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A More Complex Skatepark

By Aaron Spohn, President of Spohn Ranch, Inc.

Increasingly, over the last decade, with the boom in skate park development, landscape architects have found themselves called on by cities to design municipal skate park facilities. Why landscape architects? Because they design parks, even though different architects are generally given the responsibility for the design of buildings, stadiums and other complex structures within the park.

Design requirements for features that comprise the skating structures in a skate park are fairly technical and involve the precise fabrication of complex angles, curves, planes and joints that make the facility skateable, safe, challenging and fun for skaters of varying ages and skill levels. Professional skaters claim it's all extremely nuanced. It's not uncommon to hear outspoken critics in the ranks of long time skaters damn a lot of the parks that have been built during this post-'80s boom as being substandard--anywhere from barely skateable to dangerous.

The grind rails were located strategically at the outside of the course, because free-standing rails such as these are often used separately from the traditional park traffic flow. There is a natural hill on this site, and the city of Windsor, Colo. took advantage of the existing topography and incorporated a ramp into it, creating an elevated deck.

They believe that people designing parks--whether they're architects or design/build professionals--should also be experienced skaters who are fanatical about attention to detail. Their favorite objects of scorn include playground equipment manufacturers, general contractors and even some well established skate park builders. These skaters believe that landscape architects are unjustly winning contracts and designing lame parks for planning committees and just don't have a clue about skate park design nuances.

Landscape architects have been responsible for creating skate parks and have worked with experienced skaters in planning workshops. These design professionals are probably well aware of the complexities and subtleties of skate park structural design and configuration, whether they have mastered them or not. Wisely, their general practice is to design the park environment and perimeter features, while relying on professional skate park consultants and builders to design and create the skating structures and layout.

Horror stories have been told of facilities--typically in-ground concrete bowl parks, a style favored by landscape architects as more within their purview than, say, above ground ramp and rail parks--built without the involvement of an experienced skate park builder where costly retrofits were required before the parks could even be opened.

New Trends--New Challenges

The skate park building boom of the past decade provided a new area of opportunity for landscape architects, though it has not been without its challenges. Now, new opportunities and challenges are appearing with the advent of what are called hybrid skate parks. These parks are combinations of two traditional and mutually opposed styles, in-ground bowls and above ground ramps and rails. Add other forms that mimic objects that street skaters ride--like stairs, planters, ledges, and benches made of precast or poured-in-place concrete.

The PQ Skate Park in Rancho Penasquitos, Calif. is an example. At the beginning of the planning phase, the City of San Diego which owns the park, held design workshops that allowed input from members of the local skating community. One of the guiding lights was a professional skateboarder and seasoned street skater, Willy Santos. The consensus reached was that most skaters wanted a park with streetscape elements, obstacles they were used to skating on the city streets. This was the primary design consideration.

In addition to other standard considerations, such as cost, durability, safety and maintenance, the city wanted the ability to change or reconfigure skating elements at some point in the future to create new traffic patterns and enhance park variety and popularity. This resulted in design requirements presented to the landscape architect, Steve Shupper of the Schmidt Design Group in San Diego, that included permanent concrete street obstacles around the perimeter of the park with semi-permanent wood ramps in the center. It was decided to have no bowls in the park.

Spohn Ranch created a street course more geared toward BMX bike use, including a 4 x 16-foot-wide spine and a 6-foot-tall quarter pipe, seen here at rear.

The trend toward creating parks with obstacles that closely resemble objects and elements of urban architecture has led to the skate plaza concept. These facilities are like city plazas where people come to relax, eat lunch, and sun themselves on benches amid planters of shrubbery and flowers. However, in the skate plaza the picnic tables are used for grinding rather than eating grinders.

One of the unusual but quite natural aspects of the streetscape or plaza-type elements in the Rancho Penasquitos skate park is planter boxes that, while skateable, also have palm trees growing in them--a nice touch that even provides some shade. The park cleverly features a replica of a locally famous handrail located at the San Diegueto Middle School. Enthusiasts measured the rail and engineers drew it to scale. It was fabricated, installed and now skaters can ride the rail legally as much as they want...which may or may not be quite as much fun.

Another example of a hybrid skate park is the Seven Presidents Park in Long Branch, N.J., owned by the Monmouth County Park System. One of their prime goals was to create a unique park. They wanted it to be unusual, cutting edge, way above average--a destination park unlike all others. Their design required concrete bowls as well as above ground ramps.

The Windsor, Colorado Skate Park, a 14,000-square foot park, which opened in June 2003, is a hybrid that exemplifies the importance of the relationship between in-ground and above ground elements in a park. Windsor has a concrete bowl on a level above the ramp and rail section requiring skaters to ascend concrete transitions to reach it. They cannot come off ramps and shoot directly into the bowl. To leave the bowl area, they have transitions down to the ramp section which give them the speed needed to ascend the obstacles there.

In contrast to these new hybrid-style facilities, with their varied terrain, their bowls and ramps and streetscapes, single style parks seem almost starkly incomplete, like works in progress awaiting the next phase to be added.

