Getting Skateparks Done Right
By Stacy St. Clair
An incredible thing happened in the 1990s.
Tired of being shunned from parks and turned away from loading docks, skaters across the country launched grassroots movements to build their own skateparks, places where they could noseslide, ollie and pop shove-it without fear of rebuke.
But that's not the amazing part. The extraordinary thing about those efforts is that they worked. Cities and park districts responded to the movement by building thousands of parks over the decade, launching recreation managers into an area that was both foreign and exciting.
While the industry should be commended for blazing a trail in the '90s, there is still much left to do. Those pioneering parks are now aging, suffering from poor design, constant use and outdated thinking. Communities that don't adapt to 21st-century thinking are poised for a major wipeout. Today's cutting-edge parks are free-flowing, inviting and eco-friendly.
"We've learned a lot in the past 20 or so years," said Peter Whitley of Skaters for Public Skateparks, a national advocacy group. "There have been a lot of well-meaning mistakes made, but they can be fixed.
That's the good news."
Perhaps the biggest mistake recreation managers made in the 1990s was believing their work was done once the facilities were built. They assumed it was enough to just pour the concrete, establish a few rules and put up some fencing. They didn't concern themselves with programming, landscaping or aesthetics
Skating classes remain a largely untapped resource for many parks departments. In addition to being a potential revenue source, instructional programs also introduce newbies to the sport and ensure continued use for years to come. Likewise, events and competitions can draw potential patrons and help venues gain popularity.
"You wouldn't design a soccer field or a baseball diamond and expect it to be successful on its own," Whitley said. "You need programming, you need to evaluate your amenities to see if they're serving the public's needs, just as you would any other facility or park you built."
From Whitley's perspective, state-of-the-art skateparks must be inclusive venues and be open for broad interaction. In order to accomplish this, managers must literally tear down the fences at facilities in order to make them more inviting places. Though originally intended to manage access and secure the park after closing time, the chain-link barriers have had another effect. In addition to being eyesores, skaters refer to them as "skate jails" because of their exercise yard appearance. Fences simply send the wrong message to skaters and the general public about the activity occurring within their perimeters, Whitley said.
"The fences need to come down," Whitley added. "All the fences do is reinforce that this is a restrictive environment. There's no reason to make the kids feel like they're pariahs."
Fences often create a barrier to prevent loose boards from leaving the park, but experts argue there are more creative ways to address this issue. Carefully positioned ledges and low concrete bunkers can accomplish the same thing. Recreation managers often argue they need the fences to delineate where skaters can and cannot roll, but Whitley believes there are more aesthetically pleasing options.
"The most effective barriers for skateboarders are wet areas and deeply textured or rough surfaces," he said. "They do the trick while enhancing the park site. It's really the best way."
Tearing down the fences is the first step, Whitley said, in creating an inviting facility for skaters and non-skaters alike. Recreation managers can make their parks even more attractive to visitors by adding amenities such as water fountains, shade structures, restrooms and power outlets. Experts also suggest installing seating so spectators can stop and watch the dazzling displays. By improving the sight lines and making visitors comfortable, the public can better understand the need for skateparks and glean some enjoyment from them, as well.
Skaters appreciate having an audience, too. For the younger patrons, it gives their parents a place to sit comfortably while they use the park. And for older, more experienced skaters, it gives them a chance to demonstrate their skills for a welcomed audience.
"Skaters love to show off," Whitley said. "It's a win-win for everyone."
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 passť. 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."
The City of Los Angeles also made a strong statement in favor of sustainable parks when the parks department built a new concrete plaza at the Wilmington Recreation Center. They opted to reuse a concrete slab, minimizing the new park's carbon footprint. They also customized the slab and installed precast concrete skate elements, which meant they didn't have to tear up the concrete, perform extensive sitework or pour new concrete. The result is a virtually maintenance-free park that has exceeded the community's—and the staff's—expectations.
"We don't have to do a lot there anymore," said Mark Mariscal of the L.A. City Parks and Recreation department. "Of course, we still have to go in there and blow off dirt and power wash every three weeks, but it is much less than before."
The skate plaza receives high marks for its ability to blend in with the surrounding areas, as well. It looks like a natural part of the hardscape, Mariscal said, and mixes seamlessly with the rest of the park. And because of the plaza's open-air design, it can also be used for activities such as outdoor concerts and plays.
"It blends in wonderfully, which pleases the open-space advocates," he said. "(But) skaters still can get the feeling that they're doing something they shouldn't do. They still feel they have that roughness, that they're rogue and that goes along with that culture."
But don't take his word for it. Take the riders'. The plaza's use is about 300 percent higher than the original park. It also has become a popular place for high-profile, professional skateboarders such as Paul "P-Rod" Rodriguez, Jr., Lance Mountain, Geoff Rowley, Mark Appleyard and Leo Romero, among others, to shoot videos.
"Anywhere you pour concrete, people will use it for skateboarding," Mariscal said. "In the design phase we should be thinking that they are members of the community and we should partner with them rather than calling law enforcement to deal with them."
Officials in Vancouver, Wash., have installed skate spots throughout their community. These mini-facilities—first dubbed skate spots by the city of Seattle—are much smaller developments that may only consist of one or two features such as a ledge, a rail or a transition element.
The spots, also referred to as skate dots, cost significantly less than major venues because they require little maintenance and no additional infrastructure. They also can be easily integrated into the existing park space, allowing smaller neighborhood parks to have another amenity without becoming overwhelmed by concrete.
"By nature, skate spots have a smaller footprint, with less concrete, therefore less of an impact," said Jane Tesner Kleiner, Vancouver-Clark's Parks planning and development manager. "They typically only allow for 10 users or less at a time, therefore there is less foot traffic nearby with smaller amounts of trash, etc."
With the passage of the Greater Clark Park District program in 2005, there was an opportunity to build 35 new parks throughout the urban area. The parks staff worked with various public groups to identify gaps in the recreational system and decided skating and biking were in need of additional facilities. They then worked with a manufacturer of skate spots to identify features that would work in the new parks, including rails and ledges. Today, the community has two main skateparks, with six additional skate spots located throughout the urban area. BMX freestyle riders also can use the spots.
"These parks have been very popular with the users," Kleiner said. "There have been concerns with certain user groups related to vandalism, litter, profanity and such. We have worked with our local police and sheriff offices to partner on issues to be considered prior to installation of these features. Our biggest skatepark is located near a new fire station, while we have one skate spot collocated with a police station. We want these features to be successful so we have tried to identify neighboring uses that help monitor the areas and minimize issues related to skateparks and the perception that they may bring negative issues to the park."
Portland also has embraced the skate spot trend, with plans to develop 13 so-called spots across the city. They got creative with their placement, opting to redevelop unused wading pools into skate dots. They also sought outside funding for the spots because they're relatively low-cost and high-profile enough to make them attractive to sponsors.
"It's less impact financially on a city if they have skate spots, or little skateparks," Hanson said. "It takes only one good skate spot and all of the skateboarders know about it. Any city is full of skate spots. That's the beauty of them."
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