(originally written for UC Berkeley, May 2019)
Skateparks: Boarders, Bridges and Peace Building
When we think of the peace building process, we may imagine long, drawn out diplomatic meetings, flow charts and years of bureaucratic red tape. Often these processes happen from players (like politicians and other policy makers) who are distant from the actual conflict themselves. Groups like the UN Peacekeepers and the Red Cross are usually the one at the forefront of the conflict themselves.
As strange as it might sound to some, skateboarding and skateparks in particular, have proven themselves as worthy spaces for peace building. For areas that suffer from both conflict and instability, this sport, called by some, a lifestyle, and others a way of life or “art” (Friedel 21), offers a sense of community, social bonding and self-worth.
Like surfing, skateboarding has blossomed into one of the most universal languages in sport. You don’t need to speak someone else’s mother tongue to enjoy a wave together, or to run up and high five someone for doing an impressive trick. Skateboarding promotes peace-building because of this universal translatability and its non-hierarchical structure — there is no “best” skateboarder, due to it’s subjective and individualized expression.
In surfing and skating there are no fixed rules, but a learned code of respect, whether out on the ocean or in the street. In this paper we will argue against the notion that skateboarding is simply a “contemporary symbolization of white male youth.” (Yochim 27) or a “nuisance” (36) but instead that it is a universal language open to anyone: regardless of gender, identity, age or even able-bodied-ness. I will argue that skateboarding is an underutilized method and philosophy for peace building because it helps promote ideas of inclusivity, stakeholder engagement and “personal development” (Bradley 5) while providing safe spaces for at-risk youth.
We will look at organizations like Skateistan, which was founded to promote skateboarding in areas that have difficult access to action sports, such as Cambodia, South Africa or Kabul. This organization is an example of how peace building is accomplished through a skateboarding program. In the process we will trace the the impact of skateboarding on the individual and community at-large, and trace how it works as a model for peace building, de-radicalization and terrorist disengagement.
The scope of perceptions surrounding skateboarding are vast and often contradictory. As global as the sport is, it is often undermined and misunderstood as “child’s play”, but for many skateboarders it is considered an “alternative way of life” (Borden, 2001:1) much like surfing or becoming a vegetarian or a Buddhist monk.
Skateboarding helps give a sense of freedom and expression to youth, this liberated energy can be seen as threatening to some traditional, more structured sports like baseball. In the past, parents and city officials alike have confirmed these negative impressions of skateparks, calling them “ugly” and “threatening” places (Bradley 10). Although skateparks are without a doubt non-traditional, urban spaces of play, (with the occasional graffiti marks and vandalization), this is because skateparks are intersectional spaces. However underneath their rugged exterior, these intersectional spaces contain important lessons for personal development.
They are the rare public spaces where professional athletes might intersect with people from the homeless community (Bradley 13) or older, more mature skaters they might not otherwise meet. This diverse engagement that may ward off some is precisely what makes skateparks communal spaces of personal development. Youth have access to older people who they can learn tricks from and seek guidance about the “unwritten rules of skating”. In this sense it becomes a physical and mental training facility to allow youth to better navigate urban spaces. Even though as an outsider it may appear difficult to read this undercurrent, there is a deep sense of social bonding that happens at skateparks, due to their proximity to urban spaces and the diverse blend of people that navigate city life.
Skateparks, like any proper space of peace building, require stakeholders at the table when constructed — this means skateboarders, local businesses and skatepark designers with a skateboarding background need to come together with relatively equal say. If a park is built as a ‘concession’ for the skateboard community without significant input from skateboarders then it will likely be underutilized. We see this when the proportions of the ramps are too steep, or stairs too big to traverse. Parks like this do not suit the suit the physics of skateboarding and become a waste of public space; they also sends skateboarders back to the illegal streets in search of better spots to skate. The most successful and innovative parks are the ones that mimic public spaces, such as well-known and previously well-skated libraries, schools and courthouses (Josh Nims).
Much like the design of a zoo, except hopefully more hospitable, a skatepark should replicate the natural environment skateboarders grew up skating and learning from. When cities lack the funding, or rush the construction process of skateparks, many skateboarders end up building their own skateparks, calling it DIY (do-it-yourself) spots. These efforts end up pushing skateboarders back into spaces of illegality and marginalization.
These DIY spots are often placed in discrete locations like under freeways, such as Burnside Skatepark in Portland, Oregon; alternatively they are located in abandoned factories or municipal centers. Unfortunately as hostile architecture becomes an increasing problem in our world, and the use of “skate stoppers” (metal bars or knobs that block skate access) increase, cities will either have to re-evaluate the effectiveness of skate stoppers (most are easily removed by skaters with construction tools) or start building better skateparks, especially in low-income communities.
In certain rare cases, well-treaded skate spots are reopened as skateparks by the power of large companies. For instance, the Los Angeles courthouse, a world famous skate spot since the early 90s, was restored and re-opened by Nike Skateboarding as an official skatepark in 2014 (The Hundreds). However this type of co-management and reopening to access has not become a common practice in the skateboarding world.
