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Public Spaces

"Skate plazas" can invigorate public space

Montgomery County's newest skate park in White Oak doesn't have any skaters, due to poor design and an isolated location. A "skate plaza" in the center of the community could give skaters and non-skaters alike a better place to hang out.

Paine's Park, a "skate plaza" in Philadelphia. Photo by JacGebhardt on Flickr.

The 6,000-square-foot White Oak skate spot, a sort of mini-skate park, is located at at the end of a cul-de-sac off of Lockwood Drive next to a new recreation center, both of which opened in the summer of 2012. Built by the county's Department of Recreation, the facilities cost $22 million to build, a very small portion of which went to the skate spot.

The recreation center is usually busy, along with the basketball courts and soccer fields. But I've dropped by the skate park at least dozen times this year, at different times of day, on different days of the week, in winter, spring, and summer. And I've never seen anyone using the skate spot.

"There's no flow"

28-year-old Mike Rious of Colesville visited the skate spot a few times, but he quickly got frustrated with it. Instead, he goes to the Woodside skate spot in Silver Spring or to skate parks in Prince George's County. "It seems as though no skatepark designers or anyone with knowledge of skateboarding was consulted before putting it together," he wrote in an email.

The White Oak skate spot is always empty. Photo by the author.

The skate spot is laid out in a way that makes skating almost impossible. I showed some photos of it to my friend Jordan Block, an urban designer and skater who used to work for Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that builds skate parks. "There's no flow," he explains.

Normally, skaters would do a trick on one side, then go over to the other side to do another one, building up momentum along the way. In order to do that, you need a clear, straight path with no obstructions. But officials at the Department of Recreation simply dropped pieces like ramps and rails around the site randomly. As a result, Block says, there's always something in the way.

There are also safety issues. The skate park uses prefabricated modular pieces bought off the rack. Skateboarding advocates like Skaters for Public Skateparks discourage using them instead of permanent, concrete pieces, because prefab fixtures often deteriorate faster than permanent ones, and they have exposed seams that can trip and injure skaters.

The skate spot's location is an issue as well. In 2008, county planners noted that 10,000 people live within a 3/4-mile of the site. But the street network is so disconnected that someone living on Carriage House Way, 1,000 feet away as the crow flies, would have to travel over a mile to reach the recreation center.

"If I were younger and didn't have my own transportation," wrote Rious, "I would probably still be skating the same places I had before these skate spots were built."

Location, design affect skate spot's use

Compare this to the Woodside skate spot, which the parks department built itself after consulting with local skaters. It also has prefab fixtures, but they were made flush with the ground, reducing tripping hazards. And it's in downtown Silver Spring, a short walk from buses and Metro, places to eat, and other hangouts. Not only is the Woodside skate spot popular with skaters, but it's become such a fixture in the local skating community that they even hold barbeques there.

Skaters at the Woodside skate spot in 2010. Photo by Chip Py.

In its current form, the White Oak skate spot is basically unusable. We could rebuild it to be safer and more attractive to skaters, but the location remains a problem. What if we moved the skate spot to the center of White Oak, instead of the fringe, and made it a destination for skaters and the larger community as well?

Skateboarding is a social activity, often drawing spectators. In downtown Silver Spring, crowds of people formed to watch skaters in Veterans Plaza and on Ellsworth Drive before the county banned it.

A redeveloped White Oak Shopping Center could be home to a two-acre park. Photo by the author.

Last month, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the Science Gateway plan, which envisions creating a research and technology hub in White Oak. Planners also envision turning the run-down White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire Avenue and Lockwood Drive into a "town center" with shops and housing in taller buildings around a two-acre park.

That park would be a great location for a skate spot: it's across the street from the White Oak Transit Center, an important bus terminal, and is a short distance from thousands of homes and apartments, along with shops, restaurants, and the Food and Drug Administration campus. This is an accessible location for skaters, but it's also surrounded by a good mix of uses that could make it a unique public draw.

"Skate plazas" bring skaters to the center

Communities around the country are building so-called "skate plazas," a cross between a public plaza and a skate park. Franklin's Paine, where my friend used to work, opened a skate plaza in Philadelphia last May called Paine's Park. Designers call it a "not just a skatepark...a park for all that's made to skate."

Paine's Park. Photo by CJD on Flickr.

To the naked eye, Paine's Park looks like an ordinary plaza: there are benches, stairs, ramps, and rails. These all happen to be things skaters like to use, but here they won't get chased away for doing so. And everything's made from cast-in-place concrete, which can take lots of abuse and are still affordable.

Planners often build skate plazas alongside other uses, inviting skaters into the center of the community. Portland is building a big skate plaza in the middle of downtown. The Lafayette Park Skate Plaza in Los Angeles is part of a larger park complex with a library, amphitheatre, and even food carts.

