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Leo Valls Interview

Skate Urbanist

When I visited Leo Valls last year I discovered two things. First, that he is a very powerful and technical ledge skater. I just knew him as the kind of creative powerslide guy but actually he can get very tech. Switch backtails at mach 10 are warm up tricks for him. That’s just not what he wants to show when he’s filming. He does it for fun. Second, the term “skate urbanism”. Leo used it while speaking to me about the stuff he does in Bordeaux working with the city. From there on it became the working title for the issue and finally it stayed. So basically, Leo baptized this issue and also was a big inspiration along the way, always asking how it’s coming together, coming up with new ideas, helping connect us with people and just by being inspiring though his work in Bordeaux, where he was one of the main figures to change the city from banning skateboarding to becoming a skate-friendly city. You haven’t seen the documentary? You should.

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Hey Leo, what’s up?

I got a lot of positive feedback from the documentary. It’s overwhelming. It was a little bit too much. [laughs] I get emails from all over the world. But I don’t want to sleep on this and I want to keep progressing. I was skypeing with Gustav [Eden]a few days ago. We are trying to build a connection between Malmö and Bordeaux. I want to do an exchange program for kids between Malmö skate school and Bordeaux skate school. The idea of exchangeable sculptures would also be really cool. Creating skateboarding twin cities would be sick. And we were talking about bringing Pushing Boarders to Bordeaux in 2021. Next year in France are the municipal elections, which means we can have a new Mayor. It’s crazy, I’m getting contacted by politicians from all different parties. They want my public support. I’m tripping. This politician called me the other day: “Yeah, are you ready to engage with us?“ I said that I will not do that, that I’m not politically engaged and my mission is towards the skaters and the city-users. This topic is more important than a political party. It can go good and it can go bad. What if we have a mayor again that is against skateboarding? We did a lot of work so I think they can’t really go back to what it was before. But still we have a lot of projects in the works for the next 4-5 years and I don’t know what happens if the mayor changes.

How was the situation before?

Bordeaux is a big skateboarding city. There is Sugar magazine, companies like Magenta or Rave, Riot distribution, many skateshops, several pros, indoor and outdoor skateparks and a lot of skaters. We counted them and it was about 35,000 skateboard users in the metropolitan area. A few years ago the situation for skateboarding was really bad cause there was a repressive policy towards skateboarding. We got tickets which were a 70 euro fine. And they had defensive/aggressive architecture with skatestoppers. When we approached the city first they had given around 800 tickets a year. The cops used to work during the day so we skated at night. I love skating at night but after a few years it gets really tiring.

"Skateboarding is a sport, but it’s also cultural, it’s an art form, it is a way to meet up and create social cohesion. It is a way for kids to get off their phones and go outside, it is a way to communicate with the architecture of the city, and it is an ecological way of transportation"

How did things then start to change?

A lot of cities were repressive towards skateboarding but at the same time using it in their communication program. Sometimes in the city magazine they said that Bordeaux is a big place for skateboarding with a giant skatepark. That was really hypocritical. One day a local television station called me for a live television program on the economy of skateboarding in Bordeaux. I thought it might be a way to do something. So I went to the show and criticized the city policy towards skateboarding. A couple of days later I was invited to a meeting. I set up a little crew of skaters to explain why skateboarding is a positive thing. The first meetings were round tables with elected officials, us, and residents that were complaining about skateboarding, mainly about the noise. Bordeaux has narrow streets so it can be loud. But we explained to them that skateboarding is a sport, but it’s also cultural, it’s an art form, it is a way to meet up and create social cohesion. It is a way for kids to get off their phones and go outside, it is a way to communicate with the architecture of the city, and it is an ecological way of transportation, which is also important for them nowadays. I think they were not expecting that and were very surprised to have people that were able to reply. [laughs] At the same time the contemporary art museum contacted us because they wanted to make a big exhibition about the cultural and artistic aspect of skateboarding. So we collaborated and that was very important because it was one of the most visited exhibitions for the museum in many years. And the city organized a public talk with the mayor, the ex-prime minister, and me to discuss skateboarding in the city. Because it was in the museum that said “skateboarding is positive” the mayor pretty much had to go our way and he said: “Skateboarding can not be totally forbidden. We need to find compromises.” And he asked us for a five-year masterplan that would integrate skateboarding into the city. So we started working with the city and set up time frames that would allow skateboarding again at the forbidden skatespots that we could barely skate anymore. We told the skaters to respect the time frames and because it’s such a tight community it worked. The residents who were complaining about the noise were like: “Wow, skaters can be respectful and now we don’t have that much skateboarding at night anymore and can sleep again.“ But it all was a really long process.