To better understand the positive impact of skateboarding and not simply the public disturbance and criminality of it, let’s take a look at the organization Skateistan and their efforts in Kabul.
Although bombed out buildings and military troops are an unfortunate reality of the landscape of Kabul, in recent years skateboarding has also introduced itself to the streets and had a hugely transformative effect on the community. Young boys and girls alike now have a safe recreational facility where they can skate and teach at; earning gainful employment and taking them out of menial work or day labor. One young man from Kabul named Murza reported saying: “If I don’t skate I become ill” , reflecting the idea that skateboarding is both a physical release and healthy catharsis for him. A young girl named Fazilla reflected a similar sentiment saying: “At Skateistan I don’t feel that my surroundings are ruined.” For these Afghani youth these skateparks serve as a critical part of their well-being, safety and identity. (Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul By Orlando Von Einsiedel).
It should be noted that part of the reason we see these positive effects on the youth in regions like Kabul, is because of the stark contrast between the communal, inclusive life of a skatepark, and the impoverished hardship of life outside the skatepark. In other areas, like suburban ones, we may not be able to appreciate this distinction as clearly.
In the documentary “To Live and Skate Kabul”, which is about the impact of Skateistan, we watch a powerful moment occur when a soldier begins skating arm in arm with one of the skateboarding coaches among the debris of bombed out buildings. The soldier smiles like a kid as he awkwardly pushes in his military boots across the rough ground. The skateboard in this moment has become a bridge between these two distinct people, its presence has a way of temporarily muting the socio-economic and hierarchical boundaries that would usually separate these two individuals from ever communicating or ‘playing’ together.
In addition to organizations like Skateistan, we can also understand the impact of skateparks by drawing out its shared qualities with indigenous communities and the co-management of natural spaces. In the article “Escaping the Border, Debordering the Nature: Protected Areas, Participatory Management, and Environmental Security in Northern Patagonia (i.e. Chile and Argentina)” we witness how in places like Chile and Argentina the Mapuche tribes have been stripped of their land and subject to both “social exclusion and territorial domination” (Sepúlveda 769). In the process their homeland has been turned into areas of eco-tourism; similarly, skateboarders almost always must evacuate from the “streets”, and often face “social exclusion” just by holding a board and identifying themselves as part of the skateboarding community.
Public space is the natural playground of a skateboarder, and because of this we are inherently in conflict with the protectors of public urban space, such as cops, landlords and security guards. When indigenous land is bought by a company, or hijacked by the government it is akin to when skate spots are demolished, or when hostile architecture is used to deter skateboarders, these architectural constructions, which are often seen on benches and tables act like ‘mini-borders’ in blocking skate access — and homeless access as well.
Both indigenous groups and skateboarders become stripped from their areas of community and social development, and this displacement can force a community to battle against the government for new areas of space. In the process both groups become displaced to new regions entirely (like a DIY spot, or refugee centers). This displacement often does nothing more than to stir more conflict and distance any bipartisan type of agreement.
To combat both groups problems of regional ownership the answer is stakeholder inclusion. When multiple stakeholders are included in the conversation about spatial ownership and the indigenous groups are granted equal status, progress can occur. In Chile, the Mapuche tribe faced difficulty in achieving their designated spaces because they were not allowed to participate in conversations, however when they were given a voice positive effects took place — although the conflict is still very much alive. The best general approach for both skateboarders and indigenous peoples seems to be in cultivating “participatory management” (Sepúlveda 783), where there is some clear understanding of the role that indigenous peoples have in managing their own land, but still some room for partial government involvement and regulation.
When participatory management between multiple stakeholders does not occur, skateboard culture pays the price. As we have previously discussed, skateparks should be built with the proportions and design that account for the reality of skateboard physics and the varying levels of skill and ages that will occupy these spaces (Thorpe 135). These parks, when developed without these specifications, become a waste of public space and funds.
An interesting example of this problem in action comes from Tony Hawk, who might be the most famous skateboarder on the planet. Hawk is also seen as the de facto global ambassador of the sport. In an interview about this issue of poorly built skateparks, Hawk mentions how one time he was supposed to tour a new park in Chicago in front of some public officials. When he arrived at the park he encountered a skatepark that was built with proportions that were not only “un-skateable” but “dangerous”. He suggested they renovate the park, or face serious public backlash. These issues all arose because the leaders of the skateboard community were not involved in this project from the beginning as stakeholders with an equal share in the process (Tony Hawk, “The Nine Club With Chris Roberts”)
The kinship between indigenous peoples struggles and skateboarders can be further explored by examining the history of British Columbia and their fraught relationship with the oil industry. Since the 1950s there has been an effort by the indigenous communities to block access to roads and file lawsuits against oil companies who have pursued their resources (Elbein 7). In a similar spirit skateboarders have sought to protect their own precious resources: whether in keeping a public space open that has been turned or ‘marked’ as a skate spot, or in saving skateparks themselves from severe dilapidation (1).
