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Skateparks - Between Subculture and Sportification

An interview on the dissertation by Veith Kilberth

Cologne-based Veith Kilberth has been active in skateboarding for ages. Formerly as a pro on Think skateboards, now as managing co-owner of fine lines marketing and a planning office for skateparks called Landskate. Therefore, he has been dealing with the topic of skateparks for quite a while and has now even written a doctoral thesis on it, because he saw the need to give the topic a scientific basis. For those of you with matriculation certificates, he has done a hermeneutic reappraisal of the genealogy of skateboarding spaces for this reason. Nevertheless, we refrained from titling Veith Dr. Skatepark in the interview’s headline. Firstly, because it would be cheesy, and secondly, because the book he presented deals with many more topics, including the Olympic Games. And why skateboarding doesn’t really want to be made into a sport (Here you can find a short summary of the book).

Hi Veith, what was the reason for you to write this thesis?

The planning of skateparks still has a very different quality of design, to say the least. It seems that many people involved lack cultural understanding. This book is intended to contribute to better understanding and to provide very concrete approaches to solving the problem. The core message of the work is: When designing skateparks it is very important to consider the socio-cultural.

Who is the main target audience of the book?

Basically, the book is aimed at anyone who wants to get involved with skateboarding on a deeper level. The main purpose is according to which principles one should design spaces for skateboarding. I.e. the book is especially addressed to all persons and organizations involved or interested in the design of skateparks. But since I have dealt extensively with skateboarding as a social practice as a basis for my skate space theories, I have also examined aspects that go far beyond the planning of skate parks, such as the Olympics discussion, the current state of female participation, the commercialization of skateboarding, and considerations of the perspective of street skateboarding, to name a few.

"When designing skateparks it is very important to consider the socio-cultural."

How do you see the development of skateparks?

If you understand a skatepark as the spatialized idea of skateboarding, then it is important that you meet this idea. The question is, of course, what is the idea of skateboarding? In my opinion it is characterized by ten features that can be shown through a historical skateboarding space reconstruction. It is striking that within the pattern of development from found spaces, e.g. street spots, to purpose spaces in skateparks to contest courses, skateboarding has something peculiar so it always falls back on the subcultural. For example, it would be logical to include halfpipe instead of bowl or park in the Olympic Games, but that has killed itself in terms of sports progressiveness. Whenever something progressively pushes itself so far, it eventually reaches a glass ceiling. After a certain time, a small, unapproachable elite has then emerged. In analogy we see this phenomenon now also in contest Streetskating and/or Street League. The downsections with rails and ledges have reached a high degree of standardization and the entire terrain is geared towards single-trick progression. You have to remember that progression is fundamentally a very important aspect in skateboarding, but when skating becomes one-dimensional on it, it doesn’t take long for it to become exhausted. Whenever that has happened in the past, skateboarding has reinvented itself subculturally. In terms of halfpipe, that was Park terrain. That differentiates itself from the halfpipe through creativity, diversity and flow. With the vertical deepend section, it's kind of the subcultural rebirth of vert skating. Here, it's more about pushing the terrain to its limits in terms of diversity. That's why Oski won recently, which is almost paradigmatic for creativity, style, spontaneity and unpredictability. This creativity seems to be very important for skateboarding, which is also reflected in the terrain. In contrast to the almost predictable, logical trick progression, the creative is more unpredictable, individual and personal.

When the Street League became big, the Plaza Skateparks from California Skateparks also became the quality standard worldwide, which also led to standardization here.

In the beginning, Street League and Berrics were cool and something new. In terms of terrain, it was the perfect American street plaza, which almost everyone wanted to skate at the time. There is probably nothing that has pushed the sportification of progressive street skateboarding as much as Street League. At a certain point, the whole thing tipped over and became boring, predictable, and kind of unappealing. The skate scene has counterbalanced this imbalance of sporty street skateboarding with a subcultural countermovement. More to the point, my thesis is that purely progressive street skateboarding is becoming increasingly culturally devalued by the skate scene. And when one side is culturally devalued, another is valorized, it’s this paternoster effect. With my historical skate-space reconstruction this can be well proven.

