Better Skateboarding, Happier Towns

How Skateparks are Helping Communities and Advancing the Sport
Written by Karen Hawthorne

Since the dawn of skateboards, there has always been a little friction between those who practice the sport and the local government and businesses. That’s why skateparks are a win-win for everyone.

Here’s a fun pop quiz for you. How would you define the following words: “sketchy,” “dialled,” “landing bolts” and “snake?”

If you thought “sketchy” meant a shaky landing, “dialled” referred to being able to do a trick over and over again, “landing bolts” meant performing a trick perfectly, and a “snake” is someone who jumps into the bowl before their turn, you are probably a skater or know something about skateboarding.

It’s summer and like many summers before this one, it’s primetime for skating (a.k.a., skateboarding – don’t worry, this isn’t part of the quiz).

Skateboarding can be traced back to the 1950s when surfers started adding metal rollerskate wheels to small wooden boards so they could ride sidewalks when the waves were flat. What is different now is that skaters have a lot more options with both their boards and where to use them, and municipalities are seeing the benefits that come from supporting the skateboarding community.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, skateboarding was largely an underground sport, where kids would get out on their boards and look for the best places to try new tricks. Inevitably, these places would be the downtown cores of cities. The draw to these places was the concrete and asphalt. One of the main reasons for this was the development of urethane wheels in the ’70s which not only provided a much smoother ride, but grip especially well to concrete and asphalt surfaces. So the concrete sidewalks, asphalt roads and, yes, swimming pools, all became much safer and smoother to ride on.

And while town squares were great locations for skateboarders, they are a little less than convenient for the businesses and local government of cities and towns. Since the invention of the skateboard, there has been a long-standing tension between those who skated and those who saw skateboarders as an unsavoury subculture hanging out and doing tricks in municipal centers, schools and malls. In the early years of the sport, it was even viewed as a dangerous pastime by the media and much of the public.

“From my history, downtown Seattle and downtown Chicago are amazing places with all the concrete or asphalt, so they were really skateable,” says Micah Shapiro, CEO of Grindline, a Seattle-based company that designs skateparks. “I feel that skaters, when they drive around and look at the urban environment, are asking themselves ‘can I skate that?’ Whether it’s the rooftops or industrial warehouses on the side of a freeway, you just look at it differently.”

According to the New York Times, the skateboarding industry is worth approximately $5 billion and there are about 11 million people in the United States, both men and women, who participate. The sport is also about to gain the additional respect of being added to the Olympics. The 2020 games in Tokyo will mark the debut of skateboarding as an official Olympic sport, and this is in addition to the X Games, which has increased the visibility of skateboarding in recent years.

Not only does the sport appear more frequently on TV, modern skateparks are popping up across the continent, and they are helping to bridge the gap between local communities and skaters as well as further advance the sport.

The rise of the skatepark developed over time, with the oldest parks dating back to 1965. Originally these were largely privately operated parks; however, the cost to run these parks was prohibitive because of insurance and several eventually closed. What actually paved the way for modern skateparks was the 1998 legislation out of California, widely viewed as the birthplace of skateboarding, which deemed the sport to be inherently a “hazardous recreational activity.” Reading between the lines, cities could not be held liable for skateboarding-related injuries. So, in effect, cities and towns were able to build parks without the fear of being sued by anyone who used them. From this point on, the design and size of these parks have flourished.

Skateparks in essence take the best of what is available in urban settings and improve upon them by ensuring the surface that the skaters use is more uniform and ultimately a smoother ride. Now there are three main types of skateparks: bowl, city plaza and flow.

Bowl parks are deep-curved walls that skaters can use to go up and down to gain momentum for tricks or to continually move. Back in the day, these would have been empty pools that were famously used by the Z-Boys of Santa Monica, California in the 1970s to get airborne and open up what people could do on a skateboard.

City plaza-style parks are based on street plazas which include structures like stairs, railings and park benches that skaters can use to do tricks and push off of to better move around. The first of these was built in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2004.

Flow parks combine elements from bowl and city plaza parks and incorporate curved walls throughout so that skaters can move from one area to the next without having to take their feet off the board to push off.

When designing skateparks, the first rule is that there are no rules! There are no established dimensions in size or what they can incorporate, so they will vary from one location to the next. For instance, the largest park in North America is located in Houston, Texas and features 78,000 square feet of surface for skateboarding (that’s about the size of a football field), a 12-foot vertical ramp, 10-foot deep bowls and a 360 degree pipe. Of course, it has a Texas-shaped bowl and a “lazy river” style pathway that makes it accessible to skaters of all levels. The Houston Chronicle says that the park cost $6.5 million to develop.

Going even bigger, the largest skatepark in the world is GMP Park, located in Guangzhou, China. This park measures in at 182,000 square feet and is a combination of bowl, mini-ramps, plazas, banked slalom and full pipe, to name a few sections.

While both of these are extreme examples of what can be done, the good news is that building a skatepark is a relatively inexpensive project for municipalities, costing on average $45 per square foot. And when done well, these parks can provide an outlet for local skaters who can practice their sport without interfering with business or other public activities. The skaters themselves end up with a place with near-perfect conditions where they can hang out all day without fear of being told to leave.

In fact, the National Parks and Recreation Association says that parks are a “win-win” in providing skateboarders with a safer environment to practice while protecting the property of local businesses and government. The University of Delaware also points to the economic benefits of increased traffic to local business around parks as well as greater social cohesion that comes from public spaces designated for sport activities.

Companies like Grindline are also elevating the quality of skateparks through introducing “ladders of progression” that help skaters intermittently build up their skills. “If you just build the advanced stuff, someone who is starting out can’t take advantage of it and they will lose interest. So we are trying to provide ways to learn,” Shapiro says. So it’s not surprising that the skill level of skaters has been steadily increasing over the years.

Of course, the social benefits that come from getting youth to participate in sports cannot be overstated. The University of Missouri notes that adolescents who participate in sports tend to do better academically, become better problem-solvers and tend to have reduced stress levels.

When it comes to weighing the value of building skateparks in communities, the former mayor of Richmond, Virginia, Dwight C. Jones, has some words of wisdom that local governments should think about. “If your town doesn’t have a skatepark, it is one.” By adding a skatepark, cities and towns can create a positive place to practice an increasingly mainstream sport.



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