In comparing these two groups, we must also be clear in expressing the differences between them. While skateboarders often inherit their skate spots by simply using a “squatters rights” approach, indigenous peoples have a historical, spiritual and cultural claim to the land they are fighting for that goes deeper than the relatively short history of skateboarding.
Similar to an urban garden, skateboarders take areas that are somewhat discarded, and try to grow something out of them that can nourish others in the skate community; whether this is expressed in moving trash cans, or lifting up sewer gates to skate them, these efforts, while maybe illegal, are not permanent and do not affect public safety. As more and more skaters access certain spots, the fight to avoid police persecution heightens, and we often must fight to protect both each other and the spot from threat of demolition. These efforts have proven successful in cases like the famous South Bank skate spot in London, which has averted demolishment for the last several years due to public protest, but in other cases like the Hubba Hideout staircase in San Francisco they have failed. To avoid displacement and further acts of illegality, like the creation of DIY spots, the skateboard community, like indigenous communities should be granted participatory management and stakeholder say, so they can better manage their spaces.
As complicated as this process of co-management might be it will create a better relationship between both skateboarders and the government.
To understand the power of skateboarding further, let us briefly switch gears and take a look back towards its antecedent: surfing.
Surfing, unlike much clothing, hair styles and slang, has the distinct quality of being considered by many as a non-culturally appropriable activity. The reason for this translatability could lie in the fact the both skateboarding and surfing are not national sports. Unlike baseball and cricket, these action sports are not tied to any sense of national identity; surfing culture is in many respects as big in Hawaii as it is in California. As well, surfers operate in a domain that is much harder to regulate and manage: the ocean. Rather than navigate a sports setting as strict as a baseball diamond or a soccer field, surfers and skateboarders must traverse a more open landscape — one being the waves, and the other being the streets, this helps in expanding personal development in both groups of athletes.
Skateboarding and surfing both offer unique methodologies of peace building and personal development because they are distinct counter cultures that reject national sentiment. Both sports value more the concepts of non-structure and autonomy, rather than the rigid rules and hierarchy built into traditional sports like soccer (Thorpe, 2014:6). No coaches, or rules are required for either sport to operate, all that is needed is the board and a sense of understanding the protocol (who gets to drop in on the ramp first or who gets to go on the next wave etc.). Surfing allows individuals to form new connections and an awareness of how to navigate the natural world and go with the flow, quite literally (Olson 19).
Alongside the ideology of Skateistan, there is an organization called Surfing 4 Peace which helps provide locals in impoverished places with surfboards and surf lessons. Although this organization has faced criticism from the Hamas government for receiving surf equipment from Israel (Olson 20), this cross-boundary relationship will still likely continue as the surfing community, and those who support it, often finds ways of existing and functioning on the periphery of governmental supervision.
As ideologically powerful as skateboarding, and related sports like surfing are, there is still a long way to go before the government can accept these activities as legitimate peace building practices. Skateparks and skate programs should be given the resources and tools needed to realize their full potential as spaces of community enrichment, rather than juvenile behavior.
1.) Sepúlveda, Bastien, and Sylvain Guyot. “Escaping the Border, Debordering the Nature: Protected Areas, Participatory Management, and Environmental Security in Northern Patagonia (i.e. Chile and Argentina).” Globalizations 13, no. 6 (November 2016): 767–86. https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2015.1133045.
2.) Ranta, Eija Maria. “Vivir Bien Governance in Bolivia: Chimera or Attainable Utopia?” Third World Quarterly 38, no. 7 (July 3, 2017): 1603–18.https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2016.1224551.
3.) Scott Ross. “Encouraging Rebel Demobilization by Radio in Uganda and the D.R. Congo: The Case of “Come Home” Messaging.” African Studies Review 59, no. 1 (2016): 33-55. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed April 30, 2019).
4.) Elbein, Saul. “Fantasy Island.” Foreign Policy. January 16, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/16/fantasy-island-canada-british-columbia-natural-gas/
5.) Thorpe, Holly. 2014. “Transnational Mobilities in Action Sports Cultures. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.” https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230390744
6.) Borden, Iain. 2001. Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body. Ox-ford: Berg.
7.) The Nine Club Podcast. June 11, 2018. Accessed April 23, 2019.
8.) Beal, B. (1996). Alternative masculinity and its effects on gender relations in the subculture of skateboarding. Journal of Sport Behavior, 19, 204220.
9.) Talks, TEDx. YouTube. November 14, 2014. Accessed April 22, 2019.
10.) Pangilinan, John. “NEWLY SKATE LEGAL : LEGENDARY WEST LA COURTHOUSE.”The Hundreds. July 29, 2014. Accessed April 05, 2019.https://thehundreds.com/blogs/content/westlacourthouse