Fun Boxes and Jungle Gyms: Playground Companies and the Skatepark Dollar

For years now, companies within the hard-goods sector of the skateboard industry have grown accustomed to manufacturers from outside the industry introducing products to the masses in an attempt to obtain their share of the market. Oddly enough, it has been the skatepark industry, particularly the manufacturers of semi-permanent facilities (ramp builders), that have enjoyed the longest sustained period of freedom from this form of additional competition. However, we all knew it was only a matter of time before companies outside the industry began introducing skatepark equipment to the market. It was not so much a question of whether or not this was likely to occur, but rather, when? By whom? And to what result? For the last couple of years there had been rumours that manufacturers of playground equipment were preparing to enter the skatepark market, but the information was always sketchy and, upon further examination, proved to be more conjecture than fact. Further, unless one simply wanted to stew over the potential ramifications of such an event, there was really nothing that could be done until it happened.

New Face in the Marketplace.

In case you have not heard, this is no longer conjecture. When? and by whom? was answered last March during the annual assembly of California Parks and Recreation. It was at this assembly that the public was introduced to the SkateWave Modular Skatepark system. SkateWave is the recent creation of Landscape Structures, Inc., a privately held company that was founded in 1971 by Barb and Steve King. Over the last thirty years, Landscape Structures has grown into the nation’s predominant supplier of playground equipment for schools, municipal parks, and childcare centers. Landscape Structures’s mission (according to their website) is “to enrich the lives of children through play”, so moving into the design and manufacture of skatepark equipment probably seemed a fairly logical extension of their current company goals. We all know that if you ask a roomful of youth what type of recreational facility they would most like to have in their community, (I am guessing) nine times out of ten the answer will be a skatepark. So certainly the demand is there.

For more insight, I recently sat down with product representative John Nessen of SkateWave to learn first-hand what they have been up to in their Delano, Minnesota factory, and maybe to catch a glimpse of the answer to that final question, “what results will come from a blending of playground and skatepark? I will describe a few of the possible results this will have on the industry, including changes in liability and the development of skatepark standards, at the end of this article, but first let me describe what I learned about SkateWave.

Judging from the terminology used on the web site and the sample designs they propose, it is clear that the principals at SkateWave are not skaters and know little or nothing about the roots of skateboarding and current trends within the industry. But, with three decades worth of background in the playground equipment industry, they have dealt with more than their share of city officials and, as a result, they know how to attractively design, market, and sell playground equipment. You can bet that they will not hesitate to use that knowledge and network to sell their skatepark products.

The SkateWave web site suggests that the four most important requirements of parks and recreation directors are typically flexibility, durability, safety, and low maintenance. And, it seems that they designed their products to match those criteria first rather than focusing on the products suitability for skating. To meet the first criteria, flexibility, the products were designed as a customizable, modular system. The various events (in parks and recreation jargon the term ‘event’ is interchangeable with ‘obstacle’ or ‘ramp’) can be self-assembled and configured in different ways to fit the space requirements and characteristics of a selected park site. Once assembled, the components can be rearranged to provide new combinations of events and challenges. The importance of this is will depend primarily whether skatepark professionals are consulted from the start of a project. Basically, if a design is right from the start, there is no reason to be shifting stuff around.

As for durability, each SkateWave obstacle is fabricated from 11-12 gauge steel with a wrinkle, powder coat finish applied to the transitions and decks with sides and back panels made from a synthetic material. For corrosion resistance and sound deadening, all toe-plates are PVC coated and foam strips exist wherever metal joins metal. They also claim to use only stainless steel fasteners and foot levellers. As for safety, there are no sharp corners or entrapment areas on any events. But that tends to be a non-issue as most other professional ramp builders avoid potential safety issues equally well.

The individual components offered by SkateWave cover all of the basics for ramps from jumps, launch and fun-boxes, to mini-ramps, pyramids, spines, and quarter pipes. In addition to these skatepark components, they also offer custom signage, as well as a variety of benches, trash cans, and bike racks. So, if a community is looking at buying a skatepark and hasn’t done their research with regard to their options, SkateWave is going to be one-stop shopping. And, with glossy promo materials, an introductory video, 22 representative’s nationwide and toll-free service, they are positioned to sell some product.

