Saturday, August 29, 2015

Elements of good skatepark design


If you think that quality skateparks come from pushing around some dirt and pouring “crete” on a bump, think again. Building a concrete skatepark is a labor intensive and highly specialized endeavor. Further, if the builders don’t get it right the first time out, you’ll be skating their lumpy transitions and similar mistakes and for a long time to come.

For skateparks, concrete is the way to go. A concrete park offers a permanent and virtually maintenance-free solution to a skatepark needs. Plus, the majority of skaters prefer concrete parks.

Most concrete skateparks will cost between 20 and 25 dollars (USD) per square foot to build. That cost figure typically includes all design fees and services, construction materials and labor. However, that is just the skating surface. That cost will not include common amenities, such as bringing water and power to the site, fencing, lighting, bathrooms or landscaping. In general, parks worth building cost a minimum of $250,000. Compared to the cost of other athletic facilities, that is quite reasonable.
A skatepark designed to meet all skill levels will be between 18,000 and 25,000 square feet. A park of 10,000 square feet is the absolute minimum recommended. It is important not to directly combine beginner and intermediate/advanced areas as this design approach tends to be unsafe and leads to more collisions. It is best to determine the variety of events and features required for each skill level and then design buffer zones between each riding area. We know it can be a blast to zip full tilt around a park that really flows. But, it is more important to be realistic and make the skatepark safe for all users at all times of day.

Members of the Skatepark Advisory Committee met on August 27 to discuss possible skatepark locations. Seated (beginning on left) is Thomas Bubier, Rob MacArthur, James McCarthy and Judith Grove.  Photo courtesy of Framingham Patch.
All parks must have beginner areas. A beginner area is a portion of the skatepark where individuals with limited or no experience can practice in a controlled environment. It is essential for beginners to be out of the skating area of intermediate and advanced skaters for their own safety, and the safety of others. A beginner area should be between 5,000 to 8,000 square feet and should have slow sloping areas with small hips, moguls, banks, curbs and rail slides that range in height eight inches to four feet

All parks need to have street elements that combine to form a street course. A street course tends to mimic obstacles and events that can be found in real life. It includes elements such as ledges, stairs and rails. It is this type of terrain that most non-skaters are familiar with. A street course can range in size from 10,000 to 20,000 square feet. A well designed street course will contain multiple events and the speed will range from slow to really fast. Some of the events can be transitions, vert walls, large banks and flat bank surfaces that have ledges, stairs, rails and curbs built into them so that a skater can interact and negotiate these obstacles. The design must have plenty of space where a skater can make a trick and then have 8 to 10 lines to choose from after the maneuver is completed. The most common mistake made in skatepark design is trying to pack too much into a small space.

It is most beneficial for a municipality to have the goal of building multiple parks and locating them around the city, rather than building one large facility. The concept of satellite parks best serves the users of the facilities and substantially decreases overcrowding at any one park. In many instances, skaters are too young to drive, and other forms of safe transportation to the one large skatepark may be unavailable. For a lot of communities a series of modestly sized “neighborhood” parks is a more feasible long-range solution to their skatepark needs.

More Design Basics

1. Flatbottom. Any skatepark design must have a minimum of ten feet of flatbottom between obstacles and opposing transition. Skateboarders generate speed by pumping up and down transitions and can carry speed for good distances across flat, smooth concrete. Maximum flatbottom allows more skateboarders to skate simultaneously and avoid collisions. Recovery from the last trick and set-up for the next is made easier when one can adjust stance or line across the flat. No design should have two opposing walls where a skater can fall from one wall and slam into another. Not being able to roll or run out of a bail can mean the difference between a scraped elbow and a trip to the hospital.

2. Transition. Transition between flatbottom and inclined surfaces can be accomplished in either of two designs: round with a perfect radius curve like a swimming pool, or banked with a tighter transition curve to a flat bevel like a modified drainage ditch. Height of the wall to the top of the lip may determine the measure of these transitions, but the angle should be no more than 50 degrees. A small, round transition wall, no more that four feet high would be skateable with a 5-7 foot round radius, while a taller, transitional wall would call for a larger radius of 6-9 feet.

3. Lips, Edges and Coping. The edges of any wall, bank or skateable pool must be hard and grindable. Skaters are looking for something to grind or slide on when they get to the top of a wall. You can’t be on the edge if there is no edge. A slightly protruding edge allows a skater to know exactly where they’re by feel. A round metal coping edge (minimum two inches in diameter, steel pipe) that sticks out slightly, grinds well and protects the cement from wear. A big, round edge at the top of a wall or bank is useless and considered boring to skate after only a short period.

