. They know about playgrounds because they've been buying them for years, but most communities are getting their very first skatepark."
Moss said what he needs to hear from park directors is simple: the size of the pad or location available and the amount of money in the budget.
"We then explain the different building options available and how each one will fit their needs," he said.
"When we talk to community leaders, we ask what is important to them," Moss added. "Is getting the most equipment for your dollar most important? Is less maintenance important? Will the park be in a residential neighborhood where noise will be a factor? Just what is it that you want to accomplish with the skatepark? Then we can recommend the best option."
Skateparks must be big enough to accommodate skateboarders and multiple obstacles, so 10,000 square feet, or 100 feet by 100 feet, is a typical size found across the country. "You have to have a minimum length," Moss explained. "You don't want to go under 80 feet because then you don't have enough distance between the start ramp and the middle obstacle."
That length of space is important. "When you come down the ramp, you are generating a certain amount of speed so you can set your feet so you can do a trick on that center obstacle," Moss said. "If there's not enough space, you can't get ready for it. If there is too much space, you lose your momentum."
When looking for a site to place the park, one of simplest—and least expensive—approaches is to use an existing cement or asphalt pad, such as an old tennis or basketball court, and put ramps on it. On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of complexity and cost, is an all-concrete skatepark that requires excavation. Other options fall somewhere in between.
Where a park is constructed and the materials used are dictated by different factors, explained Chris Patnaude, who works with Premise Immersive Marketing, a company that focuses on youth culture and action sports.
"Decisions are usually made because of budget or because of preference," Patnaude said.
Although there are a variety of choices for skatepark material, Patnaude pointed out that one material is becoming less popular.
"Wood is being phased out of public skateparks due to maintenance issues and not lasting," Patnaude said. "Steel and concrete are the material of choice for outdoor public parks."
Wood, he continued, doesn't last well in the elements. "It is more for a temporary structure, like a specific event, or for an indoor park," he explained. "Yes, you can do more with wood that is harder to do with steel, but at the same time, a city park isn't going to want to deal with the maintenance issues."
Steel is far more commonly seen in ramps and other skatepark obstacles these days. Steel ramps can be easily placed on an existing pad, and the park itself can be constructed quickly. Steel ramps are also modular and can be moved around.
"The steel is like an erector set," McConkey explained. "It's pieced together to meet the goals and experiences the skaters want. The modularity of the pieces allows for flexibility to be reconfigured in the future if they want to change it up to create a different skating experience."
Concrete, on the other hand, is a permanent solution. "You pour it in place and it is going to stay there, whereas with a steel ramp, you can change location or add it into another existing park," Patnaude said.
Concrete parks also tend to be more expensive. "The material costs themselves are more expensive," Harrell explained, "but then you also have other expenses to consider. You have to hire architects, have officially drawn-up plans, permitting costs and excavation—those kinds of factors add to the cost."
In addition there is the issue of permitting, which has a big impact on in-ground projects. Old basketball or tennis courts can be retrofitted for the skatepark without a lot of permitting or change in the topography, whereas anything done with a concrete park and the amount of excavation necessary will require extra time and money to acquire proper building permits.
And that extra time is another factor to consider when building a concrete park. "You are often looking a 3- to 13-year window with a concrete park," Harrell said. "One good thing about steel is that it can definitely expedite the process. You can actually have kids skateboarding on the park before they are adults."
On the other hand, many skateboarders prefer concrete over modular skateparks, and when you create a truly unique experience with an in-ground concrete park, you are creating a destination that will not only please local skateboarders, but could attract people from across the country as a destination skatepark.
Another benefit of concrete is that, while the upfront cost is higher, there is minimal maintenance in the long term, so the project could end up paying for itself over time.
An emerging concept is the hybrid park, which typically marries the transition-style skateboarding of the concrete bowls and ramps with the street-style skating associated with obstacles like railings, benches and more.
"This bridges the gap between steel and concrete parks and includes aspects of both," Patnaude said. "The park could be the result of a phase. You could start with an existing pad with some steel ramps and add a concrete bowl later. That would be considered a hybrid. Or you could have an integrated approach with some steel structures or some concrete structures. Then you can decide what pieces make the most sense to be made from steel and what make most sense to be made from concrete."
Many communities decide to build their parks in phases, often depending on fund-raising efforts. In Shelbyville, for example, Dial said its park has a total of 17 planned phases. By the time it gets to phase 14, the square footage of the original park will have doubled, and eventually the plan is to include inline hockey opportunities.
There are benefits to building the park in phases. One is budget. Because building a skatepark is not an inexpensive endeavor, phasing allows the park to be built as finances allow. Another benefit is the ability for the park to adapt to the skills of the users. As the skateboarders become more practiced, more advanced ramps and equipment can be added while not taking away anything from the beginners.
"It is a trend for cities to build these parks in phases," Harrell said. "Maybe a modular steel park is a place to get started, and it's that first phase that gets kids out there skating. Then phase two comes in that is bigger or an out-of-the-box design."
Some cities, Harrell added, build skateparks that are destination parks, which are meant to attract skaters from other areas. Other cities only want to serve their immediate community. "Again, it goes back to those first committee meanings, where this is decided."
Another thing cities are doing is, rather than building full-sized skateparks, they are building skate spots around the city. It could be a bench with angle iron on it, for example.
Parks can be designed for all levels of participation. "You have to cater to every type of user," Harrell said.
To accommodate beginners, areas of the park should have obstacles more spread out to allow the skateboarders to learn the tricks. More advanced skateboarders want bigger elements. And even the advanced skaters often like having access to the beginners' area, particularly when they are learning a new trick.
"It's more than just beginner versus advanced," Harrell continued. "There are different styles of skateboarding. There's street skating. There's obstacle skating that uses things like benches and stairs. And there is skating that uses the half-pipes and bowls."
