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Skate Parks

Ollies, Lessons, and Liabilities

by Brent Johnson

Skate boarding is a solitary sport. Unlike many of the traditional team sports like football or baseball that used to determine the development of park and recreation facilities, skate boarding is perhaps closer to gymnastics or wall climbing in its pursuit of technical perfection. There isn't necessarily a way of keeping score, and no one really wins or loses (although everyone knows who's the best). The excitement comes from doing tricks. The more dangerous the stunt, the greater the thrill.

Pain is a big part of the game. Though helmets and protective gear have won tentative acceptance, cuts, scars, and skinned knees are symbolic badges of courage that are worn like ribbons and trophies in a sport that has no rules. Because skaters spend about as much time falling as they do skating, liability issues are a concern for communities that decide to sponsor these parks. Fractures and lacerations are common, and by condoning the construction of skate facilities, municipalities expose themselves to the obstreperous web of aggressive litigation.

Fortunately, the skate culture rejects many of the social conventions that have marked the decline of American civilization. The operating psychology behind skating is one of individualism and self-responsibility. Skaters recognize that by pursuing a sport that has certain inherent dangers, they are putting themselves in harms way. However, even peer pressure can't ward off the influence of the ambulance chaser.

Patrick O'Connor of City Securities Corporation, is one of a small but growing number of agents who insures skate parks. His company now covers 100 parks across the United States, protecting municipalities from damages that could be disasterous for a small community. Although many cities offer sovereign immunity, which insulate local governments from civil action, often this protection only places a capitation on the dollar amount of the awards. That's where skate park insurance can come in handy. Depending on the design elements of the park a typical policy may range in price from $1,500 to $15,000 per month. There are a variety of factors that influence the bottom line. Arcades, multiple-use, competitions, and design elements all play a part in the perceived risk of the facility.

Contrary to what might be considered the consensus opinion, O'Connor actually believes skate parks are a moderate risk when compared to other kinds of public athletic facilities. He also suggests that the risk can be greatly reduced through the implementation of certified instructors and protective equipment, which have already become standard practice in many parks.

Coming To A Park Near You

Environmentalists view skate parks as one of the more controversial additions to the urban landscape. These concrete arenas are an environmental nightmare to some, encasing acres of land beneath an impenetrable layer of solid grey stone. The parks have represented a significant departure from the green politics that have predominated in city planning in recent years. Yet, city governments feel obliged to create these recreational areas as a compromise with skateborders, who might otherwise destroy public property or endanger the public safety. Extracting skate boarders from commercial districts and shopping malls has been the battle cry of many skate park supporters.

As city planners attempt to carve out spaces for skateboards, they are confronted by residents who fear the worst from unsupervised locations that will be a central meeting place for young males. Accusations of drug and gang activity have even threatened to close skate parks in some cities. Yet, police departments have been some of the most vocal supporters of the parks because it allows them to monitor a large number of people more efficiently.

What goes up, must come down...Everytime someone attempts a trick like this the probability that the city is going to get sued becomes greater and greater. Finding ways to protect communities from malicious litigation has been critical to the growth and development of skate board parks. Many cities now have legislation in place that provides a measure of immunity from these attacks.
From the skateboarder's perspective the parks represent a significant victory in their effort to gain acceptance for the sport, while downplaying some of the negative stereotypes which have depicted these athletes as juveniles or hooligans. Increasingly, skating has witnessed the participation of parents and their children, reflecting the demographic shift commonly referred to as generation X. Furthermore, many parents see the parks as liberating their children from the malign influence of television. As childhood obesity has become a major health concern almost any new idea for getting kids to exercise is welcomed as an alternative to the electronic passifier.

Hardscape Sculptures

Rob Layton, ASLA is one of a number of Landscape Architects who is on the ground floor of the skate park phenomenon. Layton's company, Design Concepts, currently has two parks under construction with four others in various planning stages. As cities look for ways to satisfy the growing demand for these facilities, Landscape Architects find themselves in the unique position of being able to create entirely original designs with the approval and support of the public.

Layton, who until recently was more concerned with the development of softball fields and picnic areas, has found the process of designing these parks to be a refreshing new alternative to traditional park concepts. He likens the parks to outdoor sculptures. The contour and geometry of the bowls and half pipes are akin to some of the most contemporary architectural styles. The only difference is these are functional shapes that engage a physical response to the environment.

Layton employs a variety of techniques to achieve his sculptured parks. Poured-in-place concrete, gunnite, and placed concrete are all used to create specific elements of the park surface. Layton says the best parks are made by pouring, but some of the latest techniques involve using prefabricated foam ramps and finishing them with gunnite.

