How Skateparks Fail…

…and What You Can Do About It.

There is not a single parks manager who doesn’t see a way to improve any recreational facility. The challenges facing parks are everywhere; the expensive maintenance costs of a new soccer field, finding qualified volunteers for an after-school program, or the lack of  land for an off-leash dog park. The fact is that no recreational facility is without its particular needs and no project is perfect in every way.

Skateparks are a relative newcomer to the Parks & Recreation world and it can be difficult to sort out all of the voices with something to say. Attorneys deliver a list of policies and devices necessary to mitigate liability. Planners have a short list of available sites appropriate for this kind of development (if at all). Meanwhile, the neighborhood delivers its own list of concerns about noise and nuisance. While this is all getting sorted out the skateboarders are recreating in the streets. The business community is fed up with their ledges being ground down to nothing and the police are writing tickets to skaters when they have better things to do. Everyone wants the new skatepark but few people can agree on what and where it should be. This is where skateparks begin to fail.

We’re all familiar with the difficult environment in which skateparks are expected to become successes. It should come as no surprise that sometimes they fail to meet everyone’s expectations. Hope is not lost! There are still options even when it feels like every avenue has been explored.

Here is a list of 10 common skatepark failures and what can be done about them.

Problem #1:
Uninspired, “cookie-cutter” design that doesn’t meet the skaters’ diverse needs.

Catalog parks—those that are assembled from modular components and arranged left is a skatepark that is not interesting to the users. These parks often fall into misuse because they don’t engage the user. Skateboarders serious about learning new skills and challenging themselves need a skatepark that is designed to accommodate their growing skills.

Solution: Employ experienced designers that are respected among the skateboarding community. There is a reason some companies have great reputations and others don’t.

Problem #2:
The skatepark is a haven for questionable teenage behavior.

The best site for the new skatepark isn’t necessarily the least controversial one. When we allow the people who don’t want to be anywhere near the skatepark to decide where it goes, we end up with a skatepark away from the community and remote enough that it has a degree of privacy. This provides the perfect environment for people to engage in illicit activities…they have an audience, (a group of teenagers and young adults), and privacy.

Skaters have been subject to “least controversial” sites for decades and these parks consistently struggle to be the places that their communities desired. The unfortunate result of the failed skatepark is that the people who encouraged it to be built away from the community feel justified, (even though their influence contributed to its failure), and the chance of creating a new skatepark somewhere it can be positioned for success are more remote than ever.

Solution: The skatepark should be placed where it has the best chance to succeed!

Problem #3:
Dangerous flaws!

Well-meaning planners often spend the community’s hard-earned money on a vendor or service-provider that does not understand the specific needs of the user. (Or perhaps they simply don’t care.) The end result is a skatepark that is flawed and sometimes dangerous. If the product or service provider was chosen purely on the merits of a low bid, all the money that was saved produced a facility that doesn’t attract the intended users. Now the community gets to decide if they want to try expensive renovations, build a new park properly, or just leave the park empty and have their skaters return to the streets. Nobody wins when unqualified people are involved in key developments.

Solution: Identify the opportunities for attracting only qualified bidders and use them!

Problem #4:
Underestimating the value of (and not planning for) the skatepark as a social space to the local youth.

Seating, shade structures, and other aspects of design that make the space comfortable and inviting are very important to the long-term health of the park. For many of the users the skatepark is the primary social gathering place. If the facility is designed to handle this social function it will be that much better off. When the popularity of the new skatepark is underestimated, particularly when site amenities and the surroundings are not designed to be social spaces, behavior at the park can become unruly. The park has attracted hundreds of teenagers with no attention put to what those individuals need in a social space.

Solution: Treat the skatepark like a “park” and plan for it to be popular.

Problem #5:
Underestimating the amount of total space the local skaters will need to recreate safely.

