By Lee Chilcote
One of the world's best-known skateboarding parks is located beneath the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon. One night in 1990, local skaters Bret Taylor, Chuck Willis, and Osage Buffalo made their own ramp by pouring concrete against a slanted wall. They convinced local contractors building the I-80 freeway ramp to "donate" some excess concrete and the skate spot grew. Burnside Skate Park drew skaters from up and down the West Coast, but because it was unsanctioned by the city it was in constant danger of getting torn down.
"There was concern locally that it would draw crime, drug addicts, undesirable populations and activity, but the reverse became true," says Mark Ragget, senior planner with the city of Portland. "It was a place where a lot of people would come, and skateboarders helped clear up the park and keep things generally workable around the facility. The owners and businesses around them started to appreciate having them around."
At the time, skateboarding was illegal in many places and skaters needed a place to go. But Burnside was a rough place. Skateboarders had to contend not only with bumpy patches of concrete but also criminal activity from prostitutes and drug dealers. Eventually organizers were allowed to keep building as long as they kept the place clean. Many famous skateboarders got their start here, including Mark "Red" Scott, president of Dreamland Skateparks, and today Burnside is a popular public skate park.
Skateboarding has come a long way from the days when skateboarders hand-built their own ramps underneath bridges. Many cities have invested millions of dollars in skate parks, deterring property damage from illegal skating and reducing the liability and health risks of skating in parking lots and streets. Rather than sketchy, graffiti-filled places, today's skate spots tend to be well-maintained public parks that draw families skating with their kids, older skateboarders, and fans of the sport.
However, there are many challenges to building skateboarding infrastructure. First, skate parks can be expensive, and skaters in many cities lack an effective lobbyist within city hall. Additionally, experts agree that skate parks should be designed with lots of input from skaters, and this requires a skillfully facilitated community process. Finally, there are many nuances to skate park design, including identifying an appropriate site, ensuring accessibility, and building features for a wide range of skaters, yet these best practices may not be institutionalized within planning offices.
"With planners, there's going to be challenges with fluency in knowing what skateboarders want," says Peter Whitley, programs director with the Tony Hawk Foundation, which provides grants that help communities build skate parks. "If we presume they're not familiar with skateboarding, then there's really two aspects to it: the technical aspects and what planners can do to engage the skateboarding community to inventory those needs and desires."
As skateboarding has become more mainstream, cities have begun looking at skateboarding infrastructure as a recreation outlet for kids of all backgrounds. These cities are developing skate park master plans that feature large concrete skate parks, smaller neighborhood parks, and plazas with skateboarding features.
"You see teenagers attracted to recreation without coaching, prompting, or incentives — you just build it and they start showing up," says Whitley. "Isn't that what we're aiming for? With every new skate park that goes in, more people are exposed to the net positive of skate parks."
What skateboarders need
When designing skate parks, planners should consider how to engage communities to determine the need. A wide variety of methods should be used, including going to skate spots to gather feedback from teen skateboarders who don't attend public meetings. Planners should try to engage a diverse range of community members, including residents, businesses, and institutions.
"We almost always go through a public workshop process," says Zach Wormhoudt, a landscape architect and president and CEO of Wormhoudt Inc., a leading skate park designer. Zach's father, Ken Wormhoudt, designed one of the oldest skate parks still in operation, Derby Park in Santa Cruz.
"You could have a great skate park design that works perfectly for skaters, but if it's not sited correctly or done in such a way that anticipates the functions in the context of the community, it won't be successful," he says.
The skate parks Wormhoudt's firm designs are 100 percent customized for each community, and skater input is considered crucial. "We literally have skaters work with modeling clay," he says. "We bring in graph paper. We get actual skating terrain from the actual user group."
Hiring an experienced architect and contractor is also key to success. High-quality skate parks are built by sculpting smooth concrete, a specialized technique that requires training. Carter Dennis, executive director of Skaters for Public Skate Parks, recalls how cities in the 1980s and '90s hired playground contractors with little or no experience to build wooden and metal skate parks.
"What we were seeing was cities spending hundreds of thousands of dollars building a skate park that was hardly functional," he says. "It was a disaster. They were building steel frame ramps, and a year later they were falling down and people were getting hurt skating them."
