Get In On the Action

Action Sports Parks Bigger, Better, More Balanced Than Ever

By Daniel P. Smith

Nearly two inches of snow had fallen on St. Cloud, Minn., on Nov. 13, 2010, yet 125 people turned out for the grand opening of the Heritage Park Skate Plaza, the Minnesota city's newest public recreation space and the state's largest skateboarding complex.

Blanketing two-thirds of an acre, the one-of-a-kind skateboarding facility covers 25,000 square feet of horizontal and vertical concrete featuring a volcano element, grind rails and a handrail. Anticipation for the project compelled local skaters and park officials to eagerly remove the snow, an endeavor to not only unveil the project for onlookers, but immediately open the complex for use as well.

Though St. Cloud hosted skateparks in the past—and a world-class BMX facility—the skateparks were, St. Cloud Parks Director Scott Zlotnik admitted, "insufficient and failed to meet the needs of the community." The Heritage Park Skate Plaza represented a new era for St. Cloud—and perhaps skatepark design as a whole.

The skate plaza embraces the streetscape design style making headway around the country and settling in as the day's largest action sports park trend. Utilizing the direction of credible, action sports-savvy design firms, local skater input and the construction know-how of local contractor Gohman Construction, Heritage Park's streetscape design captures action sports park design's momentum in its purest form: innovative, inviting and inclusive.

As the 21st century unravels, both skateboarding and BMX parks are evolving, each embracing changes in planning and development, materials and layout, communications and controls to deliver enjoyment-inducing settings layered with form and function.

The Need for Parks

According to the Tony Hawk Foundation, arguably the nation's most influential skatepark proponent given the name and credibility of legendary pro skater Tony Hawk, the United States currently hosts 13 million skateboarders yet fewer than 2,000 skateparks.

In the Philadelphia area, the Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund has become the region's chief skatepark champion. The one-time advocacy group has morphed into a community development group that claims a role in the creation of five current Philadelphia area skateparks and, more recently, drafted a master plan for the City of Brotherly Love's west side that will include the addition of 80,000 square feet of skatepark land.

"Skateboarding is one of the nation's highest participation sports, but there are simply not enough facilities across the country," Franklin's Paine board president Joshua Nims said.

The clear inequity is what led Nims and others in 2000 to establish Franklin's Paine, an organization inspired by the grassroots upswell in other American cities, namely Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Largely a result of a negative stigma attached to the sport, the 1990s saw local governments and municipalities enforce a reactive approach to skateboarders with the posting of no skateboarding signs alongside threats of fines or prosecution.

In contrast, Franklin's Paine touted a proactive philosophy that many civic parks and recreation departments now share: If you don't have a skatepark, then your city becomes one. The same philosophy holds true for areas with heavy BMX ridership as well.

"It can be difficult to get the taxpayers to see this," confessed St. Cloud's Zlotnik, "but having a defined place for skaters is the right thing to do. If we don't provide the skate plaza, then the city becomes the skate plaza."

Hiram Hubert, a county commissioner with the City of Andrews, Texas, a 15,000-resident town that hosts both a skate and bike park, added, "We had a desire to get our skaters and bikers off the street and wanted to be proactive. It's as much about liability as anything."

Yet, tossing up a fence and planting ramps in a haphazard, uneducated way merely to remove skaters and riders from the streets is no recipe for success. A number of trends are pushing skateboarding and BMX parks into a heartier era and, in the process, defining a new type of action sports park planning and design process that transcends once-accepted norms.

Trend: Plaza-Style, Streetscape Design

A decade ago, skateparks were concrete or modular facilities contained in a defined environment singularly aimed at hosting skaters. No longer.

As skaters have clamored for banks, ledges and lower transitions, and local residents have voiced their desire for multi-function park spaces that offer non-skateboarder amenities, such as picnic benches or even bird-watching stations, the plaza layout has emerged a dominant trend.

"By and large, locals want to feel that the park has more use than a skatepark. They want to feel that the park has a role in the urban landscape," Nims said.

In St. Cloud, the skate plaza boasts an artistic flair as much as compelling rider elements. The design includes access to the park from pedestrian walkways and spectator seating zones, as well as the use of recycled local granite and drainage swales incorporated into the park's skate features and obstacles. The drainage collection of water is then directed into three separate rain gardens located on the park's interior. Diverse colored circulation lanes, stamped brick and real granite ledges with a wide array of floating ledges and rails complete the compelling and functional look.

"The future is not in the vertical but the horizontal," Zlotnik said. "It's been a change in thinking, but one we feel benefits skaters and non-skaters alike."

Across Minnesota in the City of Bemidji, another streetscape style skate plaza, opened in November 2010. Resembling a downtown square, the Bemidji Skate Park shares an inviting, welcoming aesthetic with multiple entry points and, most tellingly, no fences. While the 16,000-square-foot park hosts inviting skater features, including street elements such as a skateable planter and handrail, the plaza style transforms the park into a multi-user space.

"Our whole thought was: This is a public park, not some skating park that was an afterthought," City of Bemidji Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson said. "We wanted a free public space and wanted it integrated into the larger park, so that everything fits into one greater design.

