Skatepark Design - Listen to the Skaters!

Let’s assume for the moment that your campaign to build a free public skatepark has met with success. The city has pledged its support, a majority of the community is behind the idea and there are hard earned fundraising dollars sitting in the bank waiting to be spent. For miles in every direction skaters anxiously await their brand new skatepark. Congratulations, now is the time for design and construction.

If you think that quality skateparks come from pushing around some dirt and pouring “crete” on a bump, think again. Building a concrete skatepark is a labor intensive and highly specialized endeavor. Further, if the builders don’t get it right the first time out, you’ll be skating their lumpy transitions and similar mistakes and for a long time to come. Merely talking about perfect transitions, or why this park is great, but that one sucks is not going to work either. Trust me. To most non-skaters, all parks look alike. Now, more than ever, the skate community needs to get involved with the project and remain involved until the job is complete. When it comes to building a concrete skatepark, your city needs pro-active guidance.

What Exactly are We Talking About?

A skatepark is an athletic facility. Designed and constructed specifically for skateboarders, in-line skaters and arguably freestyle BMX riders. It offers a place to congregate, relax and perform skills in a safe environment. Ideally, it should have a fence to protect spectators. Lighting is a great addition.

For skateparks, concrete is the way to go. A concrete park offers a permanent and virtually maintenance-free solution to a cities skatepark needs. Plus, the majority of skaters prefer concrete parks. A ramp park, whether fabricated from wood, steel or other materials should be considered only if the municipality already has an unused basketball, tennis court or parking lot available. These types of ramp structures are for short term use only. There is no good reason to build this type of facility if there are sufficient resources for a permanent facility. Under no circumstances should a city pour a slab of concrete to build temporary ramps as the funds would be much better spent building a permanent concrete skatepark to begin with.

Most concrete skateparks will cost between 20 and 25 dollars (USD) per square foot to build. ($270 USD per meter) That cost figure typically includes all design fees and services, construction materials and labor. However, that is just the skating surface. That cost will not include common amenities, such as bringing water and power to the site, fencing, lighting, bathrooms or landscaping. In general, parks worth building cost a minimum of $250,000. Compared to the cost of other athletic facilities, that is quite reasonable.

A skatepark designed to meet all skill levels will be between 18,000 and 25,000 square feet. A park of 10,000 square feet is the absolute minimum recommended. It is important not to directly combine beginner and intermediate/advanced areas as this design approach tends to be unsafe and leads to more collisions. It is best to determine the variety of events and features required for each skill level and then design buffer zones between each riding area. We know it can be a blast to zip full tilt around a park that really flows. But, it is more important to be realistic and make the skatepark safe for all users at all times of day.

All parks must have beginner areas. A beginner area is a portion of the skatepark where individuals with limited or no experience can practice in a controlled environment. It is essential for beginners to be out of the skating area of intermediate and advanced skaters for their own safety, and the safety of others. A beginner area should be between 5,000 to 8,000 square feet and should have slow sloping areas with small hips, moguls, banks, curbs and rail slides that range in height eight inches to four feet

All parks need to have street elements that combine to form a street course. A street course tends to mimic obstacles and events that can be found in real life. It includes elements such as ledges, stairs and rails. It is this type of terrain that most non-skaters are familiar with. A street course can range in size from 10,000 to 20,000 square feet. A well designed street course will contain multiple events and the speed will range from slow to really fast. Some of the events can be transitions, vert walls, large banks and flat bank surfaces that have ledges, stairs, rails and curbs built into them so that a skater can interact and negotiate these obstacles. The design must have plenty of space where a skater can make a trick and then have 8 to 10 lines to choose from after the maneuver is completed. The most common mistake made in skatepark design is trying to pack too much into a small space.

It is most beneficial for a municipality to have the goal of building multiple parks and locating them around the city, rather than building one large facility. The concept of satellite parks best serves the users of the facilities and substantially decreases overcrowding at any one park. In many instances, skaters are too young to drive, and other forms of safe transportation to the one large skatepark may be unavailable. For a lot of communities a series of modestly sized “neighborhood” parks is a more feasible long-range solution to their skatepark needs.

