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Ocean Howell Interview

Who’s allowed to use public space?

Posted in: Interviews

Before he retired from professional skateboarding and went to Berkeley to study urban history, Ocean Howell was pro for Birdhouse in the early ’90s. Nowadays, he’s a history professor at the University of Oregon and has released articles and papers about skateboarding and city planning. Besides Ocean’s work and what Iain Borden worked on in the UK, there was not much of an academic side of skateboarding going on at the time he started. He’s definitely one of the first “skate academics” as well as one of the founders of the idea of skate urbanism.

His work has been cited numerous times and skaters all around the globe used his arguments when lobbying for places to skate, so there was no question that Ocean had to be in this issue. I met him for the first time at this year’s Pushing Boarders in Malmö, where he moderated a talk about skate-friendly cities (and did this tre flip on one of those skateable sculptures). Leo Valls introduced us at a dinner that led to a discussion about city planning, public and private spaces, defensive architecture, and the difference between Europe and the US in all of that. This conversation would’ve been perfect for this issue, but I wasn’t clever enough to record it, so I facetimed myself right into Ocean’s kitchen a few weeks ago to talk some more about all of this.

You were one of the first to bring skateboarding into academics. How did you start?

I actually studied modern literature as an undergrad, and that meant reading a whole lot of theories, Foucault and psychoanalytic theory like Lacan. I started applying that in my mind to skateboarding. That’s what my master’s thesis was about.

What can the skateboard community learn from its academic side and how can it influence city planning?

I hope it encourages skateboarders to think about spaces not just from the perspective of “What’s a good spot?” but also from other perspectives, like, “How do urban planners, private property owners, and city councilors think about this?”

Most participants for this issue are from Europe, and I feel like it is also because things are working a bit differently in America. Can you elaborate on the differences between public and private spaces in the US?

I think that is absolutely right. I’m painting with really broad brushes here, but European cities are generally much more public. The public spaces are much more open to a wide range of people, while public spaces in the US have always been and certainly become more privatized. Land in downtowns in the US is incredibly expensive. Municipality functions like a corporation: if they want land, they have to buy it. Usually, they find it hard to justify spending taxpayer dollars on stuff like that. So what they do is getting concessions in urban planning code, built into the code from private property owners. The classic one is for floor area ratio, so if you build a public plaza out front, you can build another three or four floors on your building and we won’t tax you for that. The problem with it is that the cities don’t have enough control over the spaces. Private interest gets to design them and the private interest has to control them. Because they don’t want to deal with messy urban life, property owners make the spaces very explicitly to be unusable. However, there is also a psychological dimension to it. I can’t prove this and it would take a lot of research to demonstrate it, but I have a really strong feeling that another difference between European and American cities is that Europeans have more social governments, while the US has always favored private interests. The American Dream is to own property. You have more say if you own something. So when you’re in a public space, people still have this mindset that it really belongs to someone. I certainly encountered stuff like that in Europe but a lot less. People there don’t think this space belongs to them and they are not bothered by the fact that you are there.

Ocean treflip 9362c Michael Worful

Treflip I Photo: Michael Worful

So the way these private public spaces are created and the vibe they have is a disadvantage for skateboarders?

Exactly. I would say that, as an unintended consequence, private developers in the US were trying to make space hostile to public use and ended up making them very useful for skateboarders – but yeah, once they figured out how to design against skateboarding…

You wrote an article about a park in San Francisco, where the architect explained how they get rid of graffiti and other unwanted use through highly-elaborated design. They got on a high level with those skate stoppers.

Oh yeah! There are a number of companies, like Ravensforge or Intellicept. They have these names that sound like spy novel plots. They have some skate stoppers that are called the “architectural series”, which are much nicer design objects and are meant to blend in with the environment. When I did that interview, I talked to two different people. One was a municipal architect who worked for the city of San Francisco. This was when they first tried to develop these things. There is a lot more design knowledge now directed to preventing skateboarding, but she was one of the earliest who was designing these things. She called them “pig’s ears”, the big metal knobs.

