Attracting Teens, Reducing Trouble
Skateparks & Bike Parks Engage Hard-to-Reach Demographics & Improve Communities
By Chris Gelbach
As park departments struggle to attract the teen and tween demographics, they're also seeking ways to revive underused and troubled parks. In a growing number of communities, public skateparks and bike parks are providing a successful solution to both challenges.
When these projects are successful, their initial momentum typically emerges at the grassroots level from a strong local community of bike or skateboard enthusiasts.
"I've helped build public skateparks around the world, and every time there's been some kind of advocacy behind it, whether it was a group of skateboarders who have gotten organized or a group of parents who have gotten organized," said Carter Dennis, executive director of Skaters for Public Skateparks, a nonprofit skatepark advocacy organization. "There has to be some kind of advocacy behind it. There has to be some kind of communication there. That's really where I think the spark starts."
Built to Last
In addition to community support, simply choosing the right construction material can be integral to a skatepark's success. Both Skaters for Public Skateparks and the Tony Hawk Foundation strongly recommend concrete, and the latter has made concrete construction an eligibility requirement for the grants it offers to help build public skateparks.
According to Peter Whitley, programs director for the Tony Hawk Foundation, other solutions such as modular ramps that can go over a derelict tennis court often seem appealing to planners on a limited budget. But once installed, they tend to weather or rust quickly, and their maintenance costs quickly eclipse their benefits. The structures also tend to be less interesting for the kids using the park.
"Largely, they will tend to not meet the need of the skaters, who then return to the streets and compound the problem and the frustration that the community may have felt before they got the skatepark built," Whitley said. "And now you have a situation where a proper skatepark is an even more remote possibility than it was before, because a skatepark already exists."
When these projects are successful, their initial momentum typically emerges at the grassroots level.
While skateboard and BMX wheels are relatively soft, other bike and skateboard parts aren't, so the structure needs to be able to withstand that beating. "When you look at concrete skateparks, here you're designing a facility out of the same stuff that freeways are made of," Whitley said. "And for the hundreds of visits a skatepark can have in a day, and virtually no maintenance, concrete is really your only option." Whitley has seen heavily-used concrete skateparks that are now 15 years old and still doing fine with virtually no maintenance.
Both Whitley and Dennis also recommend working with a professional skatepark builder on any project. A contractor with experience building world-class skatepark facilities will have the technical ability to deftly handle concrete bowl and multilevel amenities. They'll also understand how to create the proper park flow to successfully accommodate key user groups, which may include young kids on scooters and BMX riders in addition to skateboarders.
Site Selection for Success
The proper choice of site can also make a difference between a skatepark being a source of headaches and it becoming a tangible asset to the community. While many municipalities are tempted to banish skaters to an unobtrusive location, this approach can both put those kids at risk and undermine a skatepark project's success.
"If you take a bunch of teenage boys and you put them in the outskirts of town next to a greenbelt with nothing but forest and land next to it and not visibility, those kids are probably going to get up to no good," Whitley said. "But if you put that skatepark downtown where there's lots of visibility and lots of activity in that area, those kids will end up enhancing that sense of safety and normal human activity."
Since skateboarding is an activity that will attract patrons at all hours—and often their parents, too—a skatepark in a visible location can in some cases even help turn around a troubled park. Dennis saw this at Martinez Park in his hometown of San Antonio.
The park had been frequented by gangs. And when new restrooms and a playground were installed on the site, they were burned down. But then the skatepark was introduced. It included a design that was completely open to ensure high visibility, allowing anyone driving by to see right into it. Lights were also installed that kept the skatepark bright all night long.
"The element that had been hanging out there before was a bad element," Dennis said. "But when the skatepark opened, it brought in kids. It brought in parents. It brought in a new playground that didn't get burned down. And now it's this beautiful park. Just putting a skatepark there revitalized the park and brought it back to life."
The Tony Hawk Foundation offers a complete guide to site selection and other skatepark development concerns at publicskateparkguide.org.
Nature Amid the Concrete
While older skateparks may often have contributed to the look and feel of a concrete jungle, today's parks are also often designed to enhance their environments. Elements such as natural features and concrete dyes are being increasingly employed to make the parks a source of visual appeal both for skaters and the general public.
