Although nobody gets into skating because they want to engage more with their local government, skateboarders often find themselves needing to negotiate with their city in order to make it more skate friendly.
A number of historic skate spots (Atlanta’s Black Blocks, Paris’ République, London’s South Bank) have been saved through this kind of skater activism, and while these stories are great in their own rights, they don’t necessarily help skateboarders everywhere.
So we decided to take a long look at civic engagement from the skateboarder’s perspective. By studying different cases, including their ups and downs, we came up with some tactics and guidelines that you and your crew can apply to your own town, should you need/want to.
That’s not to say what works in Sweden will necessarily work in Nebraska, but at least you have some ideas to start with and tweak to your own situation.
Municipal elections just took place in LA and NY on November 5th, so if skateboarders in those cities knew to research candidates who have communal messaging that may apply to skateboarding and then vote for them, that’s great. But that’s honestly a lot of work, and there’s other, possibly more efficient ways for skateboarders to get the help they need. So let’s start by going over some alternative routes people have found to be useful when they need to petition for skateboarding.
Writing: Writing letters to the editors of local publications about your cause and even Tweeting are all excellent ways to establish a written record of activism, which is helpful for both raising awareness and demonstrating the amount of support and concern behind an issue. Sending letters and/or emails to representatives or city employees is also key to getting responses from them and starting conversations that can lead to them doing things like helping secure land or funding for a skatepark, deciding not to tear down a treasured skate spot, and reexamining anti-skating ordinances.
Service Projects: Skateboard-centric volunteerism is an excellent way to build a reputation as a force for good within the community, so that more citizens are on your side or at least respond positively to you when you need to interact with them. Organizing spot/park clean up days and fundraising for local charities reminds people that skateboarders can contribute positively to their communities and have a vested interest in them.
“Do It For the Kids”: Non-profits such as Ryan Lay’s Skate After School have been tremendous advocates of the social, mental health, and academic benefits of skating for young children. Consider partnering with schools or childcare organizations to establish a program that will not only foster goodwill with local parents, but will familiarize a new generation with the joys of skating.
“Main Street”: Skate shops are more than just places to loiter before or after a session. They’re local businesses that pay taxes and business licensing fees. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with multiple shops (or skate companies), building a coalition of small businesses is a surefire way to raise your political profile so you can’t be easily ignored as the one raving lunatic waving their board around at a city council meeting.
Now, let’s look at two recent examples where skateboarders saved local spots from being demolished or otherwise made unskateable, so we can understand which approaches work the best when you’re forced to be reactive.
The Fast Way
Earlier this year, New York City’s Parks Department decided to refurbish a corner of Tompkins Square Park with astroturf, which would render it unskateable. Quickly, locals (Adam Zhu) launched a petition to overturn the decision, and Steve Rodriguez, founder of 5Boro Skateboards and historical activist for skateboarding in NYC, facilitated a meeting between a small group of skateboarders and the Parks Department while also encouraging residents to tag relevant city officials online and ensure that their concerns wouldn’t go unheard.
Importantly, everybody involved framed the park as more than just a skate spot and thus meaningful to not only skateboarders. They argued that while the space served a special purpose to skateboarders, it was also vital to the surrounding community as a whole.
All this commotion convinced local and international non-skate publications to cover it, bringing even more awareness to the issue and adding pressure on the city to act in skateboarders’ favors. Then, on the eve of a rally at the disputed grounds, the city reversed its plan to renovate the area, and a celebration ensued.
With coordinated, multi-platform pressure from a wide variety of actors, Tompkins was saved. That doesn’t mean the park will never be subject to a facelift in the future, but now the city is significantly more aware of the value of that particular piece of pavement, and they’ll be less likely to make hasty decisions about it.
While Tompkins was a good example of how skateboarders can organize to save a public space from becoming unskateable, let’s look at a messier example that shows certain pitfalls to avoid.
sand-filled sheldon skatepark
The Slow Way
Twenty minutes northwest of central Los Angeles, nestled between the 5 and 170 freeways, is Sheldon Skatepark. Opened in 2014, it’s arguably the largest skatepark in the San Fernando Valley. But the park’s size and remote location also made it popular with bored teenagers, taggers, and tweakers. Soon after Sheldon opened, broken glass, fast-food wrappers, drug paraphernalia, and empty spray cans could be found all around it. Some nearby residents blamed the skaters for the mess and the thousands of dollars worth of vandalism being done every month to the park.
This led to LA City Councilwoman Nury Martinez’s decision to temporarily shutter the park in 2016. The gates were padlocked and many of the bowled corners were filled with sand to discourage clandestine skating.
Initially, locals were invited to participate in a Sun Valley neighborhood council meeting to discuss the park’s future. An obviously upset but disorganized group of skaters did little to generate any traction on resolving the issue and failed to elicit much sympathy from the neighborhood council; the meeting unfortunately devolved into a shouting match. The park would remain closed for a significant portion of 2016 and into early 2017.
atlanta black blocks before the #saveblackblocks campaign
Despite the aforementioned efforts to keep the park off-limits, people routinely hopped the fence along the freeway to sweep away sand and sneak in a session. Even more troubling, Councilwoman Martinez’s personal email address was posted in a SLAP message board thread about the park’s closure and her inbox was spammed out. For a time, it seemed as though the park would be closed permanently.
Around this time, a group of skaters launched “Project S,” a diplomatic path toward reopening the park. “Project S” began with an online petition to reopen the park and expanded to include a 12-point program that locals could use to ensure the park was safe for everyone. Several members of “Project S” held private meetings with Martinez, and their efforts helped create an environment in which short-term concerns about skating could be addressed with a trusted party. This dialogue led to a major beautification project that included both skaters and neighbors.