"Not even the cold is keeping people away," she added.

Though BMX parks are sometimes designed with many of the same user elements as a skatepark, the facilities differ in scale. While this reality is likely to challenge BMX park design from entering the plaza-like setting, some designers see promise in merging the streetscape design with BMX elements as has easily been accomplished with skateboarding.

Trend: Blending Diverse Materials

What was once wood or concrete has turned into so much more. As action sports parks get creative with landscaping, layout, and design, the action sports complex becomes an aesthetic, multi-level space that can be enjoyed by skateboarders and riders as well as other citizens. The streetscape design also pushes material choices to be just as considerate.

In many cases, a number of burgeoning national design firms boast landscape designers and park planners with action sports participation backgrounds, a mix that is helping to push both BMX and skateparks into mainstream parks and recreation and giving rise to a new industry specialization. As a result, ingenuity and experimentation runs high, including a shift toward mixed terrain.

The entry to the Bemidji Skate Park features a skateable entry sign that is as artistic and sculptural as it is functional. Imposing and stylistic, the park's large boulders double as spectator seating. The park also includes a number of other aesthetic elements that play with materials: colored concrete patterns to differentiate the park from others in the area, saw cuts in the concrete flatwork, notches in the ledges, black painted steel and cantilevered banks that deliver a sculptural look.

At the Heritage Park Skate Plaza in St. Cloud, everything is custom-built of concrete, granite or metal. (Located amid various granite quarries, one local operation donated $20,000 in granite to the project.) The unique mix of these sturdy, industrial materials, including various concrete mixes to achieve the proper grip and durability, creates a facility high in functional longevity and style. St. Cloud, which combines inventive landscape design featuring an assortment of hardscapes and softscapes amid the skatepark layout, has subsequently become a place for many to mingle. The plaza is also currently seeking LEED certification, touting its drainage wells and rain gardens as well as the design's repurposing of existing land features as first-rate environmental features.

"With St. Cloud," Nims said, "skatepark design has hit a new plateau."

The mix of different materials at both Minnesota streetscape skate facilities, including inventive combinations of greenery options, fosters a more natural environment as opposed to the artificial concrete playground where skaters have long been sentenced to skate.

Spotlight on Fresno, Calif.
The Nation's Action Sports Park
Recreational Capitol

Perhaps no American city embraces the action-sports-as-recreation mantra more so than Fresno, the central California city of 500,000 with nine action sport destinations and—in a sign of just how invested the city's parks department is in its vertical adrenaline offerings—an aptly titled action sports supervisor role filled by Ryan Garcia.

Fresno features four dual-use modular ramp parks, a trio of concrete parks—one for BMX only, another for skateboarding and a third for both, one 42-foot wide, 13-foot high vertical ramp formerly used in the Gravity Games, and the new 10-acre Woodward Mountain Bike Skills Progression Park, which features a mountain bike trail, BMX track race and dirt jump park.

Given its central California location along with a citywide embrace of the action sports spirit, Garcia said the creation of each facility was aimed at appeasing both micro and macro considerations.

"There was certainly a method to our madness," Garcia explained. "First, we had a lot of athletes in this area with no place to go, and we wanted to create local venues for their use. Second, we wanted to capitalize on our location to hold both state and national events or to rent these facilities to others, which would create revenue and also boost the local economy with tourism."

In 2008, Woodward's first year of operation, Fresno hosted state and national events, attracting visitors from throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. Locals and guests continue to be wowed by a bike complex built to reside among the world's elite.

"Everything I would want in a facility has been created in my own backyard," said Garcia, himself a 20-year bike rider. "The director said he wanted the biggest and best and that's what we delivered."

With its assortment of distinct parks, Fresno sits in a unique position to comment on the longstanding cement-or-modular debate, a conversation that continues lingering well into the 21st century. In spite of its costly price tag, concrete has gained steam as the preferred choice—its durability and aesthetic possibilities being of particular appeal as momentum for plaza-style design thrives. Modular parks, sometimes plagued by deterioration, continue to be an option for many, largely given cost considerations.

"With modular, you can spread your money further and you also have the ability to move the elements, which is beneficial for a parks department that has to be responsive to new recreational needs," Garcia said.

In Fresno, community input maintains a hallowed spot in any new action sports park's creation. The city will hold community meetings at a school near the park's proposed site, often soliciting sketches or providing participants with clay to mold their desired features. The public dialogue then sparks a rendering, which undergoes additional community scrutiny.

"In the end, we're building the park for them," Garcia said. "Unlike baseball fields, which generally all look the same, the skatepark or bike park is a blank canvas. We have the ability to create the portrait our users want and, as a result, you'll never see the same park twice."

Trend: Community Involvement and Partnerships

In most municipalities, few parks and recreation staffers stand in touch with skatepark or BMX park design, thereby—and wisely—spurring a process with significant public input.

"I don't have the first clue about the transitions and distance skaters need," Andrews' Hubert admitted.

In creating the Bemidji Skate Park, local leaders leaned on the Bemidji Skate and Bike Association's research and honest dialogue to incorporate the best street and transitional elements possible.

