How skateparks allow skaters to form a positive, healthy community

Text written in collaboration with Tony Hawk Foundation / Photographs by Claudio Maria Lerario

Skateboarding has counter-cultural roots. It was borne of rebellious surf culture in coastal areas and urban street culture in others. These characteristics are still apparent to those who don’t skate, but to skateboarders there is little cohesion within skateboarding outside of a few fundamental characteristics.

The hallmark of skateboarding culture is that it is welcoming to anyone that approaches it with the intention of improving his or her personal skill. Class, race, gender, weight, and other hobbies are irrelevant provided that the participant’s enthusiasm for the actual act of skateboarding is genuine. In this way, skateboarding is egalitarian and inclusive.

Because skateboarding is not a team sport, the success and/or enjoyment of skaters is not dependent on other skaters’ performance. In other words, an experienced skateboarder can recreate with someone learning fundamental skills as equals. There is nothing to gain or lose from seeing other people land a trick for the first time except for the joy of seeing them do it.

Some activities disrupt this pattern. Skaters routinely reject entities and individuals that monetize skateboarding if those entities or individuals have not demonstrated a sincere love for the physical act of skating. Few sports and athletic activities can claim the same degree of protectionism from the involvement of non-participants.

Due to this protectionism, skaters tend to see influences from within skateboarding as a “trusted source” while influences outside of skateboarding are seen as suspect. This has enormous relevance when it comes to rules compliance. A non-skater telling a skater to wear a helmet, for example, will be less effective than a skater suggesting the same thing.

If an individual, agency, or company’s integrity is recognized by skateboarders, the fraternity is empowering and supportive. Agencies and companies, having earned skaters’ trust, have the opportunity to develop partnerships that can pay big community-building or brand-loyalty dividends. For individuals, the friendships formed through this mutual interest can last a lifetime.

Brief history of skateboarding.

The first skateboards were manufactured commercially in the 1950s. The first significant skateboarding boom was in 1963, and then popularity waned over the years until 1972 when urethane wheels were introduced. The new wheels were softer and provided more traction than the clay or steel wheels.

Surfers took to the new skateboard and used it in a way that expressed the aggression and creativity of surfing, and this sparked renewed public interest in skateboarding. By the 1970s, skateparks were being built all over. During the 1980s, veteran skateboarders began starting their own companies. As these companies matured through the next decade, skateboarding honed its distinctly countercultural reputation through shocking marketing while their teams routinely performed newer and bigger tricks.

By the mid-1990s, skateboarding had achieved coverage on mainstream television, and excitement over skate contests rivaled other traditional sports. Today, famous skateboarders have become household names.

Today, skateboarding represents a $5+ billion market. You see it on TV, in movies, on cereal boxes, the Internet, and around town. Skateboarding is popular with spectators and participants. Skaters and their fans come from all walks of life.

They’re men and women, boys and girls. You might be a skateboarder, or you know a skateboarder. If you’re a teenager, the odds are good that you’ve stood on a skateboard within the last year, and you know lots of people that skate. Many adults spent their youth skateboarding.

There are millions of skateboarders in the world and hundreds, if not thousands, of skateboarders in every major city. People all over the world skate and there are skateparks to prove it — from Reykjavik to Kabul, from Cape Town to Tokyo. Even in the smallest towns and villages you can find a few local youth working on their skateboarding skills. Skateboarding is big and it’s here to stay.

Where do all these people go to skate?

It is surprising to learn that many cities and towns don’t have a single skatepark. It’s easy to find a football field or a basketball hoop almost anywhere you go. Yet when it comes to skateboarding, skaters have little choice but to ride on the sidewalks, on the streets, school campuses, parking lots, and other places around town or simply don’t skate at all.

They show an uncommon dedication to their sport. And what does this commitment to physical exercise and outdoor activity earn them? In many areas it gets them a big fine. When a community treats its skateboarders as pariahs, outcasts, and nuisances, they are telling skateboarding youth that they are not welcome there. They become someone else’s problem. “You are welcome to skate, just not here”.

Public perception of skateboarders is often shaped by the most negative impressions. The reasonable truth is that most skateboarders are just ordinary kids.