Members of “Project S” also reminded Martinez that skaters could not be expected to be held responsible for addressing city-wide problems like addiction, littering, or homelessness. Ultimately, the quiet and persistent path of diplomacy paid off and the park celebrated its grand reopening in March of 2017.
Of course, advocacy shouldn’t merely be focused around legendary or endangered spots. Skating is dynamic, and efforts should ideally be centered around better integrating skating into city life. Fortunately, there’s one city that seems to have excelled at that more than anywhere else.
Malmö, Sweden is one of the strongest examples of skateboarder advocacy paying off in big ways. They’re home to Bryggeriet, the school where students skate as part of their curriculum (and which boasts alumni like Simon Isaksson and Heitor Da Silva), and they have more skateparks and unknobbed skate spots than much larger cities. They’re also maybe the only city on the planet with an officially designated “Skateboarder Coordinator,” a man named Gustav Eden, who in a 2016 interview explained how skateboarders reshaped their place in the city.
In the early 2000s, skateboarders there proposed that the city build a big concrete park, Stapelbäddsparken. Fortunately, the city approved the build, and the park became the site for a Quiksilver bowl competition, which the city provided some funding for. Although Quiksilver backed out of sponsoring it the next year, the city had seen the turnout and recognized the event as a success, so when the organizers met with the city officials to ask for more funding, the city agreed to form a partnership with skateboarders to put on future events. They also gave Eden his title.
In the years since, skateboarders there have put on more and more events, and now they get to host things like Pushing Boarders and the finals and semifinals for the Vans Park Series, as well as secure funding for sculptures that serve as both skate spots and pieces of public art. In 2018, Alexis Sablone was one of three people to design a set of these skateable sculptures.
In the interview, Eden identified three things that secured skateboarders’ successful civic engagement: organization, reliability, and follow through.
“Every time [the skateboarders] had a chance, they’ve delivered on it, and delivered more than they’ve been expected to…They’ve proven to the city that they’re a reliable group to put money towards. They can handle the money and they can make sure the events are good for the general public, because you have to remember that the main audience is the general public – not just the skaters,” Eden said.
“It’s easy to complain about how the councils don’t listen and so on…but it’s also crucial to remember that if that is the case then you’ve got to make their job as easy as possible…If you can prove to them that it’s gonna benefit everybody, not just a small group of people, they’ll be likely to help you. If you go about it in a ‘hey we deserve this’ way you’re going to be creating an uphill struggle for yourself.”
We can also look to Leo Valls, who worked to legalize skating in his hometown of Bordeaux, France — which involved setting up official skating hours in certain plazas — after it had been banned completely. When he talked with his local representatives, he helped them see why their methods of trying to stop skateboarding weren’t working — that skate stoppers don’t actually stop skateboarders, and are actually just ugly blemishes — and explained that skateparks don’t deter street skating — if anything, they encourage it by fostering younger generations of skaters.
Politicians agree the tactics laid out here can work. Mike Bonin, a Los Angeles Councilmember who was involved in the decision to legalize skating at the West LA Courthouse, said, “You may need to be 18 to vote, but anyone can participate in our local democratic process. Stoner Skate Park was built because skateboarders got together and organized a letter-writing campaign to ask for a safe place to skate. Young skateboarders also came out to the Park Advisory Board meeting to let members know they wanted a skatepark in their area.”
In a perfect world, local governments wouldn’t restrict skating to a designated space, but incorporate it into city-planning and policy making, as they did with Valls through a series of sculptures and public use objects — benches, mirrors, and shoe-shining stands — that also happened to be fully skateable. But this is only going to happen if we show them how.
Derrick Dykas, a skateboarder who was instrumental in building Detroit’s DIY park The Wig, is one of the most inspiring examples of skateboard advocacy in the U.S. Tired of not having a decent park to skate and seeing small DIY spots demolished, Derrick and some other skateboarders organized themselves into a group called Community Push and asked the city to let them build a good-sized DIY park on a rundown lot. Because Detroit was undergoing bankruptcy at the time, the Parks Department was happy to let people repurpose a space that wasn’t getting much use.
After construction, city officials saw how much use skateboarders and neighborhood kids were getting out of The Wig, and eventually Derrick turned his role as a community organizer into a job with the Parks Department, where he now oversees maintenance and reuse opportunities of parks across the city.
“We spent $20,000 on The Wig and it got more traction than million-dollar tennis courts that they keep building for some reason,” Derrick said. “And until the day they tore it down” (The Wig was demolished earlier this year to make way for condos) “it remained one of the city’s most active and diverse parks. And now they’re listening to us.”
That “listening” now includes money to build a new park — a sort of Wig 2.0 — the opportunity to convert unused tennis courts into small skate spots around the city, and a new after school program to introduce kids to skating. “They’re starting to really fall in love with skateboarding,” Derrick said of the city.
Whichever officials you need to talk with to make skating better in your city, whether they’re councilpersons, alderpersons, park employees, or someone else, Derrick’s advice would be to make yourselves impossible to ignore while still being respectful. “You don’t want to be that guy who keeps complaining and complaining, but sometimes you have to. Know what you want to do, think of reasons they’re gonna tell you no, and have counter arguments. One of the best sources that I’ve read was the Tony Hawk Foundation’s skatepark guide. That book has every argument, counter argument, and tips on how to approach officials.”
Trying to convince a bunch of people you don’t know to make space for skateboarding, an activity they may personally not give a shit about, isn’t easy. But it’s more possible than it may seem.