These are spaces you'd go even if you weren't skating, and non-skaters can hang out in skate plazas as well, so long as they don't mind the thumps of skate trucks on concrete. But if skateboarding ceased to exist tomorrow, the community would still have a great public space.

Skate plazas aren't just better for skaters. They create more interesting, attractive public spaces for everyone. It's clear that this thinking went into the White Oak skate spot, which is next to a recreation center, but the design of the skate spot and its isolated location sends a message to skaters that they should be kept out of sight.

Montgomery County wants White Oak to become an innovative urban community. What better way to do so than by embracing the athleticism and spectacle of skateboarding?

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. 


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"What better way to do so than by embracing the athleticism and spectacle of skateboarding?"

From my experiences, many folks still see skateboarding as borderline vandalism instead of a sport, and skaters as delinquents and hooligans instead of athletes.

by DCDuck on Oct 3, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport

I walked by the one in Philly the other week. It (along with the schuykill river trail) were getting a lot of use.

I was in Durham and there was a pavilion that normally held a farmer's market but kids were skating in the early evening. Later on walking back I came back one block up and there was a huge skatepark completely empty while I could stand and see the skaters still at the pavilion.

by drumz on Oct 3, 2013 10:45 am • linkreport

If you are middle aged government worker who drives to and from work, and then takes off the weekend for recreation, then it makes sense to put a recreation facility (skate park) in an isolated place.

Of course, most skate boarders are not middle aged government workers. More likely, teens who (a) lack cars (b) like to skate for a hour or so after school, and then have to go back for homework and dinner.

We seem the same perspective problems with bike infrastructure: treating it as an occassional weekend recreation, instead of transport and commuting.

by SJE on Oct 3, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

There's a great skate park in a walkable neighborhood right in DC (next to RFK):

by oboe on Oct 3, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

By all means, let's build skate parks. It's also a way to keep boarders away from other parks/monument sites where they can do real damage. Over the years, the undersides of skateboards have chipped away at the marble (and sometimes granite) of Freedom Plaza and the plaza and Pa. and Indiana Aves. A US Park policeman told me several years ago that damages was already in the hundreds of thousands, and it's not like Congress is appropriating new $$ to rehab these parks. Even the Navy Memorial has had issues, but they have better security to shoo the boarders away. Moreover, if we want to enhance walkability and residential living downtown, having skateboarders flying about is not exactly enhancing the pedestrian experience.

by Jasper2 on Oct 3, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport

The new skate park on in Hyattsville where the NW branch trail crosses Route 1 has been a great success. Kids can skate to and from the park on the trails, there's enough passersby on the road and trails to make it a safe public place, and there's a bakery next door for snacks and drinks.

by Greenbelt on Oct 3, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

What's the cost of a skateboard park? How large is the population that will use it? Is there a liability issue?

Will a skateboard park increase or decrease the risk of injuries? I guess there is an argument that a properly designed park will help decrease injuries. But will it also increase the population of people trying out skateboarding in a community, increasing the overall number who suffer injuries?

That said, this was an interesting piece and certainly offers something to think about.

by kob on Oct 3, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

Philly's park was a long time coming. Philly was once renowned in the skateboard community for the inadvertently skate-friendly design of JFK Plaza, better known as "Love Park". In the 80s and 90s, it increasingly became a mecca for skateboarding. That level of downtown activity was largely welcomed, and the city even pursued ESPN's X-Games to boost that reputation.

Unfortunately, a mayoral regime change in 2000 changed all that, and skateboarding was quickly banned in the park, despite offers from skateboard companies to cover the maintenance and security costs.

Paine's Park came about after the skateboard community pushed for an alternate site. It took them almost a decade to get the funding together to build the new park, on a muddy triangle of city land next to the popular Schuylkill river park.

by Mike on Oct 3, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

That's a horrible park. If it were a decently sized concrete park with good flow it would be popular despite the location--word spreads. Dan, I liked your write up on the Arlington Skatepark / Rain Garden a year ago. That skatepark is well designed, centrally located, and accessible to transit. Ideally a skatepark, if not all parks, should be accessible to people of all ages, and those without cars.

by John P on Oct 3, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

I like this over some of the manicured green lawns people call parks. What is the point of a park if it has no active element? This isn't the English country side.

by BTA on Oct 3, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

I'm with BTA... I like this way over just grass or just a park with playground equipment. It gives young people something to do. Public spaces should be interesting spaces that accommodate multiple types of users.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Oct 4, 2013 8:54 am • linkreport

Skaters can be quite dangerous.

by Ironchef on Oct 4, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

Look at the pic for the White Oak Skate Park and all the other skate park shown here. Which one looks more interesting? A lot of it is about not being worth traveling to.

With that set there are some elements at While Oak that would work well for some stuff I'm learning on my bike. Of course being Montgomery County bicycles are banned. Guess I'll go ride at the shopping centers!

by Joe on Oct 9, 2013 9:29 pm • linkreport

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