To assist with design, SkateWave offers a park configuration kit to facilitate hands-on modelling. The configuration kit is a small scale 3D catalog of their products that allows skaters and other interested parties to envision their park and accurately determine what their needs are, while at the same time being able to adhere to a budget. The resulting skatepark plan can also be used as a tool for fundraising or lobbying city council. It’s actually a good thing that they turn the design over to skaters because, as I have said before, the sample designs on their web site are….well, see for yourself. The biggest design error the staff at SkateWave makes is confusing ‘flexibility’ and ‘flow.’ You and some friends can move these components around until everyone is blue in the face and too tired to session, but if the most complex transition available is a square-sided quarter-pipe you are only going to dial in so much flow. And this is perhaps the greatest weakness of their products. Due to a lack of any bowled corners, any design comprised only of SkateWave product will lack the complexity and continuous flow patterns needed to hook intermediate to advanced skaters. But in all fairness, this criticism would hold true when discussing any such facility regardless of the manufacturer of the ramps. Given the selection of obstacles currently offered by SkateWave, a community could work together to design a skatepark that would more than meet the interests and needs of beginning skaters. To meet the needs of intermediate to advanced skaters, the SkateWave system would have to be effectively combined with concrete structures in order to incorporate enough challenges. At that point, you might as well make the entire thing out of concrete.

To date, I have not had the chance to personally test any of the SkateWave line of products and can therefore not comment on the skateability of the ramps, the powdercoat finish applied to the trannies, or what, if any, sound deadening qualities the ramps possess in comparison to a basic steel ramp. Likewise, I cannot determine how durable the various applied finishes are. Only time, a few seasons out doors, and a thorough and repeated grinding will tell us these things. But, what I can tell you is that the equipment has a safe, innocuous look to it. It looks every bit as cute as a piece of playground equipment should. And to a safety minded consumer, uneducated as to what skateparks can really be, it will likely sell.

With the addition of the SkateWave product line, Landscape Structures is now the first major manufacturer to offer customers a single-source solution for commercial playground equipment and modular skatepark equipment. The current skatepark industry may not be thrilled with these products, but skateparks are increasingly being added to existing playgrounds, and parks and recreation departments around the country are interested in skateparks as an addition to their current facilities. Hence, these two industries are beginning to form closer connections. In the future; they will likely merge, becoming indistinguishable, as more outside companies follow the lead of Landscape Structures. How this will affect the current skatepark industry will not be known for some time. However, I will take this opportunity to make a few prognostications free of charge.

Future Changes in Liability

One of the first changes we may see in the near future will be in the area of liability. Most of us know that the injury rate among skaters is lower than other sporting activities that take place within municipal facilities including football, soccer, baseball, basketball, and hockey. But in spite of this, rather than treating a skatepark as the recreational facility that it is, municipalities and insurance carriers have subjected skateparks to an inordinate degree of scrutiny and red tape. This liability/insurance issue has slowed down countless projects and ultimately been the death of many others. All municipalities face liability, whether it is for a sidewalk, sandbox or skatepark and, as a result, insurance is always a question that must be addressed. However, there is no reason to continue to single skateparks out as places of undue risk. A validated link between playground space and skateparks could very well be the first step toward insurance coverage for a skatepark that is more in line with current insurance coverage for other municipal park facility activities.

Standardization of Design and Building

Relatedly, a subsequent occurrence will be city leaders and the heads of various parks and recreation departments beginning to lobby for (likely demanding) forms of standardization within the skatepark industry. Playground equipment has been subject to this form of standardization for years and now that the lines are blurring, skatepark builders will likely have to follow suit. Now before everyone dashes to the computer to lob one of those tasty hate e-mails into the ether let me set the record straight. The folks at Landscape Structures do not have any more interest or desire to see standardization of the skatepark industry than the rest of the skatepark builders out there. Frankly when the time comes, it is going to be a long, complex, tedious process that will eat up a whole bunch of peoples’ time and energy. But skateparks have become increasingly popular recreational facilities and with this popularity will ultimately come the bureaucratic desire for regulation and standardization of the industry. The fact that skateparks will now be equated with playgrounds and other recreational facilities that have been standardized for years now will only quicken the pace.