How did you organize things?

First there was the mediation. We got budget for a mediator, a younger skater who goes to the plazas to make sure that people respect the time frames and clean up their shit after skating. He talks to the residents and explains that skateboarding is part of city life. The second panel of work is the urban planification. How do we integrate skateboarding in the long term? For this I teamed up with my friend Arnaud Dedieu. He started a consulting agency specialized in skateboarding in public spaces. We worked on this masterplan that came out after 40 meetings with different architects and project chiefs for all the upcoming urban projects in Bordeaux. We studied all the projects and decided if we can integrate skateboarding there authentically and not building cages of skateparks. We made sure that the spots go all around town and make skaters go from one spot to another. The masterplan got validated and now we have to work project by project to make sure that they use the right materials and do the right designs. And after we got the green light from the mayor we got calls from different offices of the city. For example, I developed a good relationship with the cultural department and they gave me free range for an art exhibition that we did this year called Play, with a bunch of colorful, skateable objects around town.

"Skaters, who for so many years have been rejected, ticketed, and acted more like rebels, are more respectful now"

How did that go?

They called me and so I started writing a concept. I wanted to work with a team. With local associations, my friend Seb Daurel who is building skateparks, and Nicolas Malinowsky who did the color code. It was more like a collaborative project. I proposed different locations, very iconic public spaces, so all the residents saw this. Even if some people didn’t like skateboarding in the first place, it made them think twice about it. I got really good feedback. I think it also comes from the fact that they were not only made for skateboarding. All the objects were multi-use. There was a ledge with chairs on top of it where people could sit and have a beautiful view of the river. For me it was a way to say, for so many years we’ve skated public objects in the streets that don’t belong to skaters. If we make objects that belong to skaters, we also have to give to the other city users.

You also skated the opera.

The city asked us how to do the communication on Play. I said I want to mix different crafts and put skateboarding in a place where it usually never happens. The national opera of Bordeaux allowed us a two day session inside the building to shoot photos.

So the city welcomes you now. Also the “No skateboarding” signs changed to signs that allow skateboarding. How does that change the vibe?

It’s funny because when things are forbidden, the general public has a bad image of them. And if it’s legal, they change the way they see things. Just the fact that there’s a green sign at city hall saying: “Skateboarding is allowed here during these times”, makes people accept that skateboarding is part of the city life now. And also skaters, who for so many years have been rejected, ticketed, and acted more like rebels, are more respectful now. They clean after the session and are nicer to pedestrians because they feel integrated in the city life. With skateboarding becoming so popular right now with the Olympics, skateboarding being used by big companies, being more mainstream, I think it will become more integrated. It depends on the policy of each city. They have to decide if they’re for or against skateboarding.

I saw an article about Bordeaux skateboarding in an airline magazine on a plane, so they promote this. What can cities get from skateboarding?

I think they get a positive image and for a growing city that is good. I think it’s attractive when Bordeaux pushes freedom in the streets.

It all started with criticizing what they did before. Do you think it always has to start with a bit of a clash?

There is not one magic formula. Each city has a different kind of architecture, a different policy, a different skate scene. I don’t think you have to start with fighting. The main trick when you want to start this is to put yourself in their shoes and not just act like a foolish skateboarder that only wants to skate and that’s it. Show them that you understand their point of view and that you’re ready to understand other visions of other city users.

Switch Backside Smith

Soloskatemag leo valls switch backside smith photo by leo sharp

Switch Backside Smith

What else is crucial?

Build a community. If you’re all alone, I don’t think it’s gonna work. If the community is fighting each other how can they push one idea to the city?

Does the size of the community you’re living in matter?

It’s gonna be completely different in big cities. I see this happening in medium size cities like Malmö or Bordeaux. So far when skateboarding has been integrated in bigger cities it was more the work of open architects. Republique in Paris, the architect decided to make it skateable but it wasn’t really official.

"I want to see great spots, public spaces that integrate skateboarding and are very creative and beautiful, that bring a value to a city"

What else is crucial?