"We're seeing skateparks that have trees and rocks and cool visual treatments and skatable art right in the skatepark, and the fences are coming down," Whitley said. "And it feels less like an exercise yard and more like an architectural wonderland for kids to play in and interact with. And that's exactly what we're striving for."
This can include more sustainable elements, such as those seen in Ed Benedict Skate Park in Portland, which was billed as the first environmentally sensitive skate plaza upon its 2009 debut. It incorporates custom sculptural elements, recycled materials, green channels and two bioswales.
The recently-opened Lanark Skate Plaza in Canoga Park, Calif., also takes a natural approach, curving among old-growth trees. "It is designed to snake around the drip lines of the trees so it doesn't disrupt any water that gets to the trees, and it all sheet drains," said Whitley.
Communities are also increasingly opting to add local character to their skateparks through the use of signature elements. One notable example is the skatepark being developed in Fallbrook, Calif., that will feature a green Avocado Bowl design in a nod to the community's status as the "Avocado Capital of the World."
How Programs Beget Patrons
A skatepark's ongoing success depends not only on listening to advocacy groups from the onset, but also in creating opportunities to introduce new skaters to the sport. Educator and skateboarding expert Ben Wixon sees this potential opportunity as huge, citing that a recent study showed that skateboarding was the number-one activity in terms of the gap between the people who do it and who want to do it. "It helps to have programs to help ease the kids into the skatepark environment. It can be really intimidating to new skaters, adults alike," Wixon said.
A recent study showed that skateboarding was the number-one activity in terms of the gap between the people who do it and who want to do it.
As a result, programming that creates a safe learning environment can boost participation. Wixon's Drop In to Skateboarding program has partnered with Skaters for Public Skateparks on the SPS/Drop-In Instructor Accreditation Program to prepare instructors to do just that. It provides guidance in skateboarding instruction, including the critical first weeks of learning the basics, when an estimated one-third of all skateboard injuries occur.
To find potential instructors, Wixon recommends that park departments reach out to local skate shops, since they typically have their finger on the pulse of the skate community and may employ kids who are potential instructors. According to Whitley, "The one thing you shouldn't do is try to show up in your tan polo shirt and khakis and try to speak skater lingo with the kids."
Because these retail shops have strong relationships with skateboarding companies, they can also help attract sponsors for events like skateboarding contests and jams. "When you have the shops involved, the companies value those accounts," Wixon said. "So one phone call from the shop that's been around for 10 years will get a ton of free gear, and it helps legitimize the programs to the kids, too."
Since the facilities will attract teens who value independence, it's also helpful to stay away from too many regulations. "The age is what's tricky," Whitley said. "Sixteen-year-olds are fickle and they want to be able to come and go as they please. They don't want to be restricted to a particular time, and they don't want to be told to wear helmets and elbow and knee pads and wrist guards."
Instead, Whitley and Dennis both recommend that any information about protective gear be posted as recommendations. Explicit rules requiring gear can propel skaters who've been going helmet-free their whole lives back into the streets, where most skateboarding deaths and serious injuries occur. Facilities are also likely to be most successful with scheduling-averse teens when they don't limit access to the park too much, or create rules designating certain days for BMX or skating.
Likewise, Wixon recommends scheduling classes at off-peak hours. "If you're displacing 50 or 60 skaters to teach five skaters, that can be problematic," Wixon said. "But most of the public parks being built now are big enough that you can use different areas [for lessons] and move around without displacing the entire skatepark."
Bike Parks Gain Speed
Like skateparks, bike parks for mountain biking, BMX and even cyclocross are growing in popularity. These, too, are being used in some cases to revitalize troubled areas. One example is the recent addition of mountain bike trails to Tacoma's Swan Creek Park. It even features a trail called Braking Bad. It's a nod to the TV show and to the previous drug activity in the area that the trail is helping to eliminate.
Judd de Vall, founder and principal owner of a company that builds bike parks based in Whistler, British Columbia, is seeing a similar approach being employed for an expansive bike park he's working on for the City of Denver. "They have a number of unsolicited uses in these parks, and so they want to see eyes and ears on the ground. And so our work there is going to create a lot of self-guided use of the facility that will reduce unwanted uses."