"The skate scene has counterbalanced this imbalance of sporty street skateboarding with a subcultural countermovement. More to the point, my thesis is that purely progressive street skateboarding is becoming increasingly culturally devalued by the skate scene."

You’ve already mentioned the socio- or subcultural. What exactly do you mean by that?

As an analogy to the human habitus, which is strongly influenced by what a person experiences in his or her childhood, you can say that skateboarding also keeps going back to its strongly subcultural birth hours - the 70s for transition and the 90s for street skating. This habitus has shaped skateboarding’s identity to this day. Skateboarding always retreats to the subcultural, and you can see that precisely in what skate spaces are preferred. The DIY movement is just one indication here. When building a skatepark, nine out of ten skaters don’t say they want a big step set there to train for Street League, but they want to have fun with their homies in a cool, flowing park.

Do you think skateparks can get so good that they hinder creativity, because then everyone just hangs out in the park instead of going street skating?

Except in exceptional cities like Barcelona, street skating takes place mainly in skateparks, but I’m not so culturally pessimistic that skateparks will make people stop going on street missions. Up and coming skaters are kind of forced to get street footage. We all know that you are considered a much cooler skater if you deliver in the street than if you are the handrail killer in the skatepark. And to acquire this - let’s call it subcultural capital - you have to leave the skatepark and proof your skills and creativity in found spaces. You can call this peculiarity part of the subcultural logic of skateboarding.

And what do you think about building skateparks with the biggest ramps possible, so that kids can grow into it?

This is a misconception of the pedagogical idea of growing with one’s tasks. What’s forgotten is that you only grow with the tasks that you’re confident you can do. Then you might have one gnarly dude out of ten who is confident enough to handle it, but can’t the others have fun? Parks that are too gnarly are for elites and seem exclusionary. I understand the idea that you have to “earn” skateboarding, but you don’t necessarily have to conquer monsters to do that, you can also bash your board into your shins all day on flat - you need commitment for that as well. The skate terrain should be structured in steps so that everyone can find his/her challenge. Of course, this also applies to those who are particularly good riders, who should of course also get their obstacles. In street as well as in transition terrains.

(left) positioning model of skateboard space types / (right) skate park terrain

If not everyone is involved, all that remains in the end are self-built ivory towers that hardly anyone uses anymore.

A good example is Megaramp, which is completely detached from the participation of the skateboard culture. You see that and somehow have respect for it, but that it inspires someone to register in a Woodward Camp with a Megaramp probably happens rather rarely. The fact that something like this is shown doesn’t necessarily mean that the skateboard culture is moving, but can also be due to the fact that a sponsor simply throws money at it, shows it as a TV format at X Games and thus creates an illusory giant that appears relevant. For example, in the late 90s halfpipe skating was relatively popular again, but how many people were there who actually skated halfpipe? It was popularized mainly by the X Games, although the participation of the skate scene was larger than in the early 90s compared to street, but overall it was still marginal.

Nowadays it’s starting again, but in a different way. Ishod and Oski and so on are now riding padless in smaller halfpipes and doing basics instead of 540s.

I think that’s an interesting variation of halfpipe skating. Maybe halfpipe would have a real chance to reinvent itself, more in a nostalgic DIY style, instead of as a huge sporty X Games Vert Ramp, to which hardly anyone has a connection and which scares most people away.

Doesn’t planning skate spaces actually offer a lot more potential for new things?

Yes, the planning of spaces for skateboarding is actually already much further than building skate park terrain in a marked-out space.

Like what Leo Valls is doing in Bordeaux.

Exactly, I summarized this in my book under shared spots – legalized or modified street spots integrated in public space. Multifunctional places where you can sit, for example, but where you can also skate. Something like the Landhausplatz in Innsbruck.

"In some cities, skate parks certainly criminalize real street spots, because the argument then is: Why do you skate there? That’s your spot, we’ve spent a lot of money on it now. This effect has been proven in various scientific studies."

Is this the future of skateparks?

