08 January 2016

Skateboarding in Place - Skateboard Urbanism

This article is written by Copenhagenize Design Co's resident skater here in Copenhagen, James Thoem. Urban planner from Toronto.

And now for something completely different. Well, only sort of. Skateboard urbanism.

For decades now, skateboarders have been part of our urban landscapes. Though nowhere near as common a sight as the commuter or the shopkeeper, they join the buskers and the street food vendor as extras in the everyday theatre of our cities. Initially emerging out of the paved schoolyards and drained swimming pools of sprawling California, skateboarding as an activity, a mode of transportation, and a subculture quickly spread throughout the world. As skateboarding is rooted in adapting the landscapes and environments presented (think swimming pools, public plaza, rural hills), it has also managed to give rise to a whole new phenomenon in its own rite, the skatepark.

Early skateparks were designed to reflect the wave breaks and swimming pools popular among skaters at the time. Decades later, Kettering, Ohio’s ‘Skate Plaza’, marked a transition to skateparks designed wholly to replicate urban landscapes more popular with a newer generation of skaters. Complete with staircases, handrails, ledges and garden beds, these skate ‘plazas’ brought the streets to the skatepark, but forgot the street life.

As a single-use facility often segregated from any urban life, there’s something distinctly modernist about the skatepark. The concept of having skateboarding completely removed from the streets and plazas that gave rise to the activity seems unfortunate. A cynic may see skateparks as a solution to get skaters, sometimes seen as a nuiscance, off the city streets and into a controlled, observable environment (This wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, as we’ve covered before, playgrounds were initially pushed by the automobile industry to get those pesky little children off city streets to make way for more cars). In fact, the city of Philadelphia has recently built a world-class skatepark while simultaneously moved to ban street skateboarding, punishable by $,2000 fine and/or up to 90 days in jail (!). The city of brother love is sending a pretty mixed message if you ask us.

Above: Defensive ‘skatestoppers’ added to Philidelphia’s LOVE Park. 

Above: Philidelphia’s new Franklin’s Paine skate plaza simulating urban landscapes.

Don’t get me wrong, I pretty much grew up at a skatepark, they can be great places to develop a sense of community, agency and belonging. But it’s the time I spent skating around my hometown, down alleyways, along drainage ditches and through public plazas that I really developed an appreciation for city life. So rather than restricting skateboarding in the city through laws and defensive architecture while making skateparks sterile simulations of city streets, why not actively encourage skating (and other similar activities) in appropriate public places through great design.

Far from the Californian school yards and swimming pools that birthed modern skateboarding, two cities in the Øresund region (which encompasses Copenhagen and Malmö) are acknowledging skateboarders as just one of many groups that contribute to lively streetscapes, accommodating them accordingly. And while both cities have built gigantic, popular skateparks, they find the value in working with existing or new architectural design elements that bring life to a space in a more subtle way than any skatepark can.

Take for example Copenhagen’s popular skate spot, Jarmersplads. Originally designed as a plaza in 1997 to complement the neighbouring modernist office tower, the seemingly purposeless granite slabs have ended up as a defacto destination for skateboarders. I gotta say, the original photos look beautiful as a sculpture destined for the sterile pages of an architecture magazine. But looks even better with people (and bikes). The story of how this non-place of a plaza was activated into a skate spot known around the world goes something like this: Architect builds sculpture public plaza, people are repelled, skateboarders are attracted, architect sad, skateboarders talk to architect, architect and property manager accept and accommodate their argument, they all lived happily ever after. (You can watch a slightly more detailed account here).

Above: How architects see Jarmers Plads in Copenhagen. Beautiful. Sterile.

Above: How skateboarding citizens use Jarmers Plads. Social. Active.

Vitoria Skate

Or turn to Malmö, arguably the world’s most skateboard friendly city. Yes, the city has a skateboard oriented high school, a huge skatepark and hosts an annual international competition, but the most telling sign of Malmö’s openness is that they actually have a ‘skateboard coordinator’ on payroll at city hall. As I spoke with said city staffer, Gustav Svanborg Edén, about the City’s openness to skaters using everyday public spaces, the idea of skateboarders as a nuisance came up. As he pointed out, the four most commonly cited reasons for restricting skateboarders in public space boil down to issues with demographics, noise, damage, and obstruction. Of these four issues, the latter three can be addressed through design solutions. Smoother surfaces, granite or metal ledges, and wider, smoother cycle tracks. As Svanborg Edén pointed out, skateboarders don’t want to make a lot of noise and damage objects, they want to skateboard.

With these design fixes in mind, the City of Malmö recently accommodated skateboarding at two public in two public squares. The first, Värhemstorget, an already popular skate spot, was improved with the introduction of some new granite ledges. Complementing the introduction of these new ledges, the city also holds an annual competition in the plaza to help activate the square, bringing in a community programming side to a simple design fix.

The second locale, Svampen as the locals call it (literally translates to “the mushroom”), sits just outside of the city’s public art gallery, and connecting to a larger public space revitalisation around the triangeln Train station. Here the city started from scratch, designing a public square that is welcoming to a wide group of users, while still designing street furniture to accommodate skateboarders in a subtle way. This multifunctionality is at the top of Svanborg Edén’s mind, “If we are going to make things at all, we may as well add functionality by using insightful design and durable materials. If we build bike-racks, why not make them good for skateboarding or general play as well”. The result is a plaza that looks and functions like, well, a plaza! Only now the skateboarders that frequent it bring an extra set of eyes on the street and some extra life to the streetscape.

Malmö’s new skateboard plaza, Svampen, in use. Simple, subtle skate design.

The design strategies employed in Copenhagen and Malmö illustrate a really simple concept, multifunctionality. ‘Why not kill two flies with one slap’ as they say in Sweden. While it seems obvious, nearly a century of engineering the life out of our streetscape did everything it could to put every landuse, mode of transport, and activity into their own little dedicated compartments. In a way, skateparks fit into this modernist mindset. However, recent trends in urbanism have started to undo this mindset, inviting interactions and life through design rather than engineering. Cities like Copenhagen and Malmö have recognised skateboarders as just another community that belong in everyday streetscapes. Here’s to others following suit.

For more photos of skateboarding in the city, see our Flickr photo set here.