"As skate parks become more established there are certain standard expectations that skaters have that must be adhered to by the designer. For example, the design of the coping at the top of the bowls is critical," explains Layton. This is the precipice where skaters "drop-in" and grind along the perimeter on the rails of their boards. A smooth uniform surface without a sharp edge is required for this kind of skating.

A consistent radius on bowls and pipes is also appreciated. Skaters are like pendulums. They generate momentum by skating back and forth on the bottom of a concave surface. With each repetition of this motion they go a little bit higher, until they launch themselves out of the bowl. Timing is critical. If the angle and diameter of the bowl is too steep or too shallow then it makes establishing this rhythm very difficult.

The quality of the surface is also a major consideration. There can't be any bumps or joints in the concrete, for obvious reasons. The texture of the concrete is also a significant factor. It can't be too smooth or there won't be enough friction and the skates won't hold to the ground. If it's too rough then the surface becomes a punishing rasp that removes skin everytime someone falls.

Attempts have been made to break up the monotony of the uniform grey on grey skating surface that will attract visitors who might not otherwise use the facilities. Layton employs lithochrome stains to add color and variety to the parks. He also includes park benches to make the environment more inclusive and encourage participation of parents and spectators. "We like to have something that brings the general public into the picture," said Layton.

Keeping It Real

Mellilo & Bauer Associates was responsible for the design of the Nautilus skate facility in Stafford Township, New Jersey. Although the company has completed numerous parks for the city, this was the first skate park they had attempted. Scott Taylor, ASLA, who was the lead designer on the project, described the excitement of venturing into unknown territory. Taylor, essentially started from scratch, relying on what he could find on the internet and by word of mouth. He also found a very willing mentor in Alan Fishman, ASLA, whose designs for David Evans & Associates have become a touchstone for the industry.

Taylor describes his park as a departure from the typical swimming pool designs. He has created an organic street course that integrates steps and ledges, similar to what skaters would find in the urban environment.

Despite the apparent freedom of creating an altogether new park form, Taylor was constrained by certain requirements laid down by the insurance carrier. The insurer insisted that there be no vertical sides, no bikes, no hand rails, and no bowls greater than four feet deep. Taylor responded by including elements that would replicate the forbidden structures. This meant substituting grinding blocks and pyramids for the hand rails that had been banned from the park.

"Trying to keep the skate elements challenging, while satisfying the insurance carrier was a problem," said Taylor. However, he has left room for expansion and modification as the park continues to be adapted to the needs of the community.

Skate boarders test the limits of equipment and skate facilities by jumping and grinding their boards across the pre-formed concrete and metal surfaces. Specialized knowledge of surfacing materials and design techniques is required to create a park that will be an enduring part of the landscape and serve the community for many years.

Instant Skate Parks

Aaron Spohn of Spohn Ranch, has been designing skate parks for eight years, although he has been involved in skating for twenty. As an alternative to poured-in-place skate parks, Spohn Ranch manufactures a line of above-ground structures that can be placed on tennis or basketball courts.

"This is not like a swimming pool and it's not like flat work," said Spohn. "You have to know how to install metal edging, and you can't have expansion joints."

The ramps designed and manufactured by Spohn Ranch are made from high grade galvanized steel and are coated with a plastic surface and trimmed with metal. The advantage of these systems is that they provide an all-weather mobile structure that can be installed immediately and removed if necessary. They also cost significantly less at an average $15 per square foot as compared to $30 to $40 per square foot for concrete parks. This is a major selling point for cities that are unwilling to pay the approximate $250,000 to $300,000 for a park that might have to be demolished if the skating boom proves to be a passing fad.

Spohn Ranch offers the additional service of providing concessions where for a modest fee of $3 per admission they will supervise skaters, offer instruction and clinics, and sponsor professional demonstrations. Many cities have found that by allowing Spohn Ranch to manage the concessions, they not only protect themselves from liability, but they also get a return on their investment which helps to offset the cost of construction.

As city governments weigh the potential benefits and probable liabilities of developing skate parks in their own communities they look toward the guidance of Landscape Architects in creating a workable solution. In essence, the Landscape Architect becomes arbiter and advocate in an emotionally charged political debate that hinges on satisfying a great number of opposing viewpoints. To the extent that the designer can accomodate these conflicting interests through capable and innovative design will mean the ultimate success or failure of the skate park experiment. LASN

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June 17, 2019, 8:30 am PDT

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