Skaters are routinely confronted and ticketed by police. Skaters see this as an unwinnable situation; they are passionate about skating but every attempt to find a place to skate inevitably leads to a confrontation with authority. After decades of this treatment, “illicit” street-skating has become an indelible part of the skateboarder’s experience.

This is not because skateboarding culture has an anti-authoritarian tone, but because so many communities have systematically confined skateboarding that skaters treat each place to skate as a temporary situation until they are kicked out. For many, it is a daily ritual. Every experienced skateboarder can share a story of being treated like a criminal. What other sport can claim that?

Even where skating is tolerated, skaters put themselves at risk of being hit by vehicles. On average, nearly one skateboarder dies a week in the United States in an accident that involves a motor vehicle (Skaters for Public Skateparks Casualty Report, 2011).

An average skater recreates with constant reminders that most of the community doesn’t want them around, that they are at risk of getting a ticket, and that they can be hit by cars and other urban hazards. These are real problems that skatepark advocates like you are addressing, one skatepark at a time.

It’s a shame to see a young person getting a ticket for doing kickflips (or even skating to the corner store), but the broader ramifications are far more diabolical. Skateboarders today celebrate their abilities to “get away with” recreation. Skateboarding means accepting the physical and legal risks.

The more effort is put into stopping it, the further underground skateboarding becomes. And the further underground skateboarding becomes, the more it is treated as a negative influence on local youth. When the topic of a skatepark finally comes up, it is met by a community that has lots of experience treating skateboarders as criminals or pests.

Skatepark advocates, unlike those that champion other types of athletic facilities, start with a negative community perception. This means that every skatepark you see today is also the result of an advocate that started from behind the starting gate and overcame technical challenges and cultural challenges.

The situation in many cities is reflected in roving groups of skateboarding youth that a general public views as a pack of destructive, insolent teenagers. These communities are creating an “outsider” subculture in their youth. Later, they will complain that skateboarders are behaving outside the law, resulting in more heated confrontations and stiffer enforcement.

In other words, the community tries to confine the skater to a narrow space and when the skater leaves that area in search of recreational opportunities, the community responds by drawing a smaller space around the skater. This is the unwinnable situation that most skaters are very familiar with.

Skateboarding, for most young skateboarders, is not a choice.

It is a central part of who they are. They are compelled to skate. Communities try to legislate the skater away. They may even believe they are being equitable: “We support our skateboarding youth, just not here.”

When pressed for less enforcement, anti-skateboarding grumps will flippantly accuse the skateboarders of wanting to skate “wherever and whenever they want.” This is as unfair as an accusation can get.

Millions of skateboarders are being evicted from public places in their communities and when they protest, they are accused of unrealistic entitlements. This is the type of challenge you, the skatepark advocate, will become comfortable handling.

Most skaters are so accustomed to being evicted from their favorite spots and being “talked to” by police that anti-skateboarding efforts made by the city are often as dismissed as easily as a “No Skateboarding” sign.

In other words, the environment for skating is saturated with so many “NO” messages that they have become a routine part of skating. For many skateboarders, encounters with business owners, security staff, and police are a natural part of being a skateboarder.

Skateboarding has always been a hotbed of culturally-rich, diverse participants who inspire youth not only here at home, but across the globe. The whole world will soon recognize that skateboarding is an engine for global social change and a progressive tool for inclusion with skateboarding’s arrival in the Olympic Games for Tokyo 2020. When skaters take the stage, it shall symbolize more than a sporting competition. It will provide the platform for skaters all over the world to espouse the positive, inclusive cultural aspects of skateboarding, and discuss what it is that makes them a unified global community — Renata Simril

The bottom line is that skateboarders need a place to go. The act of riding on a piece of maple on wheels is not a destructive activity, and skateboarding “culture” does not promote antisocial behavior. Stiff enforcement of anti-skateboarding ordinances, which the skateboarders most certainly had no voice in shaping, has created a pressure cooker situation.

Nobody really wants to criminalize skateboarding. Unfortunately, there are few people that can offer a different solution to “the skateboarding problem.” There are more towns with laws preventing skateboarding than there are skateparks.