4. Curbs, Blocks, Steps and Walls. Everyday street elements such as these can and should be included in modern skatepark design. Curbs, blocks and steps function best in a park situation when used judiciously in combination with other elements. Such as a curb at the top of a banked wall. Another idea is to create a street area away from any bowls or banks, or incorporate blocks or steps into the surrounding boundary landscaping of the park on which skaters can either sit or skate.
Contracting Designers

It is important to contact professionals from within the skatepark industry. There are many existing businesses that specialize in skatepark design and construction. Experienced teams of professional skatepark designers should be the first avenues explored by any community considering that type of facility. Almost all of these teams will have skaters on their crews. That fact alone is the best insurance against a park full of defective, unskateable elements that for all intents and purposes are “set in stone”. Professional teams also tend to have the skate experience required to determine what skater’s ideas will work together and in what arrangement. While contracting with a professional designer may cost the city more in the short term, these teams consistently build some of the best skateparks around. Simply put, if your community has the financial resources to hire a professional team to do the design and construction, then they should. After all, cities consistently spend millions of dollars on other sport facilities and they owe it to themselves to put the same resources and attention to detail into the skatepark.

Hiring an experienced team of designers does not necessarily mean that the project is simply turned over to them in anticipation of the result. You will not only have some say as to what goes into the park, but also your opinions will be respected. In all but rare instances members of a reputable team of designers will meet with local youth to arrive at a consensus of opinion prior to submitting a finalized design to the city for approval. In the end, design contribution by local skaters is critical to the overall success of a project. Look with skepticism upon any team unwilling to talk to the potential users of the park as that may actually result in a skatepark design that does not meet your needs. Even worse you could be left with a very elaborate design that no one has any idea how to build.

With most construction projects, you begin with a design. A draftsperson then takes that design and incorporates the specifications provided other professionals (such as structural engineers) into a set of construction drawings. Most people refer to these drawings as blueprints. From those construction drawings, contractors know exactly what they are expected to build and precisely how that building is to take place. Likewise, the city will use the specifications within the construction drawings as guidelines for their periodic inspections. Typically, alterations cannot be made to the parameters dictated within the construction drawings without the review and written approval of the city. When it comes to buildings and parking garages, this is a good thing. But, with skateparks, things are a bit different and professional designers should be given some latitude with regard to modifications. What appeared correct on the blueprint, even to a seasoned professional may need a little tweaking in the field. However, only professional designers will be capable of making those on-the-spot determinations.

There are a couple of design/build teams that insist upon the freedom to make any modifications they desire while the park is under construction. These skateparks undergo a dynamic, almost organic process while the park is being built. This design approach works because these teams have a high level of experience both as skaters and as park builders and demonstrate a meticulous attention to detail. The result is some of the best skateparks in the world. However, there are currently very few cities that are willing to turn a team lose without knowing what they will get in the end. Because of that, these teams tend to get work sporadically and only within a small geographic area where their previous works can be directly observed.
If You Have to Go it Alone

While the thought of hiring professionals to build a facility is great, there are cities that will forever be financially and geographically isolated to the degree that they have no hope of enlisting the aid of professional designer/builders. For these communities the choice is either to forgo having a public skatepark, or to attempt to do it themselves utilizing local talent. That decision needs to be made within the community and will depend to a large extent on how committed the core group is to the cause of gaining that skatepark. Even then, there is no guarantee of a quality result.

To those communities I offer a few pieces of advise. First, do your research. A few hours scouring the web will yield valuable information on current construction methods and design trends. Talk to cities that already have skateparks, and find out what worked for them and what did not. Try to learn from others mistakes and not your own. Second, get a set of construction drawings from an existing skatepark. Pick a city with a skatepark that you admire and simply go to the city engineer, explain the situation, and offer to pay for a set of the construction drawings for that skatepark. It should cost at most twenty bucks. The construction drawings belong to the city and are public property; they can do with them what they like. If the city is unable to provide you with a copy, most will allow you to review the documents while you are in the city engineer’s office. Take notes. Even if you have to fly across the country to get this done, it will be well worth the effort. Of course it would be unethical to build directly from that set of plans, and that is not what I am suggesting. But as a reference tool, they will be worth their weight in gold.
Involve the Community

Click here to see a variety of skatepark designs
Generally speaking, the interests of all youth in your area will be best served by using an organized group of local youth in collaboration with a team of professional skatepark designers to arrive at a design for your skatepark. Overall, you will get a great design and the sense of ownership among users of the skatepark will be dramatically increased. The resulting skatepark will be tailor made for your community and will reflect the interests and ideas of your community. It will be a reflection of your own youth’s interests, ideas and creativity. The skatepark will belong within the community and the young people will know that the park is truly theirs from ground up.

In addition, while involving the youth in designing the skatepark you also have a great opportunity to empower them with the strength that comes from the knowledge that they can get what they want by setting goals and working toward them. This also means they will be more likely to self-police the skatepark in the future in order to curtail problems. I probably do not even have to touch upon the positive political aspects of such a community-based project, but they are significant as well. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying this method.

However, regardless of the skaters' experiences, it takes more than 1 or 2 individuals to design a skatepark. A community-based skatepark design process relies on a group of individuals whose decisions are facilitated by someone that has a genuine desire to help the group realize their collective vision. Even if your community can afford the assistance of professional designer/builders I recommend that skatepark committees hold some preliminary design meetings prior to contracting and working with a team of professional designers in order to determine what elements are desired and to be able to accurately and intelligently collaborate on the final design. The last thing you want is to pay to fly designers across the country only to be greeted by a murmur for ledges, stairs, rails.

My favorite location for a skatepark is ... (click here)