Ten Quick Rules for Design

  • Simplicity
  • Smoothness of Surface
  • No Kinks
  • Flatbotttom
  • No Overcrowding
  • Pushing Room
  • No Ledges Over Your Bellybutton
  • Edges that Grind
  • Pump-able Hips
  • Lights

More Design Basics

1. Flatbottom

Any skatepark design must have a minimum of ten feet of flatbottom between obstacles and opposing transition. Skateboarders generate speed by pumping up and down transitions and can carry speed for good distances across flat, smooth concrete. Maximum flatbottom allows more skateboarders to skate simultaneously and avoid collisions. Recovery from the last trick and set-up for the next is made easier when one can adjust stance or line across the flat. No design should have two opposing walls where a skater can fall from one wall and slam into another. Not being able to roll or run out of a bail can mean the difference between a scraped elbow and a trip to the hospital.

2. Transition

Transition between flatbottom and inclined surfaces can be accomplished in either of two designs: round with a perfect radius curve like a swimming pool, or banked with a tighter transition curve to a flat bevel like a modified drainage ditch. Height of the wall to the top of the lip may determine the measure of these transitions, but the angle should be no more than 50 degrees. A small, round transition wall, no more that four feet high would be skateable with a 5-7 foot round radius, while a taller, transitional wall would call for a larger radius of 6-9 feet.

3. Lips, Edges and Coping

The edges of any wall, bank or skateable pool must be hard and grindable. Skaters are looking for something to grind or slide on when they get to the top of a wall. You can’t be on the edge if there is no edge. A slightly protruding edge allows a skater to know exactly where they’re by feel. A round metal coping edge (minimum two inches in diameter, steel pipe) that sticks out slightly, grinds well and protects the cement from wear. A big, round edge at the top of a wall or bank is useless and considered boring to skate after only a short period.

4. Curbs, Blocks, Steps and Walls

Everyday street elements such as these can and should be included in modern skatepark design. Curbs, blocks and steps function best in a park situation when used judiciously in combination with other elements. Such as a curb at the top of a banked wall. Another idea is to create a street area away from any bowls or banks, or incorporate blocks or steps into the surrounding boundary landscaping of the park on which skaters can either sit or skate.

Contracting Designers

First off, try and convince the city to contact professionals from within the skatepark industry. There are many existing businesses that specialize in skatepark design and construction. Experienced teams of professional skatepark designers should be the first avenues explored by any community considering that type of facility. Almost all of these teams will have skaters on their crews. That fact alone is the best insurance against a park full of defective, unskateable elements that for all intents and purposes are “set in stone”. Professional teams also tend to have the skate experience required to determine what skater’s ideas will work together and in what arrangement. While contracting with a professional designer may cost the city more in the short term, these teams consistently build some of the best skateparks around. Simply put, if your community has the financial resources to hire a professional team to do the design and construction, then they should. After all, cities consistently spend millions of dollars on other sport facilities and they owe it to themselves to put the same resources and attention to detail into the skatepark.

Hiring an experienced team of designers does not necessarily mean that the project is simply turned over to them in anticipation of the result. You will not only have some say as to what goes into the park, but also your opinions will be respected. In all but rare instances members of a reputable team of designers will meet with local youth to arrive at a consensus of opinion prior to submitting a finalized design to the city for approval. In the end, design contribution by local skaters is critical to the overall success of a project. Look with skepticism upon any team unwilling to talk to the potential users of the park as that may actually result in a skatepark design that does not meet your needs. Even worse you could be left with a very elaborate design that no one has any idea how to build.

With most construction projects, you begin with a design. A draftsperson then takes that design and incorporates the specifications provided other professionals (such as structural engineers) into a set of construction drawings. Most people refer to these drawings as blueprints. From those construction drawings, contractors know exactly what they are expected to build and precisely how that building is to take place. Likewise, the city will use the specifications within the construction drawings as guidelines for their periodic inspections. Typically, alterations cannot be made to the parameters dictated within the construction drawings without the review and written approval of the city. When it comes to buildings and parking garages, this is a good thing. But, with skateparks, things are a bit different and professional designers should be given some latitude with regard to modifications. What appeared correct on the blueprint, even to a seasoned professional may need a little tweaking in the field. However, only professional designers will be capable of making those on-the-spot determinations.

There are a couple of design/build teams that insist upon the freedom to make any modifications they desire while the park is under construction. These skateparks undergo a dynamic, almost organic process while the park is being built. This design approach works because these teams have a high level of experience both as skaters and as park builders and demonstrate a meticulous attention to detail. The result is some of the best skateparks in the world. However, there are currently very few cities that are willing to turn a team lose without knowing what they will get in the end. Because of that, these teams tend to get work sporadically and only within a small geographic area where their previous works can be directly observed.