Like skateparks, bike parks normally come to fruition after the passionate and often lengthy labors of local advocacy groups. But once built, they are different than concrete skateparks in requiring considerably more ongoing maintenance.
"It's important to have a good operations and management plan," de Vall said. "That is the key to the puzzle that makes these facilities endure. A natural-surface environment is very different than a skatepark. We have a lot of steep slopes, a lot of landscaping, a real mix of different users."
Like skateparks, bike parks for mountain biking, BMX and even cyclocross are growing in popularity.
De Vall recommends seeking out a bike park contractor that's a member of the Professional Trail Builders Association when creating such a facility. But he also recommends including details about the operations, management and programming of the park in requests for proposals as part of the capital expenditure plan. "That way, when it comes time for the mayor to snip the ribbon, everyone involved knows that our collective brand and our collective efforts will be maintained appropriately," de Vall said.
At Boulder's Valmont Bike Park, ongoing efforts to maintain the acclaimed park include eight employees who regularly ride and inspect the trails. The park is free to the public. But Skyler Beck, Valmont park manager, estimates that the park is able to recoup about 20 percent of the cost to maintain the facility through events and programs. These include weekly summer camps for kids, partnerships with clubs that practice and conduct clinics at the park, a weekly race series produced with the University of Colorado, and larger race events that draw competitors from around the world.
"We quantify attendance as much as we can, and we're working to increase our revenues through sponsorships and other means besides events and programs," Beck said. The park also contributes to Boulder's value as a tourist destination and as a local and regional attraction, benefits that are harder to quantify. "I meet people here all of the time from all over the country," Beck said. "It definitely helps preserve Boulder's identity as a bike-friendly city."
In addition to elements serving the BMX, mountain bike and cyclocross disciplines, the park also features amenities such as picnic shelters, a parking lot, a playground, disc golf course, dog park and a sports field. While these were all built in Valmont's case as part of the bike park project, de Vall noted that park districts can enjoy tremendous savings by placing a bike park in an underutilized park already boasting amenities like parking and restrooms.
"Often with our greenfield projects, 75 percent of the project budget goes into the infrastructure and what's left is a small amount for the actual amenity," de Vall said. In communities without a strongly established bike culture like Boulder's, starting out small in an existing park can also help gauge community interest in a larger facility.
By embracing natural elements and creating spaces that appeal to users and onlookers alike, skateparks and bike parks can add value to their communities.
In some cases, bike parks can also cut costs by taking advantage of existing natural terrain, as Mesa Parks and Recreation did for its Desert Trails Bike Park. That park, which opened in November 2014, was built on a plot of unused city-owned desert land. The park features a series of trails for mountain and BMX bikers of different levels as well as a pump track, a kids' skills track, two ramadas, restroom facilities and a parking lot.
"I think that what benefited us the most was that we were able to work with the existing natural desert vegetation," said Lily King-Cisneros, public information officer for Mesa Parks and Recreation. "We didn't have to pull up bushes or plow over things. We worked within the general landscape that we had."
In addition to providing plenty of biking opportunities for novices, the park is also encircled by a walking trail. "So if you're not a biker, you can still enjoy the park and take advantage of the scenery," King-Cisneros said. The use of existing terrain and earth tones in the structures themselves has successfully created a natural feel that won the park a Natural Resources Award for the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association.
Transforming Landscapes, Changing Lives
By embracing natural elements and creating spaces that appeal to users and onlookers alike, skateparks and bike parks, when done right, can add value to their communities. They can also foster inclusion by giving kids who skate and bike the opportunity to take on a unique leadership role in advocating for and maintaining these facilities.
"Skaters are getting tickets and being kicked out of spaces they want to be in. They're often relegated by the local community as second-class citizens, treated as pariahs," Whitley said. "And here they are taking the initiative to attend a city council meeting and presenting on what they need to remain an integrated part of the community. And that's pretty profound when you stop and think about it. This is recreation, but it's also more meaningful than that."
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