The good news is that more advanced skateboarders are usually accommodating to those who are less experienced. You might even want to tap their talent to lead lessons for beginners. After all, parks commonly provide programming for other popular sports. Why not skating?
"There is a culture among skaters," McConkey said. "The advanced skaters help and support the new skaters, and give them the time and space. They recognize that they were once at that stage."
After the park is constructed, maintenance is an ongoing expense.
"Maintenance is determined by the building method," Moss said. "For the all-steel, the only maintenance is recoating or repainting." If the finish is not cared for, the exposed steel can rust. "As long as it's painted, it is prefabricated and bolted together. It has tamper-resistant bolts with lock-tight nuts, which keeps everything tight. So there is little for the city to maintain. It's why steel is so popular with cities."
The wood parks, on the other hand, do require more maintenance. "Any time you take a screw and screw down a sheet into two-by-four, every time a skateboard hits that, it will flex some," Moss explained. "What that does is cause the screw to work out, and it doesn't have to work out very far to be a riding hazard." So, a city relying on wood needs to send a maintenance worker to check for screws above the riding surface and other issues on a weekly basis.
Other maintenance issues include the skating surface sheets themselves. "Skatelite Pro or Ramp Armor is a paper-based product," Moss says. "It is big sheets of paper baked in phenolic resin and pressed together. It makes for a good skating surface, but as it weathers, it will absorb water and there will be thermal expansion. It can warp or flake, and in time, the surface will eventually wear out."
Replacing the sheets can be costly, Moss said. It can cost a quarter of the original price of the skatepark to totally resheet the surface (this compared to a 1 percent cost to repaint the surface).
"It's a significant maintenance cost," he said, "and customers need to know that the building options with the coated surface will need to be replaced at some point. It likely won't need to be replaced all at once, however. And it will wear out quicker in climates with extreme changes in temperature and harsher weather."
Concrete requires little maintenance, but Moss did point out that the concrete can chip, and that needs to be monitored.
McConkey said his company provides very clear instruction to clients regarding regular, routine maintenance.
"It's preventive maintenance," McConkey said. "There's an annual inspection to make sure all the fasteners are secure. Check to see if there is anything on the skating surface that might cause problems, and power wash the surface. If there has been any kind of corrosion on the skating surface, that needs to be addressed. After all, steel will rust."
The annual inspection should also include checking the pad underneath the park to make sure it is not deteriorating. "Anything that is going to affect the safety of the skaters needs to be checked. That's the number-one criteria," McConkey said.
From an owner's perspective, McConkey added, a challenge is to schedule the time and budget for going out to maintain the parks. "That's where the city really gets strapped," he said. "We see it on playgrounds, as well. The routine maintenance falls to the bottom of the priority list." For that reason, it behooves the city to have a park and structures of the highest quality materials. "Unfortunately, lack of maintenance is the most cited cause of accidents or injuries in a park," McConkey explained.
It seems like some city park directors think that once they build the skatepark, they can walk away from it, Patnaude added. But a skatepark is like any other amenity—it requires maintenance. "The baseball diamond needs to be watered and the lawn mowed," he said. "The city needs to look at the skatepark in the same way, as something that needs inspections and maintenance at various times."
Like other public places in many cities, skateparks are not immune to vandalism. But Patnaude points out that vandalism can often be kept in check by making sure the youth who will be using the park are involved with its building process.
"The kids take ownership of the project when they are involved from the beginning, and they'll police themselves," he said. "They don't want their place damaged."
A well-maintained park is a safe park, and safety is always at the forefront of city leaders' thinking.
"Initially, a lot of cities were scared off at the idea of a skatepark because of the safety liability," Moss explained, but he added that it isn't that much different from having insurance to cover public pools or playgrounds.
Besides, Moss said, the people who frequent skateparks know that injuries are part of the learning experience. "A broken arm can be a badge of honor," Moss said. "They also know that if they complain that they were hurt at the park, it will be shut down."
In Warsaw, Ind., anyone who shows up to use the public skatepark has to sign a waiver, according to activities director Jannelle Wilson. "You only have to sign the waiver once, but we keep track of who is using the park, and you have to have that waiver on file," she said, adding that the park is monitored.
"It is a supervised park," she said. "We make sure the rules are followed," which provides a better and safer atmosphere for all.
Wilson said the skatepark in Warsaw was originally a wood construction in operation since 1996 and now, thanks to a grant, is going through phases to replace the wood with steel. However, she said the park is strictly for skateboards and inline skates only.
"Our next task is to see how much interest is in a BMX bike park," she said, "but this park's layout is more friendly for skaters."
In Shelbyville, Dial said the park is open to both skaters and bikes. "It was built that way," Dial said, and the equipment is geared to accommodate skateboards, skates and bikes.
That's probably a wise move, Moss said. "You can't keep BMXers off the skateparks," he explained, but he does admit that bikers do have different needs. "Obstacles are taller in a BMX park, and they need more space," he added.
Bikers also move faster than the skateboards and wear on the equipment differently. However, few communities have the resources to create two different parks, so compromises need to be made. Some communities set separate times for bikes to use the facility; others make modifications to phase in bike-specific obstacles. The experts all agree that, if the city is going to allow bikes and skateboards to share the park, the bikers should be included in the planning stages, right along with the skaters.
Moss believes that we are seeing only the beginning of the popularity of skateparks. Skateboarding has evolved into a sport, and parents want their children to have a safe place to practice.
"Think of it this way," Moss said. "Years ago, it was unusual for a town to have a tennis court, and now every town has tennis courts. That's where skateparks are now. Few cities have one, but that's changing. Eventually, skateparks will be like tennis courts."
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