If You Have to Go it Alone

While the thought of hiring professionals to build a facility is great, there are cities that will forever be financially and geographically isolated to the degree that they have no hope of enlisting the aid of professional designer/builders. For these communities the choice is either to forgo having a public skatepark, or to attempt to do it themselves utilizing local talent. That decision needs to be made within the community and will depend to a large extent on how committed the core group is to the cause of gaining that skatepark. Even then, there is no guarantee of a quality result.

To those communities I offer a few pieces of advise. First, do your research. A few hours scouring the web will yield valuable information on current construction methods and design trends. Talk to cities that already have skateparks, and find out what worked for them and what did not. Try to learn from others mistakes and not your own. Second, get a set of construction drawings from an existing skatepark. Pick a city with a skatepark that you admire and simply go to the city engineer, explain the situation, and offer to pay for a set of the construction drawings for that skatepark. It should cost at most twenty bucks. The construction drawings belong to the city and are public property; they can do with them what they like. If the city is unable to provide you with a copy, most will allow you to review the documents while you are in the city engineer’s office. Take notes. Even if you have to fly across the country to get this done, it will be well worth the effort. Of course it would be unethical to build directly from that set of plans, and that is not what I am suggesting. But as a reference tool, they will be worth their weight in gold.

Involve the Community

Generally speaking, the interests of all youth in your area will be best served by using an organized group of local youth in collaboration with a team of professional skatepark designers to arrive at a design for your skatepark. Overall, you will get a great design and the sense of ownership among users of the skatepark will be dramatically increased. The resulting skatepark will be tailor made for your community and will reflect the interests and ideas of your community. It will be a reflection of your own youth’s interests, ideas and creativity. The skatepark will belong within the community and the young people will know that the park is truly theirs from ground up.

In addition, while involving the youth in designing the skatepark you also have a great opportunity to empower them with the strength that comes from the knowledge that they can get what they want by setting goals and working toward them. This also means they will be more likely to self-police the skatepark in the future in order to curtail problems. I probably do not even have to touch upon the positive political aspects of such a community-based project, but they are significant as well. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying this method.

However, regardless of the skaters' experiences, it takes more than 1 or 2 individuals to design a skatepark. A community-based skatepark design process relies on a group of individuals whose decisions are facilitated by someone that has a genuine desire to help the group realize their collective vision. Even if your community can afford the assistance of professional designer/builders I recommend that skatepark committees hold some preliminary design meetings prior to contracting and working with a team of professional designers in order to determine what elements are desired and to be able to accurately and intelligently collaborate on the final design. The last thing you want is to pay to fly designers across the country only to be greeted by a murmur for ledges, stairs, rails.

Design Facilitation and Process

There is almost always one good artist in every community. A local artist is a helpful addition to a preliminary design team. Find an artist that is willing to work with the youth committee. If you do not know one personally, place an advertisement in the local newspaper or ask for support during one of your town hall meetings. Pretty soon someone will volunteer. The volunteer person does not need a degree in architecture or need to know how to skate, but should be capable of drawing simple design plans. The artist is there to help facilitate the design of a skatepark only in cooperation with local youth. The youth should always have their input and it should always be valued and respected.

Assuming that you have already formed a skatepark committee, the facilitator of the design process should plan a design meeting with the youth committee to start on design work. The facilitator should bring clay to this meeting. Divide the clay between committee members and ask them to make obstacles that they would like to see in the park or to replicate their favorite places to skate around town. Once you have these obstacles they can begin to place them together and move them around until they find a design that begins to flow. Throughout the meeting, the design facilitator should take notes on the relative size of the proposed obstacles (they are unlikely to be to scale).

Do not try to get too far during that first session, because there needs to be ample time for reflection and critical evaluation. Give the initial ideas a chance to sink in a bit. Often there is a need to set things aside for a while to realize that another idea may be better or worse. At the end of the meeting, the clay obstacles should be saved and a quick drawing rendered that can be photocopied and given to all members before leaving.

Prior to future meetings, a more formal drawing of the skatepark design (to scale) should be finished and the meeting should be opened to suggestions for modifications and additions. There will be a lot of changes suggested. Each change should be voted upon and the vote should be recorded, and the drawing modified. In this way, changes can be made from day to day. After three or four meetings some consensus of opinion should start to emerge and the issues will begin to center around only a few details. Avoid the temptation to treat these details as minor and move along. If details are hanging things up, that is a sure indication that something is not right in that area of the design. Although this process may seem tedious and unnecessary, stick with it because there will come a point when everyone agrees that the design is done and that they have designed a really great park. All the youth involved will feel that the skatepark design reflects the interest and skill level of the community, and deserves to be built. Now you have something of substance to share with the professional design team upon their arrival.