"Not knowing skatepark basics, the involvement of local parties helped us to understand what the skaters wanted and what we needed to provide to maximize the space's use," Larson said.

In designing skateparks, Nims and his Franklin's Paine cohorts consistently reach out to area skaters to gauge their interests and assess the proper scale.

"You have to design to the right scale for what's needed," Nims said. "Much like putting in a half-court basketball court versus a full-court layout creates a different type of game, scale can similarly impact skateparks and their use."

In Andrews, Texas, Hubert and his staff similarly turned to local BMX riders to create the city and county's first bike park project. The result: the 65-foot-by-100-foot Andrews BMX Park features an eight-foot and six-foot ramp, a spine, jumps and tabletops—a collection of elements to challenge veteran riders without scaring off novices.

"You need the input of the experts and users because if they're not using the park, then you've wasted taxpayer money. There must be a buy-in from the user group," Hubert said.

After opening the city's first skatepark in early 2010, Hubert and his Andrews colleagues soon noticed bikers eager to test their skills overran the park. With a need established, the group began drafting plans for a bike park in an adjacent space, immediately involving the bikers in the process.

"We frankly didn't realize there was such a presence, but moved quickly to create a space for both user groups," Hubert said.

The two Andrews parks are located next to one another, each big enough for its specific user group and each constructed of concrete elements that provide the solid foundation Andrews requires to capture the maximum return on its ambitious investment.

Beyond the information and research, however, many cities also reach for additional community involvement to minimize costs and secure user buy-in.

The local skaters in Bemidji led fundraising drives and rallied support for the dynamic project, amassing upward of $166,000. The group's visionary ways and dedicated efforts earned a $25,000 maximum grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation as well as additional donations from Burton Snowboards, Nike and the Nielson Foundation, a local bank program.

"There was a nice, spirited effort between the skaters, the community and the city to produce a finished product that meets the needs of everyone," Larson said, adding that the skatepark, achieved with the addition of $150,000 in sales tax funds, represented one slice of a complete $3.4 million city park overhaul.

The path to the Heritage Park Skate Plaza, meanwhile, began five years ago when a local high school freshman petitioned the mayor and later made a proposal for a skatepark. As the student's efforts gathered support, St. Cloud's civic hierarchy took notice, just as the grassroots St. Cloud Skate Plaza Group pledged to raise $150,000 for the cause and drafted their own skatepark plans.

"We actually had plans for a skate plaza for years, but never took it much beyond those basic ideas," Zlotnik said, acknowledging that the park department's 2003 comprehensive plan called for the exploration of non-traditional parks and recreation activities, including skateboarding. "The special interest group pushed us into action."

Public and private partnerships were nothing new to St. Cloud. Before tackling the trend-setting Heritage Park Skate Plaza, the world-class Pineview Park BMX showed that public-private partnerships could drive results and spur new recreational participation. The dirt-track facility, which frequently alters its course to appease riders, emerged from the dedication of a local bike club to develop and maintain the BMX facility and the city's commitment and openness to cultivating new opportunities in conjunction with private agencies.

"[Pine View] is our land and capital, but it's the club's sweat equity that makes this work," Zlotnik said. "And as facilitators of recreational opportunity, we're always looking for these types of opportunities."

Trend: Repurposing Unused or Languishing Spots

In Philadelphia, Franklin's Paine is helping to lead the city's renovation of various roller hockey rinks into skateparks.

In a project that captures the ethos of Franklin's Paine, a languishing, sparsely used 6,000-square-foot roller hockey rink has been reborn as Pop's Playground Skate Space. Using 2,000 volunteer hours and a local contractor, Pop's features an assortment of waist-high scaled skate elements, trees and plants, and a mix of various concretes, brick and granite edges.

"The average height of the ramps is about 30 inches, so the elements do not turn anyone away," Nims said. "Skaters respond to this type of opportunity."

On any given day, Pop's can host up to 400 skaters, a robust reality that has sparked other benefits. According to the Philadelphia Police Department, the immediate area has witnessed an 80 percent crime reduction. As skaters flow into Pop's, the area's newfound liveliness no longer serves as a shield for negative activity. The project's $30,000 price tag, meanwhile, has made the process replicable elsewhere and inspired myriad new ideas and possibilities in Philly and elsewhere.

"You're turning what might be a $400,000 project into something that might cost $40,000, which is a giant difference for public departments working on a budget," Nims said.

In Green River, Wyo., a scenic though unused piece of land overseeing the town's namesake river and adjacent to the citywide trail system, city leaders unveiled the Green River Bike Park on National Trail Day in June 2010. The Sweetwater County Biking Association donated up to 5,000 volunteer hours to transform the unused 3.5-acre parcel on the south end of a 17-acre park into a popular spot in the bike-happy community.

The Green River Bike Park, accomplished over 24 months for less than $100,000, features four different vertical routes—novice, beginning, advanced and experienced—and immediately began attracting visitors off Interstate 80.

"We'll continue to put the icing on the cake, which includes irrigation, landscaping and gathering community feedback so we can tweak it as necessary," Green River Parks and Recreation director Walt Bratton said.

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