"There is a lot more design knowledge now directed to preventing skateboarding"

How does this defensive – or aggressive – architecture influence the spaces and how people feel there? Is there any data about that?

There’s no data, it’s all anecdotal. One way I tried to measure it was through letters to the editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, it was the late ‘90s. I found a lot of letters from concerned citizens saying that they hated the skate stoppers. In one, it said that the skate stoppers were much uglier and more hostile than any damage that the skaters could cause. “If skate stoppers are meant to prevent vandalism, your solution is a form of vandalism itself” – and I have anecdotal personal experiences of just being in places and hearing non-skaters complain about skate stoppers. The thing is that the design knowledge is getting much better, and ideally, these things are functioning as they are meant to when they become invisible, when people are unaware that they are there. The other effect is that it succeeds in filtering the range of potential users in the space – and you can say very similar things about anti-homeless stuff. Homelessness and skateboarding are obviously different, the stakes are a lot higher when you’re designed against as a homeless person rather than as a skateboarder – but if you think of it from a strictly formal physical design, it’s very similar. When you can see spikes on ledges to keep homeless people off, that makes people feel uncomfortable because they are made aware of the fact that public space is designed only for certain people and it is designed to keep other people out. It brings up questions like, “Who’s a legitimate citizen? Why are poor or young people being shut out?” When the design becomes invisible, then people don’t have to confront that at all.

I read about classical music being played through the speakers in front of train stations, so that the young people hanging out there unconsciously felt like, “We don’t belong here.”

There are a lot of things like this. There is a body of literature that is interesting, which is about the design of fast food restaurants. They use incredibly bright colors because it makes you not want to be there for long. They make the chairs and tables comfortable but not too comfortable. They’ll adjust the environment with music, with temperature, all this stuff. There is a very refined knowledge in how to make people move through a space in the way you want them to.

It’s crazy to use some of these methods for public spaces because they are supposed to be public. However, you also wrote about skateboard obstacles being put in shady areas to get skaters there and bowl out homeless people.

Yeah, the way I have often put it is, “If skateboarders are swept out of some places, they are used as a broom in other places.” That absolutely happens. City planners in America have skate parks as parts of their tool kits now. They don’t put skate parks in the middle of wealthy neighborhoods or a busy shopping district. They put them under bridges and that is absolutely not an accident. I have found plenty of examples of urban planners speaking very frankly about that – and if you think from an urban planning perspective, it makes sense because homelessness is a problem, and cities in the US don’t get funding from the government to deal with it. They’re asked to deal with it in an environment where they have very limited revenue to give to social services. So urban planners are concerned about property values because that means property taxes and that’s how they can provide social services. If you have large homeless encampments, that ends up to be a detriment to surrounding property values. The main thing that they need is more housing, but they have a built-in disincentive to create low-income housing – so they are trapped! I don’t blame urban planners, the vast majority of them are very well-meaning and feel terrible about this, but we don’t have a circumstance where there are reasonable social services and low-income housing in order to deal with the problem. So they are like, “I have to boost property values around here. I have a homeless encampment here and if I clear it and put in a skate park, that will get a couple of cool bars, art galleries, and coffee shops around here and that will attract young professionals.” That’s a standard part of urban planning practice in the US at this point.

So skateboarding is part of gentrification.

Oh, yes.

Wow…

The story of Burnside is that there were some skaters that started pouring concrete underneath the Burnside Bridge and it got to a size that the city became concerned and said, “We are going to knock this down!” but all the surrounding property owners said, “Don’t you dare!” The skateboarders were kind of scroungy, but property crime went way down! There had been car break-ins and all these problems, and it was apparently an open-air drug market before. The skateboarders made the place safer, there are metrics to prove that. So the city was okay with it and started supporting it, and then it wasn’t long before there was a proposal for a skate park in Portland, and homeless advocates came out against it because they understood perfectly well that the city’s point in siting the park at that exact place was to get rid of the homeless people. So yes, Skateboarding has been instrumentalized by the urban planning profession in that way – and as I’ve said in a lot of contexts: because now we have cities listening to us and we are getting accommodated, I think we have an obligation to think about the larger responsibility to our larger community.