Non-skater Contributions

I do have to include a few words of warning about adult (non-skater) contributions to design or construction. It has no place and should be avoided at all cost. It seems that during every project there comes a point either during design or construction when some non-skater attempts to push through an aspect of design or continue construction on something that is too difficult to skate or is being constructed incorrectly. The skaters often know this and are vocal in their opposition. Sometimes this is a desire to finalize the design without further review in order to save the time or the aggravation of going back to the drawing board. Other times it's a more perverse sort of logic. The justification usually going something like, “Ah, just go ahead it will make it more challenging. They don’t mind getting hurt. Right?”

Let me set the record straight. Making or leaving something steeper, bumpier or what-have-you when skaters are claiming it is not the right thing to do is irresponsible at best. If a group of skateboarders, in-line skaters or BMX bikers say that a portion of a design will not work, they are probably right. More than anyone else they realize that it only takes a few more degrees to an angle, a sharper transitional radius or a slightly more rough and imperfect surface to turn a park from fun to un-skateable and dangerous. I know of one skatepark where during the construction process the youth kept telling the contractor that the obstacles were being built too big, too steep and with kinks at the bottom of the elements. Instead of listening the contractor fenced off the area and continued to build the park in spite of protest from the youth, continually claiming to the city that the kids didn’t know what they were talking about. Well the park is built and it sits there practically empty most of the time, as it is frankly a conglomeration of unskateable junk. The young people in town still skate, but they skate on the street like always. The city feels they wasted their money and the young people appear ungrateful.

Design Review

Do not be apprehensive about showing the proposed design to other skaters that are not from within the community. Their opinions will be valuable. If you travel to other skateparks, pull some skaters over and ask them what they think. No skater wants to see a poorly designed park. If your committee has a website, post your design on the site and ask for peer review. You will get reviews from all around the world.

Site Evaluation

How do you find a site for your skatepark? Your best bet is to ask the city council to donate the land upon which to build the skatepark and to maintain the skatepark after it opens. However, be informed when it comes time to select a site. You should be prepared to suggest the best possible location. Pick a few possible sites in your town and rate them using your own rating method. Keep notes with your comments. Don’t make this more complicated than necessary, just look for key items. Is the site accessible? Is there adequate parking, pay phones, and restrooms? Is security an issue?

Once a site has been agreed upon, the first thing to do is to get the property surveyed. This will establish elevations from which to begin design and construction. As with most things, try to get this donated by a survey company in your local area. Once the survey has been completed you will be provided with a map of the site showing the contours and elevations. The survey company will also provide you with the same information on floppy disk. This information, along with the skatepark design and recommendations from a structural engineer will result in the blueprint for your new park.

Engineering Services

Engineering services are often perceived to have no direct bearing on a skatepark. The truth is, they are critical to the longevity of the facility. While a park may look great when it is first built, if it is not engineered correctly to withstand the forces of nature, it may not last for long.

One of the first things to determine is the depth of the water table. In essence, this is how deep you can excavate before the hole you are making starts to fill up like a bathtub. This may seem like a minor detail, but it is not. During the construction of the Newport, Oregon skatepark, they mistakenly excavated below the water table. In an effort to stop the flow of water, shotcrete was applied. That didn’t work. What remained can only be referred to as cement soup. It took another season, more of the cities money and a tremendous effort on the part of couple of professional skatepark builders (willing to fix someone else’s mistakes) to get the park where it is today.

You will also need what is called a “soil-boring”. This is a sample taken from the existing soil that is submitted to a laboratory for analysis. A structural engineer will then determine specifications for the construction of the facility based upon the results of that testing. While it may look the same to you and me, some soil is highly expansive and will blow up like a balloon when wet. And when the soil expands, it can shove a skatepark around like it was nothing. At best this can cause substantial cracking or worse, the dreaded vertical separation. Think “stairs” where none were planned.

Construction Drawings

Once you have decided upon a location for the park, have a finished design, the results of the property survey and soil borings, it is time to turn it all over to someone that can turn the plan into a set of construction drawings. These blueprints are accurate delineations of the park design that guide the contractor during construction. It includes all details pertinent to the construction of the skatepark. The accuracy of the construction documents is essential to the bid process, because it allows the builders to bid accurately and correctly. Therefore, all builders will need to see the construction documents in order to bid as accurately as possible.