That would be a romantic notion, after skateboarding was locked out of city life into skateparks, to now bring skateboarding back into public space. No skatepark will ever be perceived as cool as a street spot. In some cities, skateparks certainly criminalize real street spots, because the argument then is: why do you skate there? That’s your place, we've spent a lot of money on it now. This effect has been proven in various scientific studies. Some skaters are also happy to have a separate skate park for themselves, and some cities don’t have the necessary urban space and need a skate park to be able to skate at all. Not to forget that there is also the tranny faction. So if you already build skateparks, then you can also try to make them as good as possible. For me it’s not about how to make the enclosure as good as possible – that’s also a criticism – but how to think about it in a bigger context. Can skateboarding be re-integrated from the segregated purpose space back into the city? There are quite a few examples of this in Malmö or Bordeaux. But as soon as you start planning skateboarding into the public space there is much more potential for conflict with the other city users than if you enclose skateboarding behind a fence in a skatepark. The cities are still very far away from understanding this and without someone advocating for it, nothing will happen. Also a skate park is built in most cases only on citizens’ request. It is not anchored in sports policy that there must be a certain number of skate parks. Even in the playground requirements planning, skate parks have no fixed place so far. A skate park almost always requires commitment and staying power. Two to three years are minimum, until the opening. The decision makers in the city are not risk-takers, they just don’t want to make any procedural mistakes and such a shared spot is highly sensitive and presuppositional as far as social compatibility is concerned. Nevertheless, we at Landskate are sticking to the idea and are currently planning the first shared spot together with the city of Cologne. In Cologne, the scene has a particularly good relationship with the city, which makes this project possible in the first place.

What role can skateboarding play in a modern city and what arguments help to integrate skating into urban development?

The absolute prerequisite is a skate scene that has good contact with the city and has been able to establish a long-standing relationship of trust. Without that – no chance! Then there is the Marxist aspect of saying that the city is there for everyone and we also want to have the right to use it. There are also planning means to design it that way, for example to integrate a skate plaza into the city in such a way that passers-by are not endangered. But integrating skate spots into public space is difficult. Until now, cities have been designed for cars. In the meantime, bicyclists are slowly being considered as well. To put people as pedestrians in the center, according to the Scandinavian model, or even as skateboarders, we still seem to be a long way off. At least in Germany. Right now, the focus of the cities is more on renovating the old catalog skateparks and involving the users in the planning. Which is already a first step.

What arguments do you use to get them to focus on shared spots?

The first step is to make the issue understandable. Here, too, the cities lack a cultural understanding of why skaters would want to misuse the city’s architecture instead of using a specially designed sports area. Next, it’s a matter of relieving the city’s concern that something bad might happen. The safety aspect is the most important thing for German city councils. Basically, it’s always a question of perspective. You can perceive skaters as troublemakers or you can see them as “creative city makers” and as an enrichment for the city life. When cities support skateboarding in public spaces, it’s a clear statement. In terms of the creative city, this could be an aspect of city marketing that allows certain cities to stand out from other cities as “the cool city”. Whether a city is considered particularly cool or boring by young people can make a huge difference. If you position yourself as a creative city, then the hip, creative people will come to your city, and they can contribute to the creative economy. Another point is that skateboarding has been proven to help revitalize areas of the city, so the city vitalization aspect. Overall, though, I suspect that skateparks are not really going away from the city anymore. The future lies more in a diversified range of spaces – professional skateparks, DIY spaces, legitimized street spots, modified shared spots. Just as all elements in a skatepark have to be coordinated, the complete offer of skate spaces in a city should be coordinated as well. So, not only the skatepark concepts, but also the skate space concepts.


Identity-forming characteristics of skateboarding

What is the concept for a contemporary skatepark?

It should be built according to the state of the art in cast-in-place concrete construction and be characterized by individuality and creativity. It’s not about completely reinventing the wheel, but it’s good to have one or two very special obstacles in there and create a unique look overall. An urban flair is important. Whether a skatepark works well or not also depends on its location. How easy it is to reach (the more central it is, the better) and how well it fits into its surroundings. Of course, it must also have good flow, just to name a few points. In my work I have worked out ten identity-forming characteristics of skateboarding from the historical skate space reconstruction. The more points a skatepark fulfills well of these, the better the park.

Can the way skateparks are designed also promote inclusion?

If you plan with public money, then you are obliged to align the planning with the common good. And that means that you have to involve as many user groups as possible, that everything is there from young to old and for every skill level from beginner to pro.

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