Public meetings can help allay concerns from neighbors. "Our approach has always been to embrace those types of people, to listen to their concerns, and if their concerns are valid, see if we can come up with valid design solutions to remedy their concerns," says Wormhoudt. "Sometimes their concerns are based on misconceptions about the proposed project. Our work is based on education."
Young skateboarders can be the best salespeople. When teen skaters showed up to argue for a skate park in Apopka, Florida, during master planning meetings, the city listened.
"They argued for the benefits of skateboarding facilities, that they're safe places for kids to go to stay out of trouble and offer a great healthy activity," says Debbie Love, AICP, director of planning and public relations and outreach with Keith and Schnars, the engineering, planning, and surveying firm that was hired to conduct Apopka's master plan. (Read more about Apopka's community visioning for a new skate park in Love's blog post at www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9108776.)
Friends groups can also be effective. When Cody Rocamontes was killed while skateboarding on a frontage road in Arlington, Texas, parents and community members rallied to get a skate park built. Today, the city has the Cody Rocamontes Memorial Skatepark and a master plan to build more skate parks.
"Every time you turned around they were volunteering for this and that," says De'Onna Garner, park planning manager with the city of Arlington. "It was a real success story of how a friends group can become involved in the process."
As the skateboarding community has aged they've become more effective at showing up for public meetings. "Skating is becoming something adults really advocate for, just like they advocate for a baseball diamond getting new grass or uniforms for basketball," says Josh Nims, operations manager with Schuylkill River Development Corporation and founder of the skateboarding advocacy group Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund.
Building the parks they want
Skate park locations need to be highly visible and accessible. Because cities have historically viewed skateboarding as a nuisance activity, early skate parks were often built in fringe locations. This isolation ironically reinforced negative views of the sport.
"There wasn't really precedent for locating them in very visual sites, sites in popular parks," says Wormhoudt. "The problem was those [out-of-the-way] sites weren't necessarily accessible to skaters and [practically] almost promoted the type of behavior you don't want in skate parks, people hanging out and drinking, doing stuff like that." Wormhoudt says skate parks should be built close to where kids live or a short skateboard ride away. If there's not enough funding to build multiple parks, a single larger park should be built that's accessible by public transportation.
Increasingly, cities are integrating skate parks within redevelopment projects. "Now we're seeing most projects located front and center, right downtown or in the city," he says. "The more centrally located a park is, it's been proven that helps extensively with longterm success."
When redesigning an existing park, consider how it impacts other functions, says Bruce Reed with the Landscape Architecture Division of Keith and Schnars. Some separation is needed to ensure that skateboarding doesn't conflict with other park uses. "At the same time, you want to make sure they become part of the existing uses and share in the public supervision of the park," he says.
Once a site has been identified, planners must grapple with how to serve skateboarders of different ability levels and preferences.
While younger skateboarders may prefer smaller ramps and street features, older skateboarders may want to skate bowls, half pipes, and snake runs. In a larger park, planners should try to design something for everyone. A park shouldn't be too intimidating.
"The most important thing is scale," says Nims, whose mantra is not to build anything over five feet. "The key to building good skate spaces is making them accessible and safe while also making them skateable." Nims says a good rule of thumb is to design for older and younger skaters. "Design for under 13 and over 33," he says. "People in the middle will still skate these parks and think they're great."
Well-designed skate parks should also have a good "flow," says Wormhoudt. "That means you can start at any one place in the park and connect the dots throughout the park without having to push," he explains. "At the same time, if it's crowded, it breaks itself down into separate rideable areas." Controlling park access can mitigate concerns about youth hanging out unsupervised, Love says. Some skate parks charge a small admission fee, while others have an attendant or limit the hours a park is open.
Developing a skate park master plan
Portland was one of the first cities in the world to create a skate park master plan in 2005. The plan calls for 19 parks, including 13 neighborhood skate spots, five district-wide skate parks, and one central city anchor park, about half of which have been completed.
Increasingly, cities are following Portland's lead and building a range of different skate parks to appeal to a broad group of users, Mark Ragget says.