Again, you will want to attempt to get the drafting services for the construction documents donated if possible. This is when a copy of the construction drawings from an existing skatepark will really help. Many of the construction details for a skatepark do not change substantially from one project to the next. There is no good reason to pay a draftsperson to figure out how to do something for the first time when they can refer to a document that is essentially the same thing. The city council may be willing to donate the services of a city employee. If not, there are probably several architects in your area. An advanced student of architecture is also capable of rendering the blueprints for you. At this point it is important to stress that the conceptual/design work is finished and that whomever is working up the plans should not make changes without the input of the skatepark committee and the professional designers.

Overview of Concrete Construction

Building a skatepark can be tricky business. In addition to methodology specific to skatepark construction anyone attempting this must have a first-hand working knowledge of concrete construction. You cannot just “wing it” when building a skatepark. Every step in the construction process must be fully understood and done properly in order to arrive at a suitable result. Other than labor-intensive minor details (grinding high spots, patching, etc), the result cannot be substantially changed by alterations during the later phases of the construction process. The quality of what your community ends up with will be determined by the builders’ attention to detail every step of the way.

The first step in the construction process will be to prepare the area by removing the sod and all organic debris. Tree roots and all other organic matter must be removed, because they will inevitably decompose and leave a void that can lead to cracking or caving. Once the area is prepared, wooden forms will be fabricated and placed. Among other things, forms hold the coping in place temporarily and contain the concrete while it sets (becomes hard). For skateparks, the concrete will be reinforced with steel rods (rebar) that are bent to the shape of the park by hand and lashed to one another with wire. When the forming is ready, concrete is added to the forms, and the material worked in. This step is critical and must be done quickly. Once placed and spread the concrete is now ready for screeding. Screeds are guides to shape the surface of the concrete to roughly finish dimensions.

Floating the concrete is next. Floating will begin to smooth the surface of the concrete and work a slight amount of water to the top.

Next, will be to finish the concrete. Finishing results in a smooth, even surface. The first step in finishing the concrete is to re-float the surface. This process is very precise, because you basically go over every section by hand. Troweling is the last step of the finishing process. Quality skateparks have a hard troweled finish. The amount of trowling determines how smooth the concrete will be.

After that, the concrete must cure. Concrete attains the majority of its strength within seven days. Given the anticipation that surrounds the construction of a skatepark it may be difficult to keep folks away that long, but a slow undisturbed cure process is critical to keep cracking to a minimum. Patience will pay off in the long run.

Opening and Beyond

Grand Opening Celebration

Remember all those times that you told various business leaders how supporting the skatepark would bring them more business after it opened? Well, it is not going to just happen, you need to work to make it happen. Now that all that hard work has finally paid off, now is the time to celebrate and attract some attention to your skatepark and the community. The best way to do this is to have a high profile grand opening celebration. Use this celebration to thank the youth, the city council, yourself, and any other people involved in the building of the skatepark. Enjoy a job well done.

In one community, the youth committee obtained exclusive use of the 100-acre park where the skatepark was sited, closed off the streets, brought in food vendors and a covered trailer to act as a stage, organized seven bands and invited professional skateboarders. It turned out to be the largest festival of its kind ever to take place in the city and it went off without a problem. Few opening events ever happen without some speeches, so plan for a few of those as well. Speeches are often given during ceremonies that officially turn skateparks over from skatepark committees to the city, so consider inviting the mayor, members of the city council or other individuals whose contributions deserve recognition.

Future Additions

There will always be chances to improve the skatepark. Some additions will make the skatepark more attractive to the city, as well as to skaters and bikers. For example, landscaping will make the park more attractive to all. Adding trees can provide welcome shade after a session. See if you can get donated services of a landscape architect or a local gardening club. Request materials from local nurseries or other shops that sell plants. Consider things like spectator seating, drinking fountains, restrooms, playground equipment, public pay phones or even a snack shop.

Exclusive Use and Liability Waivers

Once the skatepark is built, the city government may want to regulate its use for special events. This may include a fee or specific procedures for obtaining exclusive use of the skatepark for competitions. The city may also consider a rate schedule for the use of the skatepark for corporate promotions. Liability issues will vary from state to state and town to town. The only legal advice that I have to offer is “consult the attorneys”. Decisions of this nature are among the most serious and should rightfully be made by the city council in cooperation with the city attorney.

Written by Anthony Gembeck

Reproduced by permission of TransWorld Skateboarding Business Magazine