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Room to Roll

Site Selection in Skate Park Design

By Erik Skindrud, regional editor

Fence shadows splash across a low berm at Volcom Skate Park. Note the proximity of the parking lot, which lets police monitor the site. (Maintenance workers have less appreciation for the eucalyptus trees that shade the site.)

The past decade has seen skateboarding rehabilitated from it's former 'bad-boy' image in the United States. The activity's new acceptance has been accompanied by a boom in construction that asks community planners to place skate facilities in existing parks.

What a difference a decade makes. Between 1995 and 2005, skateboarding moved from outlaw to mainstream in America, becoming a sport of choice for teens and others. In 2000, skateboarding reached a watershed when, according to American Sports Data Inc., it surpassed baseball in popularity with an estimated 11.6 million to 10.9 million involved, respectively. By 2005, skateboarding's numbers passed an estimated 15 million participants, securing its position in the mainstream of American youth sports.

The demographic change was accompanied by a cultural and political shift as well. This saw literally thousands of communities across the country move from passing ordinances banning or limiting skateboarding to funding and building close to 3,000 skate parks by 2004. Skate park construction is now seen as a win-win in city council chambers. Not only does it provide recreation facilities, it gives young people an alternative to skating in business districts and residential areas, where skateboarding can add thousands of dollars worth of wear and damage to public infrastructure.

Skater Mike Bauder puts the park's big bowl to use.

Into the Business

Purkiss Rose-RSI is a Landscape Architecture and planning firm in Fullerton, Calif. that has been involved in some of the more innovative skate park projects on the West Coast. As of early 2006, the firm had completed or was working on more than 200 skate parks and had gained a reputation for features that serious skaters view as cutting-edge.

In 2000, skateboarding reached a youth sports watershed when it surpassed baseball in popularity.

The firm Purkiss Rose was founded in 1964. In 1992, the company merged with Recreation Systems Inc., which specialized in recreation planning and design.

Purkiss Rose had concentrated on an array of projects ranging from small park spaces to large sport complexes. With the merger, Purkiss Rose-RSI had experience that left it well-positioned to support the imminent skate park renaissance.

The skate park at Fullerton, Calif.'s Independence Park is partially-screened by play equipment and located away from the street. The skate park's remove from the street view has led to problems with beer drinking and marijuana smoking at the site.

The first opportunity arrived later in 1992, when Landscape Architect Steve Rose worked with the city of Huntington Beach, Calif. to develop one of the region's first municipal skate parks. Although puny by today's standards, the skate facility at Murdy Park remains a monument to the grassroots action that helped launch the modern community skate park era.

Putting a skate park in wasn't the city's or the firm's idea, Steve Rose said. "About 100 kids came to a meeting," Rose recalled. "They said, 'Hey, you're building tennis courts... why don't you build something for us too!'"

Site Selection is Key

The first decision a community faces when it decides to build a skate park is where to put it. For many communities, it's the biggest and most difficult choice they'll have to make during the design/build process.

The fact that skateboarding is more accepted today does not mean that neighborhoods are rolling out red carpets for skateboarders. A large number of skateboarders are jr.-high or high-school aged--with all the issues that entails. Smoking, drinking, profanity and vandalism are not unknown at skate parks, although these behaviors can be minimized by site-selection and smart design.

This web cam at Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.'s new skate facility not only lets skaters check crowd levels--it also lets local Sheriff's deputies monitor the site. The cam was requested by the city during the design process.

One of the most important site-selection criteria is that skate parks need to be seen from the street. Standard practice is now to put the skate park in a spot where officers or deputies can drive by and do quick checks without leaving their cars. Alternately, some newer skate parks are adding web cams that let skaters check crowd levels online. Web cams, of course, let law enforcement (and parents) check site conditions over the internet too.

Noise is another common issue that crops up during the site-selection process. Rose has faced his share of headaches over the issue, most memorably at Brea, Calif.'s Arovista Park, where neighbor complaints led to the construction of an expensive custom sound wall several years after the park's debut. The situation was frustrating because a city study by an acoustical engineer showed that sound levels at nearby homes (about 300 feet away) were below city standards even when the park was full. Brea's situation may have been due (at least in part) to the lingering perception that skateboarders are unsavory characters--potential vandals that require a physical barrier between them and residential units.

