Date: August 12, 2007
Byline: Anthony Bracali
Make skateboard parks safe, social and secure
Cities in the Lehigh Valley are facing a challenge similar to many East Coast communities as they consider how to appropriately address the need for places to skateboard. On the West Coast, skateboarding's popularity experienced dramatic growth in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, even smaller communities have more than one skatepark. On the East Coast, the popularity of skateboarding is still growing and the lack of adequate facilities is a problem. It is complicated by a lack of knowledge and experience of the best-intentioned politicians and community leaders. Skateboarders deserve a place to socialize and be active, and not just a fenced parking lot behind a school.
Philadelphia's LOVE Park is often cited as the place that changed the face of skateboarding history. LOVE Park was created in the 1950s as a one-block public plaza adjacent to city hall. Skateboarders entered this space in the early 1980s and used its features to define a new style of skating — street style. Street style contrasts with skating in the West Coast parks, many of which were designed as ''flow'' or ''transition'' style; essentially empty swimming pools, with large, irregularly shaped and naturally flowing banks. Street-style skating grew in popularity and injected under-utilized downtown public spaces with a new activity.
In 2003, my architectural firm won a commission to design a new public space for skateboarding on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. Involving skateboarders in the design and planning of our project was certainly a key in making it a success. However, there are additional, critical elements that tend to be ignored, minimized or overlooked when decisions about skateparks are being made:
Skateboarding is a social culture: Teenagers in particular need more than just a place to skateboard. They are looking for a place to meet with friends and talk about music, video-games and sports. Increasingly, outdoor space and public areas are privatized in a manner that discourages teens from gathering. They are looking for a physical place that welcomes them in our communities.
Create a public park that can be skated: Most skateparks are ugly. They have giant fences around them; are made of one material; have no shade, trees or landscaping around them and often don't even have a place to sit. A central issue is that the typical skatepark budget ranges from between $15 to $30 per square foot, a very meager amount in the world of design and construction. Skateboarders can share space with other park users, in particular when skating street style elements. Cities should create places to skateboard with high-quality, durable materials and provide seating, landscaping, trees and shade. This certainly takes more than a skatepark budget to accomplish, but the result will be a longer-lasting project that is better received by the community.
Don't choose a hidden site: Skateparks are subject to vandalism when they are built in the wrong place. Sites for skateparks should be selected because they are visible in the community. This has a dual benefit. It makes skateboarders feel they are welcome and it makes it easy for others to see what is happening in the skatepark. Even better, the skatepark invites use by people other than skateboarders.
Check the stats on injuries: There is a perception that skateboarding is ''extreme'' and dangerous. Statistics support that skateboarding results in fewer injuries than baseball. Street-style skateparks mimic the terrain of cities and are lower impact, site-oriented places that do not involve big jumps or giant ramps. The areas of LOVE Park that were frequented by skateboarders were no more than 16 inches high.
The issue of skatepark design goes far beyond a child on a skateboard. Ultimately, it is about providing safe, secure, well-constructed places that people who skateboard can enjoy. These places need to be seen by the community at large as important amenities. Don't let your image of a skatepark be fueled by the X-Games you see on TV. Don't let your impression be that only a group of punk kids will use the skatepark. Both of these are common misconceptions. I would encourage Lehigh Valley residents, elected officials and community leaders to do their research when it comes to providing places to skateboard and to make choices that are long-lasting and create positive amenities for everyone to enjoy.
Anthony Bracali, an Allentown native, is a principal with Friday Architects/Planners Inc. in Philadelphia.