Build a community. If you’re all alone, I don’t think it’s gonna work. If the community is fighting each other how can they push one idea to the city?

Does the size of the community you’re living in matter?

It’s gonna be completely different in big cities. I see this happening in medium size cities like Malmö or Bordeaux. So far when skateboarding has been integrated in bigger cities it was more the work of open architects. Republique in Paris, the architect decided to make it skateable but it wasn’t really official.

Are you satisfied now with how things turned out in Bordeaux or do you already have new ideas?

I’m not gonna stop here. [laughs] I want to help other cities and I’m very excited about what kinda shapes it will take in different cities cause like we said, it can be different in each city. We might see some really creative projects in the next few years, and I think there’s so much more to do with this. We’re at the beginning of a new era where cities are gonna understand that skateparks are not the only answer. Skateboarding also belongs to the streets, that’s the essence of skateboarding.

LEO CRAIL SLIDE c Leo Sharp

Crailslide

How do you imagine this era?

I hope it will be a lot of artistic projects. And I want to see great spots, public spaces that integrate skateboarding and are very creative and beautiful, that bring a value to a city.

How do you see the cities of the future?

I see cities that go really against skateboarding, especially because a lot of cities nowadays have private public spaces. Then you’re not talking to a council but for example to a bank to make it skate friendly. That’s probably a different story. We’re gonna see more of this obviously. But I think cities will integrate skateboarding in the globality of the city and will have several integrated skatespots all around the city, that are multi use, free to use. And they will also develop the idea to use your bicycle or skateboard to get around.

Integrating is always better than rejecting. You will not get rid of it and then it’s not fun for anybody.

A lot of architects are really bummed when the city is forcing them to use skatestoppers.

I feel like in the US it’s more the skatestopper way and in Europe there’s more integrative projects. How do you see it?

It looks like it. I think a lot of cities are still stuck on the idea that they build a big skatepark and then have an excuse to forbid skateboarding. But I hope things are happening in the US as well. It is already happening somehow but if it’s gonna happen it probably will be more private projects paid for by companies.

Do you actually get paid for your effort?

I didn’t plan to get paid for this and at first you have to give a lot of your energy for free but now when we work on specific jobs or missions we get paid, yeah. But first you have to convince the people in charge, including the politicians, that this is good for them.

LEO VALLS NOSEBLUNT LONG c Leo Sharp

Noseblunt

There are young skateboarders who vote, or friends of skateboarders… I saw this documentary about a skatepark project in a little village in France and the mayor there said: “Young people leave the countryside, but we need the youth, so we have to give them reasons to stay.”

The young generation is the one that builds the future. I think they understood this in Bordeaux. It’s really crazy, we went from 800 tickets a year to a skateboard masterplan and skateboard sculptures around town. That makes me super happy and I’m super thankful for all the people who helped on this cause, obviously you can’t do this alone. I had a very strong support from the skate community.

You said that you set up a crew that you went to a city meeting with, but you also told me that pretty early on it turned out that the city preferred to just have one person to talk to.

Yeah, they told me that I should come alone to those meetings. I think it’s important that you have one figure for each city. You’re never alone working on this, but it makes it more clear and it’s easier for them to communicate on it.

How was the echo in the skate community?

At first I was kinda sceptical when I was pushing this idea about the reactions from skaters. The skate industry is still pushing a pretty rebellious, aggressive image of skateboarding. I thought maybe the skaters are like, fuck the people, fuck the city! But I think if you’re living in a city where you’ve been ticketed and then it becomes cool to skate, nobody can be against it.

I heard that some skaters in Lyon are not too fond that after the renovation of Hôtel de Ville there will be no longer a crack at the hip.

The spot is better but they don’t like it because they want it more raw. But they’re gonna be stoked. The plaza is gonna be amazing. By the way, in Bordeaux they opened this new museum, La MECA, and they kinda accidentally built a perfect skatepark. They contacted me and were really stressed, asking if they should hire guards or do skatestoppers. So I went to the meeting and said, “You’re a cultural building. Skateboarding is great for this building. We gonna come and film and shoot photos. You gonna end up on covers of magazines, kids are gonna come here and that adds something to the building”. Now they allow skateboarding and on their instagram they repost all the skate photos. They’re really down.

Leo vakks bs nowe blunt power slide mecac David Manaud

Backside Nosblunt Powerslide I Photo: David Manaud

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