To keep costs down, the design team let an existing chain-link fence border the rear of the park. Placing a skate park in a noisy spot by a railroad right-of-way is one way to head off noise complaints from neighbors.

Similar perceptions were encountered during design periods in Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., where skate parks were ultimately placed far from homes. While this may have pleased homeowners, it was less-than-ideal for the skateboarders, who are often too young to drive.

Often, a community decides to place skate parks in open areas between baseball diamonds, tennis courts or other existing features. Because these areas can be limited, skate facilities are often laid out in triangular or irregular polygon configurations.

This innovative sound wall at Brea, Calif.'s Arovista Park is constructed of insulted glass, which reflects sound much less than a concrete or masonry wall. Note the split face block retaining wall here. The blocks have a rough, mottled surface that produces poor results for graffiti "taggers."

Rose has his own philosophy, which prefers skate parks near community centers where they're accessible to non-driving youths. Other considerations are even more practical. For example, a park may be easier and safer to use if its located near existing parking, restaurants, shops, bus stops, etc. Putting skate parks in existing civic centers can be a good choice, as skateboarders aren't necessarily looking to get away from it all.

No, it's not for swimming. Rancho Santa Margarita's skate park was created with tile and coping that replicates the swimming pools that drove the sport of skateboarding during the 1980s. Adding real-world details is a current trend in skate park design.

"We've put skate parks next to police stations and fire stations," Rose said. "And a lot of skaters like it--it's a real safe environment. A lot of skaters like it for the safety and security."

Mike Bauder of Huntington Beach, Calif. hits the top of Volcom Skate Park's big bowl. The structure's curved walls are created with a shotcrete process that is monitored by professional-skateboarder consultants. Note the pad and helmet on both the youth and adult skaters in this view.

Getting it Built

The skate parks now being built are part of a third wave of skate park design and construction. Early parks were small and cramped by today's standards--reflecting the budget and political priorities of a decade ago. By 2000, budgets and skate parks had grown, with the proliferation of parks now leaving skaters choosier.

Costa Mesa, Calif.'s skate facility shows off the Musco Lighting that lets the park offer evening hours. These lighting elements sport screens that limit backlighting to 10 feet or less, freeing neighbors from glare issues. The lights let the skate park enjoy the same hours as the tennis courts at left, rear.

Some parks seem boring now and sometimes lack users. The latest designs get ink in local newspapers and word travels fast over skate-park-oriented internet sites. Hot designs draw crowds and attention to newer skate parks.

Durable iron benches let skaters and family members relax in the shade while watching action at Rancho Santa Margarita's Canada Vista Park. Note the molded concrete trash can. Making it too heavy to move removes an opportunity for vandalism.

A recent innovation is the public-private partnership, which lets clothing and skate-supply manufacturers attach their name to a park in exchange for cold cash (usually less than half of a park's total cost). The extra dough lets the design team add more features and details. In Costa Mesa, Calif., clothing manufacturer Volcom also makes a contribution to ongoing maintenance.

Purkiss Rose gave Fullerton's skate park a low railing with custom accents for a festive look. It's important not to reinforce stereotypes about skateboarding by aggressively fencing youths in, Landscape Architect Steve Rose says.

The team at Purkiss Rose-RSI learned early on that hiring knowledgeable skaters as consultants paid off big in the end. Subtle details are very important in terms of skateability and skater satisfaction. Purkiss Rose-RSI retains pro skaters like Frank Hirata, Wally Hollyday, Lance Mountain, Mike Taylor and Steve Alva. The pros contribute during the planning stage and oversee concrete pours and shotcrete work during construction.

The skate park at Laguna Niguel, Calif. shows the fruit of excellent site selection with its position between a major road and Aliso Creek. The name of the youth-oriented, multi-use facility is Aliso Skate and Soccer Park. Photos by Leslie McGuire

Purkiss Rose-RSI's 10-plus years of experience give it a good handle on estimating cost. Early skate parks were built in the 6,000 square-foot range, while the current minimum is 10-15,000. The total cost after construction ends up around $40 per square foot. Soil stability issues can add to the total, of course.

Fullerton, Calif.-based Landscape Architect Steve Rose and Purkiss Rose-RSI have designed more than 200 skate parks across the United States.

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December 7, 2019, 3:51 am PDT

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