So far the builder and designers of skateparks have been fortunate. For years now skateparks have been built with little or no eye toward industry specifications. Sure, a city engineer may have required that this or that aspect of skatepark construction conform to city code, but that’s a small detail. What I see coming is a demand for an industry-wide set of standards by which all skatepark construction can be held accountable (concrete and otherwise). Almost every other industry has consistent standards, and the fact that the skatepark industry has avoided them for so long should rightfully be viewed more as an unexpected privilege than a right – a bonus. Likewise, when this movement for standardization does occur, it will probably follow lines similar to the standardization that took place within the playground industry. So, in keeping with that, let me introduce you to four of the more powerful standardization entities currently in place.

The first is the International Play Equipment Manufactures Association (IPEMA). IPEMA is a member-driven, international trade organization that represents and promotes an open market for the manufacturers of play equipment. In the interest of public safety, IPEMA provides a Third Party Certification service whereby a designated independent laboratory validates a participant’s conformance to American Society for Testing and Material (ASTM) standards. The use of the IPEMA seal by any manufacturer signifies that the company has received written validation from the independent laboratory that the product associated with the use of the seal conforms to the ASTM standards. Existing standards worth having a look at would include ASTM F1487-98 Standard Consumer Safety Performance for Playground Equipment for Public Use. CAN/CSA-Z614-98 Children's Play Spaces and Equipment.

A second standardization entity is ISO 9001. ISO 9001 is a set of international quality assurance standards that provides industries with the framework necessary to ensure that operation processes are consistent and effective. ISO 9001 is the most comprehensive of the ISO group of standards and establishes quality processes for both design and manufacturing. What exactly are these standards? To quote the ISO web site, standards are “documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as guidelines, or definitions of characteristics, to ensure that products, processes and services are fit for their purposes”.

The third and fourth standardization entities are the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). ASTM is a scientific and technical organization that establishes standards for testing different types of materials, one of which is recreational equipment. Their goal according to the web site is “to promote public health and safety by contributing to the reliability of materials, products, systems and services while fostering national and international commerce”. Their federal twin is the CPSC. CPSC is an independent agency of the federal government whose charter is to inform the public of unreasonable risks associated with consumer products. CPSC guidelines are closely linked to the standards of ASTM. That would just about cover it for the United States, but most other developed nations all have their own standardization bodies such as the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) which establishes guidelines for children's play spaces within Canada and TUV Product Service, which covers Germany.

Let me interject that standards (if properly developed) would not necessarily have to stifle the creativity of existing builders and could have the potential to dictate that only the highest quality parks get built. Fundamentally, there needs to be a shift in mind-set. The question of “how can we continue to avoid standards?” needs to be abandoned. That is simply no longer an option. What we need to concentrate on is “how can skatepark professional’s work together to ensure that when standardization takes place, it can be used as a tool to ensure that only the highest quality skatepark facilities get constructed? For some reason, I am reminded of the end to Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” when that bitter old root Scrooge, who has been heckling everything and everybody from the start looks at the ghost of things to come and says (I’m paraphrasing) “tell me spirit, are the things you have shown me what will be, or what might be?” And that spirit never says a word.

The time for discussing whether standardization is right, or wrong, or in keeping with the traditions of the “core” and those working for the “Cause” is fast running out. I think we all know instinctively that it is not ‘if’ standardization will occur, but when and how, and to what result. Skateparks are becoming a mainstream recreational facility and the upside is that quality builders have years of business to look forward to. But that popularity is going to come with a price. However, that price does not have to be the creative freedom that we have enjoyed to date. The choice of what to do currently lies with skatepark industry professionals. We can both take a proactive stance in the development of these industry standards and shape them to suit our needs and the future of the skatepark industry, or grumble and acquiesce and to leave it to the bureaucrats.

Written by Anthony Gembeck

Reproduced by permission of TransWorld Skateboarding Business Magazine