The Rite Site, The Right Design
By Peter Whitley
kateparks are hot. Communities all over the country are considering one, and many park planners indicate that a new skatepark is in their future. However, just because they're popular doesn't mean that it's easy to create the kind of success story everyone wants. In fact, a few poor decisions can quickly turn what should be a progressive, visionary space into an unpopular and controversial eyesore. With the recent boom in skateparks going, we now have plenty of evidence to determine what works and what doesn't.
Few people have an issue with skateboarding when it's someplace appropriate. In fact, skateboarding is fun to watch. Cities that have their skateparks where people can see them have developed a new admiration for the skill and tenacity required of skaters. Similarly, no skateboarder wants to be skating where it's not allowed; they would prefer to be doing their tricks in the public realm. When skateparks are located in remote areas of town, the social exclusion and lack of visibility work against the vibrancy and health of that facility.
When a new park was planned for Ballard, an urban village near downtown Seattle, the skating structure was put in the middle of a grand lawn with nearby benches and a sculptural water feature. As a result, visitors have plenty of options. There are nearby coffee shops, a library across the street and plenty of other things to do in the immediate area. Visitors may skate or, more likely, sit back with their latte and library book and hang out in the park. The important thing is that the space is shared by diverse users, reflecting the character and values of the neighborhood where it's located.
Security fences are installed around skateparks for a variety of reasons. Some claim it is to prevent access by unwanted users. They are also used to define the boundary of the designated skating space. Most often it is the result of a risk assessment that considers the skating space a liability to the general public. While a fence may protect the park from unwanted visitors and nearby property from unwanted skaters, there is a significant psychological impact on the skatepark users.
Fenced spaces suggest private, exclusive properties, and only those who can claim a legitimate stake in the space feel comfortable being there. Those who are unsure about their skatepark visit will be made more uncomfortable by the barrier.
At first, this may seem like an acceptable exchange by the average park planner, but consider what kind of activity the fence will keep out. Younger users—as well as their parents—will feel understandably unsure about recreating there. Parents will tend to drop their kids off rather than watching. Younger children will feel excluded from the interesting forms. The message becomes one of exclusion and privilege rather than community participation. In all but the most advanced styles of skateparks, there is little benefit to enclosing the space with a fence.
Skateboarding participation has been steadily increasing for the last three decades, but it's only recently that communities have identified the enormous need for skateparks. Today communities want to know how much skatepark is needed and, once built, what kind of programming will be successful there.
Early adopters of the skatepark boom often explored their local need with a few ramps on an unused tennis court and provided little or no programming. Many of these types of facilities are dormant as the skaters have flocked to the more popular concrete parks.
Contemporary skateparks feature the kinds of structures found "in the wild." The concrete forms are often textured and dyed to mimic the institutional architecture found in business plazas. When a skatepark contains the curvilinear forms characterized by bowls and snake-runs, these too have a calculated logic that provides a unique riding experience. Ramps on a slab of concrete or abandoned tennis court have never come close to providing this kind of interactive experience.
An experienced skatepark designer will provide your skateboarding community with a facility that can meet all levels of skill. Your skateboarding community will respond accordingly; a quality park will demonstrate your commitment to your community's needs. Any professional skatepark designer will deliver a substantial design dialogue with your skateboarding community. These design workshops will add to the ownership and stewardship of your final facility by its passionate users.
There are two significant "less is more" lessons in skatepark design.
In terms of skatepark expense, frugal planners facing today's difficult budget constraints are looking at concrete as their skatepark "bargain." With maintenance costs being a concern, compared to wood or wood-polymer obstacles, concrete is the economical choice. Cosmetic maintenance is all that is typically required of a properly designed and built concrete facility. While concrete can incur slightly more up-front expense—especially if the facility is part of a larger site development—the number of users concrete skateparks attract compared to the operational cost will quickly demonstrate that your concrete skatepark is one of the best deals you can find.
In terms of skatepark design, it's much better to provide a broad, open area with professionally designed forms than a lot of structures in a small space. It is important to understand that the open, flat space between the structures is a difficult and imperfect science that takes a skilled and experienced designer to deliver successfully. When the forms are positioned in a way that capitalizes on the natural physical rhythm of the skater, the space can come alive and your skating community will be energized by the facility.
Odds are good that you are thinking about your future skatepark. We encourage you to go into that project with a bold vision. When you're unsure about an aspect of skatepark development, contact your nearby communities that have successful parks. You can also count on the volunteers at Skaters for Public Skateparks for experienced advice.
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