Balance is getting closer one skatepark at a time, but without more skatepark advocates, communities gravitate towards a “solution” that seeks to prevent the activity rather than direct it toward places where it’s appropriate.

Creating laws that seek to prevent skateboarding is unimaginative and undermines the natural inclination of youth to be active, social, and engaged with their community. In other words, anti-skateboarding laws do exactly the opposite of what we claim are our community’s priorities. In spite of this, they are drafted and unanimously passed all the time.

The skatepark solution.

Skatepark history reflects the popularity of the sport. During the 1970s, as urethane wheels boosted skateboarding’s popularity, skatepark entrepreneurs created retail skateparks to capitalize on the sport’s growth.

There were few places that could compare with the unique terrain offered by these facilities, and skaters seemed happy to pay for access to them. There were a small number of free, outdoor “skate runs” in the country, but commercial skateparks dominated the industry. Skateparks were universally understood to be “pay-to-play” facilities.

In the late ‘70s, a glut of liability lawsuits forced insurance underwriters to tighten restrictions on what they were prepared to cover. To that point, skateparks had been small operations run on shoestring budgets, and with rising insurance premiums, they closed. By 1980, the country had a small handful of skateparks left. Skateboarders took their tricks to the streets.

I am learning, skating and doing some other sports here at Skateistan. A year ago Fatima (Community Educator) came to our community and encouraged our families to let us come to Skateistan. It is a very fun place. I do a lot of sport, but skateboarding is my favorite. I feel like I am flying and I can do something special and important. Before, my family thought that skateboarding was only a male sport, but now they even can’t believe that their little girl can skate like others, even boys. They think that I am doing good at Skateistan! I love flying and I hope one day to become a pilot — Monira (10 years old), Kabul

Skateboarders also took their passion to building ramps. Before too long, skaters were building concrete structures in their backyards and derelict areas of town. To protect their improvements, they organized and gained legitimacy. They founded companies specializing in skatepark design and construction. Nearly all of those companies are still in business today.

Municipalities began to see the value of public skateparks and the positive impact they have on the youth. As skaters continued to be a nuisance by grinding ledges around town, cities looked to skateparks for a solution.

As public skateparks exploded across the world, new companies saw an opportunity to capitalize on the industry boom. Landscape architects dabbled in the “terrain artistry” of skateboarding terrain, while playground companies developed ramp-style products that they could sell to towns along with their jungle gyms and swing-sets.

Without big marketing budgets, small skateboarder-run skatepark companies struggled to compete. Skateboarders themselves became the catalyst for positive change as they underscored the need for experienced companies with proven portfolios only be qualified to build their local skatepark. Their cities listened and, over time, more and more excellent skateparks were developed.

Today, nearly all of the world’s best skatepark designers and construction companies employ a landscape architect that is also a skateboarder. Only a small number of ramp-style companies remain in business, and no playground companies are involved in any meaningful way.

Why are skateparks beneficial to communities?

The easy answer is that they provide a place for kids who aren’t attracted to traditional team sports a place to go and express themselves in an individual and athletic manner. Getting kids, particularly at-risk kids, involved in a personal and esteem-building activity like skateboarding helps them build the confidence to do well in other aspects of their lives.

Skateparks, even the more challenging ones, are far safer than kids rolling through busy streets. And when parks are built right–with local skater input and involvement throughout the process–those youngsters develop a sense of ownership and pride. The very existence of the park is the result of their hard work. They worked with civic and local business leaders, with each other on design elements, and with the community to find a suitable location.

These previously disenfranchised skaters, who once ran from the police, find themselves working with the police and city and community as a whole. It’s a transformational process for these young people. It might be useful to survey kids in your area.

Ask them if they currently use the athletic fields and ball courts your city offers, and if they’d like to have a skatepark as well. You’ll be surprised to find out how many kids who aren’t interested in traditional sports would jump at the chance to skate a good park, or have the opportunity to learn to.

