The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Public Spaces

Arlington park shows that skaters can share public space

If you're seeking a serene natural retreat, a skate park is probably the last place you would look. But a few years ago Arlington built a skate park that welcomes all visitors, not just those with skateboards.

Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I visited Powhatan Springs Park, also known as the "skate park rain garden." Designed by local architecture firms the Kerns Group and Oculus, it combines a skate park with a rain garden and a soccer field, creating a space that welcomes all visitors.

It's no surprise that the project was given an award for "innovative excellence" by the Maryland and Potomac Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2005.

Powhatan Springs is located on busy Wilson Boulevard in Dominion Hills, a neighborhood at the far western tip of Arlington. It's a diverse area with a mix of single-family homes and apartments; Eden Center, the Vietnamese shopping mall, is a mile away. The park is well-served by bus and trails, ensuring a steady stream of visitors.

As a result, the park has to accommodate a variety of uses. Along Wilson Boulevard there's a concrete skate park with a bowl that mimics a swimming pool. Next to it is a soccer field with spectator seating. Behind them is a small parking lot and an interactive rain garden, which collects and absorbs stormwater rather than dumping it into a drainage system.

Grasses by thecourtyard, on Flickr

All the concrete in the skate park can be hard on the eyes and amplifies sound. Meanwhile, the rain garden is filled with lush native grasses.

Water Culvert by thecourtyard, on Flickr

This culvert carries water down into Four Mile Run, while an adjacent path connects the park to the surrounding neighborhood and a nearby elementary school.

Water Pump by thecourtyard, on Flickr

The rain garden has a pump where kids can play with water. It was meant to be a "sort of unprogrammed, unstructured [space] where you created your own fun," in the words of project manager Robert Capper. The pump wasn't working on the hot, dry day that I visited, but presumably it's quite popular the rest of the time.

Many Rain Pools by thecourtyard, on Flickr

However, a set of pools and a cistern that collect rainwater were fully functional.

Water Drain in Parking Lot by thecourtyard, on Flickr

The garden motif continues out into the parking lot, where the concrete drains are stamped with leaves and twigs.

Plaza Outside Skate Park by thecourtyard, on Flickr

Between the rain garden and the skate park is a little plaza with a bench, giving kids a comfortable, dignified place to sit and wait for a ride.

The architects were very concerned about giving park visitors places to sit. I was impressed by how many seating areas there are, and for different activities:

The Pier by thecourtyard, on Flickr

There's a "pier," set in the trees and overlooking the rain garden. This is the most secluded space in the park. Depending on how concerned you are about crime, it's either a quiet refuge from the outside world, or a hideout for illicit activities. Hopefully the park is busy enough to keep this area safe.

Spectator Seating by thecourtyard, on Flickr

There are two rows of spectator seating, one each facing the skate park and the soccer field (at left).

Bar Area by thecourtyard, on Flickr

There's also a "cafe," which has a bar and stools for eating. This space gives people a dedicated place to eat. There are trash cans, so the soccer field and skate park aren't littered with food wrappers. The views from here are pretty exciting.

Skating 1 by thecourtyard, on Flickr

There are three concrete structures framing the skate park. They hold the cafe, a storage/maintenance shed and a manager's office. They're simple but attractive, helping to define discreet areas within the park as a whole without standing out.

Skate Park Rules by thecourtyard, on Flickr

The manager's office isn't always staffed, but a list of posted rules is visible for all users. It's a good sign that the parks authority feels comfortable leaving the space unattended, because it suggests that visitors are taking care of the place.

Skating 7 by thecourtyard, on Flickr

And they are. The park is clean and the skaters were friendly to each other and to me when I asked to take pictures of them. There were a couple of groups there ranging from high school age to a little kid with his parents, and everyone got along fine.

The Only Graffiti I Saw At Powhatan Springs by thecourtyard, on Flickr

The only vandalism I found at Powhatan Springs was a little bit of marker scribble in the cafe area. That's impressive, especially considering that a recently-opened skate park in Howard County was soon covered in graffiti, though officials there decided to keep it as a form of "urban art." I think it's great if a community decides to embrace graffiti at their skate park, as the two are often misunderstood forms of artistic expression. But it's also great if the users of a skate park can respect a prohibition against graffiti and still take care of the space they're given.

As skateboarding becomes more popular, the need increases for more skate parks. However, many communities are hesitant to give skaters a chunk of the public realm, fearful of noise, crowds and crime. Powhatan Springs Park shows that you can give skaters a home without scaring off other users. It's an example that more places should follow.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


Add a comment »

great overview, thanks for pointing this out, dan!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 29, 2011 5:33 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the great write up on this wonderful park. To help visitors further enjoy their visit I'd like to note two other important things:

1) Our designers enlisted young skaters' help in design the skate features, so we know we encorporated elements that are attractive to skaters of different ages and whose skating styles vary. The children who use this facility appreciate and respect it.

2) The design also is intended to educate people by telling the story of how water moves through our environment. One can follow water (represented by the blue stones) in the parking lot gutters, into the storm water system, and eventually into a stream. What you have labeled as a water culvert in a photo above is actually a storm sewer pipe we cut in half so people could peer inside it. We want people to know that whatever gets put into the storm sewers trash, oil, junk)ends up going directly into a stream unless it is filtered somewhere like a rain garden.

Many thanks for sharing the story of this very special place.

Caroline Temmermand
Division Chief
Parks and Natural Resources
Arlington County Government

by Caroline Temmermand on Sep 30, 2011 4:59 pm • linkreport

California Skateparks did a great job with the concrete work. All in all, it's still one of the best concrete skateparks in the region. Also it was the first all 'crete skatepark in the DC area.

Arlington should apply this enlightened approach to attractive landscape design to its lackluster medians and urban parks. Hargreaves is designing Long Bridge park, and I suggest the county hire them for other projects as well.

by JP on Sep 30, 2011 6:46 pm • linkreport

Public artist Jann Rosen Queralt should be credited as a member of the design team, along with Kerns Group and Oculus, for creating the award winning design features of the park.

For more information about Jann and Arlington County's public art program, check out the Public Art page on

by Angela Adams on Dec 3, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us