Challenges Encountered

As if building a cutting edge park weren't enough challenge, Spohn Ranch, the company hired to develop the design and to construct the Monmouth County skate park, faced other challenges because of the site chosen by the county. It was across the street from the Atlantic Ocean. The company was chosen because of their resources for building both concrete in-ground and steel frame surface structures as well as their experience with construction designed to withstand the rigors of a seaside environment. This meant salt air and sandy soil.

The solution to the problem of a highly corrosive environment lay in the use of thickly coated galvanizing on its steel frames and a tough composite surface material called Skatelite Pro, a fabrication formula that has proved to be best for harsh condition durability and low maintenance.

The semi-permanent modularity of the equipment also met Monmouth County's requirement for configuration flexibility to allow for surface course modifications as the sport progresses.

This view of Windsor Skate Park shows how designers can use concrete berms (gray at left) and wood ramps (yellow at rear) to create "skate plazas" that replicate an urban street environment. The concrete berms are a more traditional skate park element-here combined with street-style rails.

Rancho Penasquitos was not without its own location problems. As is often the case with skate parks, residents near potential sites opposed the park because of their concern about noise. The spot finally chosen had been slated to be a Cal Trans park-n-ride lot and neighbors found that they couldn't hear the skate park for all the traffic on the adjacent freeway. No one complained. Now skaters are trying to get lights installed for night skating. Although during construction the contractor installed conduit for such an eventuality, skaters may face another common obstacle: neighbors who don't like bright lights.

Community Involvement -- Gaining Acceptance

One of the advantages of hiring landscape architects is their familiarity with public-use projects in large cities where conflicting needs of the government, the community and the users can often develop into contentious debate. In addition to their abilities to deal with matters of drainage, water tables, earthwork, utilities and environmental impact reports, landscape architects are trained to deal with the public, hold public meetings and public facilitation.

They work with user groups like skaters who are often viewed by opponents to a project as everything from uncivil to downright criminal. If there's one thing that landscape architects learn early on in their careers it's that community members who fear being negatively impacted by a new public or private presence in their midst can present serious obstacles to a project.

Good public relations and communications are vital parts of a landscape architect's bag of skills. This is most certainly true of skate park designers. Community involvement right from the beginning is critical not only to designing a park that is technically excellent, but also has the support of the rest of the community, especially its neighbors.

When it comes to public relations, skate park consultants and contractors who were once themselves teenage street skaters and are now responsible adults, can be effective mediators for a project. They know the language and have the experience to help bring opposing sides together on seemingly irresoluble issues. Web sites, project journals and related media devoted to skateboarding and skate park development feature endless inspiring stories.

The Rancho Penasquitos skate park is a 20,000-square-foot facility that has features appealing to skateboarders and BMX riders.

Kids and their adult supporters have found ways through good works, good character and good dedication to sway negative public opinion. They can even cause their most hard-core opponents to discover the community benefits inherent in skate parks. Landscape architects will find there are many resources they can call on to help make their projects welcome.

Community Involvement -- Construction Supervision

Rancho Penasquitos park exhibited an impressive example of community support from the user side during the construction phase. Skater Aarick Sanders had played a big role in designing the park. He took it upon himself to show up at the construction site twice daily to make sure the structure was being built exactly as planned. Everyone knows that just because something's one way on paper doesn't mean it'll be that way in reality.

Apparently Sanders was able to make suggestions that may have seemed like minor details to the contractor but that have made a big difference in the quality of the skating now going on there. That kind of dedication deserves a lot of respect, both from adults and Sanders' peers.

The contractor also deserves credit, not only for being responsive to this freelance supervision but also for the time and effort he put in to the work that made Rancho Penasquitos a truly high quality park. For example, instead of blowing shotcrete, he used poured-in-place concrete which was then hand troweled at great length to achieve the park's glassy surface which continually gets high praise from the skaters.


Such attention to detail executed by experienced designers is what it takes to produce not only high quality parks but also safe parks. Trying to ride poorly radiused obstacles with gaps and misalignments with conflicting traffic patterns is how skaters get hurt. But basic design styles also have different characteristics that put skaters at different degrees of risk regardless of design and construction quality.

In-ground concrete structures are more hazardous for novices even when they have beginner areas. Concrete has no give, unlike wood or composite surfaces with some impact attenuation. Ramps require the ability to ascend them before you can use them, but anyone can drop into, or fall into a bowl. This is not to condemn in-ground concrete parks. Competent skaters use them well and safely.

The point is that hybrid parks with a variety of features, in-ground and above, can better meet the needs of more skaters. Landscape architects may now consider themselves freed from the old either-or of bowls versus ramps.

Certainly the larger population of skaters learned in the streets and supermarket parking lots. They're the street skaters at heart and will be well served by the hybrid park movement. Hybrids may not represent the final stage in the evolution skate park design. However, they are certainly more complete parks, with obvious advantages over parks of the past.

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December 10, 2019, 6:52 pm PDT

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