Monday, January 4, 2010

Using the F#@% out of Public Space

A pragmatic post this week concerning the role of skateboarders and bmx bikers in the landscape. It is an activity that has been getting a lot of press recently with NPR doing an excellent interview with Tony Hawk and bmx biker Danny MacAskill being profiled in the New York Times last Tuesday (he also had the most astounding youtube video of 2009). Designing any sort of public urban space, be it the crowded streets of NYC or modern day Mayberry, requires consideration of that scourge of benches and walls everywhere and so I thought I would haphazardly explore the topic.

 First, let me frame the dialectic: landscape architects like to put pretty veneers on things outside- grass carpets, stone paving, and veneer in perfect little geometries and such. We then take a photo of it in the most flattering light and submit it for an ASLA award. Skateboarders and bmx riders like to take these sweet little forms and use the hell out of them, employing all manner of bad-assery in jumping, rolling, and grinding across our precious creations.

Second, let me state some anecdotal stereotypes countered by some poorly-vetted facts that are always part of the argument: 1. skateboarders are a homogenous group, primarily young males 2. skateboarding is an exclusive and aggressive activity 3. they mess up the pretty things we put out there.

It is true that skateboarding (and bmx biking) is a sport that is predominantly young males. However, it is no more homogenous than other more accepted recreational sports. Field sports (baseball, football, basketball) also primarily attract young males and are often more exclusive in their participation. Additionally, these sports require huge amounts of specialized, programmed space that can be difficult to use for other purposes. Skateboarding can be done almost anywhere there are hard paved surfaces and as it is not a team activity it is more given to open participation. Additionally, the damage that is inflicted upon the built environment by skateboarding is superficial and would likely be negligible if as much design thought and project budget were directed towards it as towards other "minor" activities. At the moment, unless it be the rare skate park, they are designed against.

Many would argue that skateboarding and bmx biking is often more akin to social recreation than to a sport, and indeed it is versatile enough to be both. In that respect it compares favorably to other more accepted social activities that the urban landscape is built to accommodate. While skateboarding is not an aggressive act (it's never about the other person, but rather the environment, your tool, and your body), it absolutely is an assertive one. It is the taking possession of a space and exploring its potentials toward some end (whether that potential is a 720 or drinking from a brown bag is up to you and your local law enforcement official). This exuberant attitude toward the built environment is what landscape architects are often aiming to encourage and enable. This is evident in how frequently our celebrated built environments actually resemble skating elements. In fact, the forms and proportions of skateparks are usually more compelling than all but the most expensive landscapes.

Skating is a physical activity, it is social, it provides for a traditionally ostracized constituency, it provides spectacle, and it is cheap! For contrast, think of the street scenes painted by advocates of New Urbanism which are always implicitly structured around leisure commerce. In addition, these guys are a hardy breed and if it weren't for them many of Peter Walker's designs would still be awaiting their first user. Like the lowly phytoremediating weed, they occupy the spaces that are abused and overlooked, making something beautiful out of the unloved. I once asked a skateboard professional to take a look at my wall details and make comments on whether or not they would deter skateboard abuse. His reply, to paraphrase, was "Hey Bro, good to hear from you. First, know that nothing you put out there can totally stop skateboarders. The challenge just makes it more attractive..." He went on to say that my details likely would be sufficient in deterring excess abuse, which I took to mean he was licking his proverbial chops for the groundbreaking.

Skateboarding and bmx biking should be considered a legitimate urban use and while you wouldn't necessarily want to provide a smooth low wall right next to where grandma might sit on a sunny day, we shouldn't be putting up cheap veneers that are going to chip and crack with a few years of freeze/thaw and a couple of skateboards grinds and then topping them with sex toys. Just as we wouldn't design a sidewalk too narrow or a paving section too thin, we shouldn't create details that are too delicate and precious to withstand some skating. In addition, we should use subtle moves like exaggerated joints, split face finishes, and outside curves to deter abuse.

Well, enough of that. I’ve got to run out and shoo the damn neighborhood teens off of my sidewalk before they leave black marks all over my benches.


  1. Couldn't agree more... landscape architecture's generally antagonistic attitude towards creative and unanticipated uses of public space makes it hard to take the profession's supposed interest in flexibility and adaptability seriously. (Though I suppose it could be that I'm confusing attitudes I've absorbed from two different sets of l.a.'s and blending them into one, easily-bashed whole.)

  2. perhaps, and a lot of that attitude is driven by clients who value the aesthetic "look" of their place as much or more than creative and content users. nonetheless, for such a valuable, interesting, and creative user group, we totally mistreat skateboarders and bmx bikers.

    it's a cool use of urban space.

    it's not that we have to provide for it everywhere (just like you wouldn't put a plaza or community garden everywhere) but they shouldn't be such pariahs.

  3. this reminded me of edmund bacon's support for skateboarders in philadelphia's love park. i think it was skateboarding that awakened a love of urban environments for me. i know the noise and threat of collision must be taxing for nonskaters, and we definitely used to leave marks on curbs and railings, so i can see why people have problems with street skating. but i like the idea of finding use for all kinds of space and structures. it feels sad to see skateboarding segregated off in skate parks, even though it makes sense. great point about spectacle, i think skaters definitely bring that to cities. i had never seen that danny macaskill video. amazing! i like the way people passing by stop and step forward, maybe thinking, did i really just see that?

  4. Here's a moderately interesting article from the archives of loud paper that talks about skateboarding and architecture, but from the other direction, making a positive version of the negative connection I was making between skateboarding and flexibility.

  5. thank you for the links rob and anonymous. those images of edmund bacon are both touching and badass. i didn't catch wind of that when it happened.

    on the topic of skate parks, it seems that there is a time an place for them- a half pipe provides opportunities and limitations that don't exist elsewhere in the city. but i absolutely agree that skateboarding shouldn't be limited to those locations. In the skateparks it appears to be more of a traditional sport with competition and such whereas in the city at large it is more of the social recreation i was referring to in the latter part of the piece.

    thanks for the loudpaper link. ill check it out.