This approach can help cities increase the level of service without breaking the bank. Portland's newer skate spots include Pier Park, an 11,000-square-foot space with a full concrete pipe and deep bowls, and Ed Benedict Skate Park, which is flatter and has more of a plaza design.
"A little curb or concrete may be enough to attract skateboarders," he says. "Having a range of options is key."
Rather than trying to create a single park that appeals to everyone, Portland's approach has been to create parks for different styles.
"For my generation, the big bowls and deep pools are attractive, but that can be intimidating to younger riders," Ragget says. "The flatter parks like Benedict appeal to a wider range of riders, more young people."
Because plaza-style parks are inherently open, they tend to attract more spectators and visitors. Some cities have made these parks more attractive by adding public art, seating and landscaping. "The primary function is still for skate parks, but a person can stop there and drink their coffee if they're so inclined," he says.
The master plan for Arlington, Texas, recommends different types of parks spread out across the city. "What we were trying to do was kind of like a playground, where you have one within 15 minutes of your home," says Garner. "We also tried to provide skateboarding opportunities near trail opportunities so you didn't have to drive."
Increasingly, skate parks are incorporating high design elements such as concrete dyes. "Rather than seeing some rundown old wooden ramps on a tennis court somewhere, which is the older vision people might maintain, they're seeing new architecturally compelling spaces kids can interact with," Whitley says. "It doesn't have to feel like an exercise yard. Communities can interact with skateboarders without a fence between them."
Cities can also modify existing areas to make them skateable. "They can allow skating in bike lanes and certain city parks, or revisit the furniture in city parks where they have skate stoppers," he says. "With slight modifications they can allow skating without risk to the furniture or the public."
These small skate spots are often a win-win, Dennis says. "Not every skate park has to be a huge grand slam park," he says. "You can build a few skate spots that get heavily used."
Paying for skateboarding infrastructure
Charleston, South Carolina, and Houston have recently each invested upwards of $5 million in skate parks. The average cost of a skate park is $40 per square foot. A community can create a 10,000-square-foot park for about $400,000, according to the Public Skate Park Development Guide (publicskateparkguide.org), which was created by the International Association of Skateboarding Companies, Skaters for Public Skate Parks, and the Tony Hawk Foundation.
For skateboarding advocates trying to win a prominent skate park, they must convince public officials that it is a priority and make sure they have a seat at the table.
Having city hall support is key. "Seattle got millions assigned to skate park construction because it became part of the budgeted recreation master plan in the city," says Nims. "To me that's the holy grail."
Many public officials still see skateboarding as a fringe sport, despite the sport's persistent popularity. (It's even an Olympic sport now, and will make its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.) "We need the community itself saying, 'Hey, leaders, this is a good thing,' and we need leaders with vision, too," says Vince Franz, executive director of Public Square Group, a Cleveland skateboarding advocacy nonprofit, which helped develop the Crooked River Skate Park in 2014.
Although skate parks can cost a lot of money, they can also be done on the cheap. "For far less than $20,000 you can provide a skating opportunity just within a neighborhood that would keep dozens of kids happy for decades," says Wormhoudt.
One example is Michael Zone Recreation Center in Cleveland, which features a raised sidewalk element with a skateable rail heavily used by local skateboarders.
A strong skateboarding nonprofit can help push things through city hall. "Philly has been such a strong skateboarding city for so long, and we've had enough people that were here and went off to law school and college," Nims says. "Let's face it, it takes 40-yearolds — it has to become part of the infrastructure vernacular."
Nims and other local leaders learned early on that the city didn't have money for projects that weren't part of the preexisting master plan. "From the beginning we wanted to find ways to engage talented members of the skate community to help build skate parks," he says. "How could we convince the city to hire somebody I know to build a skate park versus bidding it out?"
Ultimately, Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund found a concrete contractor willing to sponsor the project. The nonprofit paid for the cost of the bond, selected a skateboarder-turned-contractor to do the work, and then donated the project to the city.
"It used to be guys getting together, buying a bunch of concrete and building a skate park," Nims says. "That was how it was done. Now it's guys lobbying their council person, checking off all the boxes of how you're supposed to do it."
Lee Chilcote is a writer and nonprofit director living in Cleveland. For his 42nd birthday, he bought himself a skateboard.