A professionally designed concrete skatepark will:

  • Provide a safe challenging place for skateboarding (and similar extreme sports), allowing participants to develop as athletes.
  • Provide an alternative to team sports, to develop motor skills and balance in youth and the young-at-heart. Playgrounds are provided for younger children, but for older youth who don’t participate in team sports, there is often nothing.
  • Attract visitors (skatepark enthusiasts and spectators) who enjoy skateboarding & similar extreme sports. When people visit they spend money.
  • Make community more youth-friendly and give youth the message that they’re accepted and valued members of the community, by giving them a place to call their own and a creative outlet to express themselves.
  • Provide opportunity for healthy activity for youth, helping curb problems of inactivity and drug abuse (the most common reason given by youth for drug abuse is boredom).
  • Provide opportunities to host jams (competitions), presenting skating in a format that people can understand and appreciate. Skateboarding is a great spectator sport.
  • Provide opportunities for “hard to reach, non-joining youth” to get involved in the community and foster creativity as each skater develops his own personal style and skills.
  • According to veteran skateboarder Dan Hughes, “Skateboarding reaches these at risk youth, like no other sport. And it’s cool too. But, people are out of touch with what is happening, and just want to get these annoying skateboarders out of their hair. All the while, kids are learning that as skaters they are second-class citizens. Yet, it’s these same skateboarders who are learning a valuable work ethic. Because, believe me, if you don’t work hard and commit to a trick, you won’t land it. They also learn how to work independently, and also how to be creative, and develop their own style”.
  • Provide social opportunities by bringing different ages and social groups together, encouraging interaction and appreciation of each other; bring families together who enjoy skating as a family.
  • Empower youth by involving them fully in the process of establishing the park, enabling them to work with community elders, learning how government works and how they can become more active citizens.
  • Encourage youth to interact independently and develop socially, learning how to take turns and help each other learn new tricks.
  • Mitigate street skating problems, protecting private and public property from damage and reducing police time required to follow up on complaints.
  • Reduce pressure on hospitals as a result of reduced injuries from skating on rough surfaces and in traffic areas, i.e. street-skating.
  • Provide a healthy release for pent-up aggression and frustration.
  • Teach the importance of a positive attitude and belief in oneself. To progress in skateboarding, one must trust oneself and believe that they can do it.
  • Provide economic benefits because community access to a variety of recreational opportunities encourages business investment from outside the community, acts as a driver for immigration, and encourages resident retention (particularly among youth). Destination marketing and tourism development are closely tied with the number and quality of recreation activities developed and available.

A park is a gathering place for the community.

A skatepark allows skaters to form a positive, healthy community. A skatepark is a gathering place for the local skateboarders. Through the skatepark, the public sees skaters for what they are: brave, athletic youth with a passion for skateboarding. That’s all. The stereotypes that may have plagued skateboarders before the skatepark are quickly forgotten.

One of the great things about skateboarding is how it brings people together. On any given day at a well-functioning and supported skatepark, you can see all age groups, from the 5 year old supervised by a parent, to the group of teenagers having their own skate session, to the older skaters who love the sport as much or more than the teens.

Everyone comes together here, so a lot of friendships are created that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. The kids at the park are not only discovering a new sense of community, but a passion, and talent, for skating — Sean Stromsoe, co-founder of Ethiopia Skate

In public recreation areas where there are other amenities such as baseball and soccer fields, playground, picnic areas, tennis courts, and indoor swim and workout areas, the skatepark tends to get the most traffic and use.

How can we foster responsibility and stewardship for the skatepark among all our public areas? What benefits the skatepark and the community around it the most is a few dedicated skateboarders who use the park and administer its programs. Every local area has at least one skateboarder who wants to share their love of skateboarding and cares very much for the park itself.

These are the people who make the best skateboard coaches and skatepark stewards. Giving them responsibility for the kids and the skatepark is a very positive move that can bring more families and skatepark users together.

In a skatepark culture is never tokenized and is the medium for education, instead of a subject of it. Just imagine the positive impact we would see on education and other services for children and youth, if youth were regarded as cultural communities with their own sets of values, forms of art, and traditional past times.

Participation in activities such as skateboarding can reach beyond the realm of recreational activities, to become meaningful platforms for children to learn essential life skills such as self-expression, creativity, confidence, team work and empathy.