"Because they don’t want to deal with messy urban life, property owners make the spaces very explicitly to be unusable"

What are skateboarders doing wrong in dealing with public spaces?

I think a lot of people behave very responsible. I was so impressed with Malmö. What they are doing in Bordeaux and London are very good examples. In general, I just think there is an obligation not to care only about, “We just need our thing!” Obviously, you’re gonna lobby for your own things, but if it becomes clear to you in the process of lobbying for something that you are being used to get rid of homeless people, I think you have an obligation to speak out about that at least. In a lot of places, the line between people who are skateboarders and who could themselves end up with serious drug problems and homelessness is sometimes kinda thin, and skateboarding can have a very positive influence on peoples’ lives and keep them out of trouble. I was actually very surprised talking to Gustav [Eden] – he was like, “I feel so conflicted about this. We are doing all this stuff for just middle-class white kids!” That’s not my experience at all. [laughs] In some cities, it is a very good amenity for young, poor people of color who are at the risk of a lot of stuff. If that is the circumstance, it maybe makes more sense to site something like that in a poor neighborhood, but is that what is going on or is it being sited in a poor neighborhood to get rid of homeless people?

Or it’s sited there because skateboarders are just not wanted in the nice and wealthy areas. In Malmö, we also talked about this Rob Dyrdek DC Plaza that was built ten years ago. Back then, I thought that this was great – but then you mentioned that it was not really a plaza but out of town. How important is it to have plazas in the right space?

Hugely important. That thing was in a suburban neighborhood and in the middle of a park, it was not an urban plaza – it was an urban plaza plugged into a totally suburban park. I wouldn’t necessarily want to criticize the whole thing, just that aspect of it was strange. However, I know a lot of times when what they would do is put them way the hell out, in the middle of nowhere, to get skaters out of the city, and that is a circumstance where I think skaters have every right to ask why. You can’t put them in a fenced-off area in the periphery of town just to quarantine them. That was another thing I thought was very interesting about Malmö and Bordeaux: the connections between all those places. Spots don’t have to be a big park. There is a ledge and a small bank and that is connected to a path that is nice and skateable and has a couple of hits on the way. Then it starts to get into transportation. Think more holistically, skateboarding is also a mode of transportation. If you have these little circuits that run through the city and are skate friendly with a spot along the way, then it is integrated into the city and removes the possibility of quarantining people in one space.

How is it in the US?

We’re not doing anything like what’s happening in Malmö and Bordeaux – it’s still just parks. I think there is some appetite to start thinking about it, but they are still thinking about skateboarding as something that needs to be managed in the same way you treat a baseball diamond or a basketball court. They are not yet thinking about it as a mode of transportation – or as a way of being in the city –, but I hope there might be some appetite looking more to the European way of thinking of it.

Thinking about the privatization of public spaces in regards to Nike SB paying to make the Santa Monica Courthouse skateable again, is that a possible scenario for the US?

Yeah, that is definitely going on. They tried to do something like that with Love Park. DC offered a bunch of money to fix up and maintain the space and an annual contribution to the management of the space. They failed there, but it worked in Santa Monica Plaza. The advantage to it is that it fits very cleanly into the privatized public space practice, so I think it would be more palatable to city governments. They would be like, “You’re bringing in the money? Great!” The disadvantage is that it’s a privatized public space. It’s funny to see that when you come into some skate parks, there will be a sign saying “no rollerblades”, no this, no that. It becomes its own privatized space – but for us. If that’s how it goes, maybe it’s the best we can ask for in the US context, but I have been interested in looking at skateboarding because I think it has the potential to make people think in a broader and more inclusive way about who is part of the public and who should be allowed in different spaces.

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