Is that really what that’s used for?

Skateboarding is a popular pastime these days. It’s been accepted by the public at large thanks to ESPN’s X Games, the stars of the sport are almost household names thanks to Tony Hawk’s video games, and the business of the sport totals a significant chunk of money even in an economy the size of ours.  Skateboarding is part of our culture, how big a part is up for debate but it’s there and it’s noticeable. One of the things that I find most interesting about skateboarding is that it is based almost entirely on the appropriation and repurposing of existing forms. That’s a fancy way of saying that skateboarding uses parts and pieces of the built environment in ways that weren’t intended. Skateboarders have made a culture, an economy, and a sport out of the perceived misuse of the built environment.

Before skateboarding was a noticeable part of our culture, architects, urban planners, and landscape architects likely didn’t think of the planters, rails, stairs, and gaps between surfaces in their designs as a playground for kids on rolling wooden decks. I would bet there was a lot of thought given how the stairs framed an entrance or how the planters created a soft separation between the public space of the street and the more private plaza of a building. There was care given to the ideas of movement and circulation and providing space for both. Despite all that concern and thought, skateboarders (and BMX’ers and traceurs and urban climbers) came along and saw the space and forms completely differently and created their own lines of movement and circulation. The arcing and curving line taken by a skateboarder that connected a curb to a handrail to a set of stairs became a dominant circulation path.

Where a pedestrian saw value in the placement of a bench in a plaza shaded by a tree at lunchtime, the skateboarder measured the plaza space by a totally different and likely unaccounted for set of values. How many changes of plane were in the plaza that afforded a jump up or down? How many benches or planters could be slid along in succession? How did the design of a handrail allow the axles of the skateboard to fit and slide down? The perception and valuation of the space was completely different and as such, the subjective question of whether or not a plaza, building, or park was a ‘good’ design was shown to be just that, subjective.

Skateboarding is now visible enough for designers to account for it in their designs. The accounting is most typically in the form of knobs welded onto handrails, notches cut into planters, and signs put up by the City discouraging the activity. I would like to raise the question of why can’t designers account for skateboarding (and any other fringe sport) differently and potentially more supportively? Especially in the case of public space design, I think the question needs to be asked, who are we designing for? Skateboarders and their ilk are a user group of public urban space. They have a decidedly different set of values used to judge the desirability of a public space, should these values be examined and accounted for?

There is much more to be said, I just wanted to ask the question from a different perspective. Instead of seeing them as a nuisance and something to design against, what if skateboarders were viewed as a valid user group and their unique concerns were incorporated into the design process?

One thought on “Is that really what that’s used for?

  1. Liability? Sad but true. If you don’t discourage the activity you are inviting it and thus liable for injuries incured on your property. Maybe in the EU, but unlikely in the US.

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