Urban Squares as Skateparks

Consider these three spaces; - Embarcadero, Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco by Lawrence Halprin (landscape architect) - Love Park, J...

Consider these three spaces;

- Embarcadero, Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco by Lawrence Halprin (landscape architect)

- Love Park, JFK Plaza, Philadelphia by Edmund Bacon (planner) and Vincent G. King (architect)

- Southbank, Undercroft, London by Hubert Bennet, Whittle, West and Horsefal (architects)

None of these spaces were designed with skateboarding in mind, yet they are meccas of skateboarding. In this post, I want to put a case forward that considers the urban square as an alternative to a skatepark.

What's wrong with skateparks?

Without context, nothing! They provide what skaters/bikers/rollerbladers etc want and, generally speaking, are simultaneously agreeable with local residents to the site and the city. It's a convenient solution and I have no problem with that.

However, my criticism here is they can also be over-specified in design, a result with a single and restricted outcome, they become specifically for skateboarders. This seems strange when you consider skateboardings roots as an adaptive practice.

In Los Angeles, in the early days of skateboarding, the pioneering locations of skateboarding were schools. These schools found themselves on the bottom of hills, and as an architectural solution to the rapid level changes of the ground, the architects built banks.

The early skatepark was a school. The banks complimented the style of skateboarding at the time which was freshly influenced from surfing (they were surfers!).

As the tricks evolved, different terrains opened up for skateboarders. 'Ledge' tricks found their way from the californian kerb to seat benches and walls. 'Gaps' and steps to launch off became sought after too. This streetscape of banks, steps and ledges wasn't so overly specified as to deliver only one function. The objects and surfaces were open to interpretation in a way Herman Herzberger would approve, they weren't solely made for skateboarding.

"[Embarcadero, Justin Herman Plaza] was conceived as a total environment in which all the elements working together create a place for participation.” - Lawrence Halprin

Embarcadero, Love Park and the Undercroft all possess elements sought by skaters but they weren't exclusive to skaters either, other people used them too! They're urban squares, publicly accessible spaces for anyone.

Yet, here we are developing these skatepark sites with skateboarders exclusively in mind. Architecturally, skateboarding is treated in the same way basketball or tennis is - you find a site exclusive to that one purpose. However, this only addresses one facet of skateboarding (ramps, bowls and the 'transitional' style of skating), it doesn't consider skateboarding's shared spatial history in the street.

That's a missed opportunity in designing spaces for mixed use participation, some of the same principles that made the first skate spots mentioned so popular in the first place.

"People come to the park to see the skateboarders, for goodness sake thousands of people went down to pay money at the X Games" - Edmund Bacon, Planner of JFK plaza (Love Park)

Skateboarding already co-existed with urban squares and urban spaces not at the city level of power and control, but in terms of every day usage; the school still functioned as a school, the plaza still functioned as a plaza and the undercroft (whatever that was supposed to be) still functioned as the undercroft. Skateboarding's DNA is in spatial adaption, not adherence to a prescribed allocation or any singular specific physical language - that's the hushed paradox of designing a skatepark. 

So, when building a skatepark, there is another option; build it for people. Simply 'allowing' for skateboarding is half the battle.

I hope anyone designing for single used spaces receives this punch in the ribs with kindness.

Update [28.01]. There will be a part 2!  

Further Reading/Viewing:

I recommend this documentary on Love Park (where the Edmund Bacon quote was taken from) to get an insight into the culture of skateboarding and the hypocrisy of city overlords. 

The film, "Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" is also a great refresher on our love of people watching.

References: The top photo is Tony Alva, I believe taken by Arto Saari. The photo beneath that is Mark Gonzales kickflipping the gap named after him at Embarcadero. Sadly that site was demolished. Love Park is currently heavily guarded (watch the documentary) and the Undercroft is hanging in the balance. It's a testament to their popularity.

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