When asked what planners in cities that have skateparks would have done different about their skateparks, most say that they made them too small. Skateboarding is an activity that requires speed. Especially in street-style terrain it’s very difficult to underestimate the amount of “empty” flat space required.

Solution: Avoid the temptation to fill the available space with structures. Broad, flat areas punctuated by professionally designed forms are what’s desired.

Problem #6:
Approaching skatepark dominion as a struggle with skaters and not trusting that most skaters also want a clean, comfortable space to recreate.

Policy is too often decided in a vacuum without the users’ input. When “pre-emptive” behavioral rules are posted, the message to skaters is that this is not their space but rather a space that they are allowed to use. Many parks officials consider this perfectly reasonable policy but the subtext is crystal clear: Skateboarders cannot be trusted to make good decisions on their own. One does not see the rule “respect others and respect yourself” on the sign in front of a tennis court yet it is all too common at the skatepark. If the rules are perceived — often rightly — as out-of-touch or irrelevant to the actual needs and norms of the local skateboarding community it sets a dangerous precedent for what is permissible and what is not. When those rules aren’t (or can’t) be consistently enforced it exasperates the problem. It’s better to develop policy with the skateboarders involvement that address what they perceive as problems (if there are any) within the park.

Solution: Never post rules that are vague or unclear or “behavioral guidelines” that you wouldn’t feel comfortable putting at any of your other public facilities.

Problem #7:
Receiving “expert skatepark advice” from someone in sales.

Objective advice shouldn’t be taken from people with a financial interest in your decision. Some types of skateparks come with lots of bold promises and enormous warranties. Nothing you ever buy should come with a 20-year warranty. To find out what really works in skateparks, talk to the skateboarders themselves. Reach out to nearby communities with skateparks and talk with their skaters and Parks’ administration. (Caution: Administration will often see an empty park as a successs since maintenance concerns and social issues are so low. Few people will casually admit that mistakes were made. If you ask the skaters, they might tell you that the skatepark sucks.) The best people to get skatepark advice from are those who have visited lots of different parks but are not “in the industry.”

Solution: Seek objective advice for your skatepark decisions.

Problem #8:
Underfunding a facility that is expected to meet the needs for the entire local community.

Skateboarding numbers rival other participation sport all over the nation and yet they are often expected to recreate on a single plot of land. While football and soccer fields are rarely expected to handle much more than two teams simultaneously, skateparks are relatively smaller than those fields and yet frequently have 40 or 50 people in them moving faster than a person can run. Furthermore, skateparks rarely receive any programming support and are simply abandoned by Parks as “unprogrammed space.” These parks often become the domain of the most aggressive and/or skilled users and others are displaced. While the skatepark works for those few skaters, it does not meet the needs of the community.

Solution: Consider a network of skateparks for the area so that your skateboarding youth have access and opportunity to use the parks. Also look at programs at the skateparks, such as skateboarding lessons, “Skate Like A Girl” session, special trick workshops, and demos.

Problem #9:
Thinking that small equates to beginner.

The height or depth of a structure does not always correlate directly to the structure’s degree of difficulty. A tall ledge is more difficult to use than a short ledge, but a deep bowl with broad transitions is much easier to use than a shallow bowl with tight transition. Given the myriad of challenges that come with creating a successful skatepark, communities would be advised to avoid managing what elements are designated “beginner” and “advanced” and simply focus on creating a space that works for skateboarders. Accommodating your beginner skaters is important but simply making miniature versions of the same structures is not the solution.

Solution: Employ experienced skatepark designers to factor in areas for beginners.

Problem #10:
Viewing the skatepark process as a problem.

Embarking upon the process of creating a new skatepark is a great opportunity to embrace a popular and fascinating youth activity. The new park should be seen as a boon to the community that will be VERY popular with the youth. With proper planning and good decisions, the skatepark will be a landmark for the entire community. This is a rare and exciting opportunity.

Solution: Make planning for skatepark success your priority rather than mitigating skatepark failure.