The new West Side skate park in Albuquerque, N.M., could get any skateboarder's adrenalin pumping. For fans of the angular, “street” style of skating, there are banks, walls, ledges, and stairs that mimic the feel of a downtown plaza; in another area, a dogbone—two deep bowls connected to a third by a one-of-a-kind, skylit ¾-pipe—caters to fans of the more fluid, dramatic transition style (known in skaterese as “tranny”).
West Side opened in March with one instant proof of its skating cred: Professional skateboarder Dorian Tucker helped design it. But West Side has earned a different kind of credibility, too—from the architectural establishment. It is featured as a case study in the 11th edition of the Architectural Graphic Standards, the industry bible published by the American Institute of Architects.
“It's a big boon to the acceptance of skateparks as a legitimate design specialty,” says Greg Miller, principal landscape architect at Morrow Reardon Wilkinson Miller in Albuquerque, who designed the park in collaboration with Tucker and ARTIFEX Skatepark Environments of San Diego. “[Skateparks are] not so fringe anymore,” Miller says.
There's no question that skateboarding, once perceived as the nuisance hobby of a few punk rockers, has entered the cultural mainstream. According to data from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, there are now almost 13 million skateboarders in the United States, making it the second-most popular “extreme” sport (right behind rollerblading—which hardly counts as extreme). Ninety-four percent of those skaters are under the age of 24, meaning that across the country, young people need challenging, convenient, and legal places in their communities to skate. (Many municipalities have passed ordinances that prohibit skating near businesses or public areas.)
But if places to skate don't exist, and you're too young to vote, how can you effectively lobby for a park to be built?
Peter Whitley, a graphic designer and longtime skater in Tacoma, Wash., knows how to make the case for skateparks, and he wants to share that knowledge with others. As a board member of the nonprofit group Skaters for Public Skateparks (SPS), Whitley wrote and designed a 100-page-plus handbook, the Public Skatepark Development Guide, that walks skaters through the process of negotiating with community members, public officials, designers, architects, and contractors—and gives those other groups insight into a hobby that is still burdened with negative stereotypes.
“Unlike most other recreational activities, [skateboarding] carries more than its fair share of negative, anti-authority stigma,” says Whitley. In the guide, he strove to use accessible language and graphic design that will, as he writes, “reconcile the differences between Skate-rat and Bureaucrat.”
The guide was co-published in May by SPS, the International Association of Skateboard Companies, and the Tony Hawk Foundation (established in 2002 by the world-famous skater and video-game star). It's available for free, except for a $6.95 shipping charge, at www.skateparkguide.org. It's not published online—the 8.5-by-11-inch book format was thought to be more portable for skaters on the move and at public meetings.
Content falls into five sections: Vision, Advocacy, Fundraising, Design, and Skatepark Management. Peppered throughout are troubleshooting tips, copious black-and-white photos and graphics, and sidebars that entertain as well as instruct (one, on “The Language of City Administration,” admonishes: “Don't … attempt to impress anyone with flowery language. Consider what it would be like to have a bureaucrat trying to speak ‘skater.' ”). A single-page crash course in “Simple Civics” breaks down the government structure into digestible pieces, while a handy appendix offers templates for letters to local officials as well as a visual glossary of common skatepark structures.
The United States now has 2,000 operational skateparks and many more on the boards or under construction, says Whitley. Even so, “there is very little in the way of oversight [of] … or programming support for these facilities,” he says. City officials don't always understand what skaters want in a park, and even skaters themselves have to consider the finer points of siting, design, and construction quality, which can spell the difference between success and failure.
Skateparks can be DIY efforts, like the legendary Burnside park in Portland, Ore. They can be designed by specialist skatepark designers, by landscape architects, or by partnerships of the two, as in the case of Albuquerque's West Side (but many skatepark design firms, Miller points out, have a landscape architect on staff to handle construction documents). There are custom concrete, modular steel-framed, and now modular concrete skateparks ranging in size from less than 3,000 total square feet of terrain to 40,000 square feet or more, in various typologies: skate spots or “dots” with a single ramp or pad; microsites that can accommodate two or three simultaneous skaters; full-service regional skateparks that offer parking, lighting, and concessions. In short, there are options for every community and budget.
The guide doesn't advocate for any one typology or method of fabrication, but it does counsel skaters against what the publishers say are all too common pitfalls. No. 1: entrusting the design to a person or team with no skateboarding experience. “One of the mantras we have is, ‘Work with experienced skatepark designers.' It's a specialized facility,” says Miki Vuckovich, executive director of the Tony Hawk Foundation, which funds community skatepark projects around the country.
Both Vuckovich and Whitley draw an analogy with golf: Most top golf courses are designed by golfers (although simply being a golfer doesn't qualify someone to design a course, they add). The user's needs must be paramount to the design.
A second pitfall is substandard construction quality. “[One] intent [of the book] was to reveal the consistent quality issues that skateboarders often experience but rarely articulate,” says Whitley. Badly built or poorly maintained parks suffer from problems that, although they may appear minor to the untrained eye, can spoil a skating session—or pose a serious danger.
“Unlike an athletic field—which may have a pothole here and there, but you can work around it—with skateboarding, a small 50-mm wheel is running over a surface, and any kind of seam or bump or crack is really going to change the user's experience,” says Vuckovich. The guide includes enough photos of loose screws and pitted and chipped surfaces to make even a nonskater wince.
Since its publication a few months ago, the guide has been an overwhelming success, says Vuckovich: The initial print run of 3,000 copies is almost gone. “If only I had this when I started [the project],” is how he sums up the typical response. SPS and the Tony Hawk Foundation welcome feedback from readers who want to share insights from skatepark projects they're working on, so that the book can continue to be updated.
Well-planned public skateparks have a positive effect on more than the built environment, of course. Vuckovich has seen the advocacy process transform teenage skaters, many of whom start out feeling marginalized from their communities but wind up with responsibility for a major public-works project—quite a feat for a 16- or 17-year-old.
“The kids step up, get an overwhelmingly positive response, and go, ‘I didn't expect that,'” says Vuckovich. “That opens the door. They've seen a whole new perspective on their community and what it means to belong to it.”