Skateparks: Boarders, Bridges and Peace Building


Jeremy Snowden

(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.

Burnside Skatepark, the first recognized DIY skatepark in Oregon. (Photo: Kyle Burris)

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.

Legendary skateboarder Jamie Thomas teaching kids how to skate in Kabul.
Photo courtesy of Jamie Thomas.

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.

Tony Hawk skates at a demo in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Photo courtesy of the Tony Hawk Foundation.

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).

A 2015 group photo of a Surfing 4 Peace summit. Photo courtesy of WRAA.

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.

2.) Ranta, Eija Maria. “Vivir Bien Governance in Bolivia: Chimera or Attainable Utopia?” Third World Quarterly 38, no. 7 (July 3, 2017): 1603–18.

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. (accessed April 30, 2019).

4.) Elbein, Saul. “Fantasy Island.” Foreign Policy. January 16, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2019.

5.) Thorpe, Holly. 2014. “Transnational Mobilities in Action Sports Cultures. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.”

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.

Rango: Terrestrial Pathfinder of the West


Above: Rango performing imaginary feats of strength to impress the townsfolk.

(originally written for UC Berkeley, March 2018)

Dripping with intertextual material, and subversion, Rango updates the Western Noir with a dose of hope and cinematic reverence. Unlike films like Out of the Past, or No Country for Old Men, where the crossing of two different periods of American justice proves fatal for the hero of our story; in Rango our protagonist survives this genre hybridization. Rango is the right man to restore order and faith to Dirt because, according to the Romantic hero myth outlined by Doug Williams in “Pilgrims and the Promised Land: A Genealogy of the Western” he has gone “…beyond the frontier to the wilderness and gained knowledge of it without himself degenerating into wildness.” (97). After Rango throws his badge in the sand in a reference to High Noon and Dirty Harry, the owl narrators pack up symbolizing the story they were here to tell has ended. Yet Rango breaks free from his existential crisis, by receiving a visit from the Spirit of the West (Clint Eastwood) who reminds him that he “can’t leave his own story…it’s not about us but about them”, which restores in him his heroic duty, and transforms the fatalism of this genre.

Existentialism is a key noir theme of Rango. In Robert Porfirio’s “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” he outlines that existentialism requires a choice in order to cope with the “meaningless of existence”. Our hero makes his first important existential choice when he is confronted by a nosy patron in the Dirt Saloon, and finds himself in-between the “authentic” and the “inauthentic” (87) life. The authentic being facing the dangers of the old west by slipping into the gunslinger legend of his own creation, and the inauthentic being cowering away from the ruffians of Dirt, and looking for another safe enclave — like his tropical glass terrarium he once occupied with his inanimate friends. By choosing to embrace his own “authentic” legend he always dreamed of having, Rango  “…assumes responsibility for his life” (87) and becomes the hero of his own story. By transforming into the revered gunslinger of Rango, he has chosen “being” over the “nothingness”(87).

Rango does not fully embody all traits of the Noir or Western hero though. For one, Rango loves to talk, especially about himself. He is no the laconic, ‘don’t ask about my scar’ John Wayne or Clint Eastwood type. Rango enjoys rambling off about his own legend so much that it becomes a motif in the film, sometimes saving him and other times causing alienation, like when Beans ignores his incessant waving and calls when he first arrives into town. This “narcissistic” trait would appear to put Rango closer to characters like Sheriff Little Bill in Unforgiven , a “false dandy”, as described by Janet Thumin in her paper  “Maybe He’s Tough But He Sure Ain’t No Carpenter: Masculinity and In/competence in Unforgiven (1993)”, but of course Rango does not carry the same “blasphemous selfishness” (73) as Sheriff Little Bill, who exerts violence through an ego-driven spectacle where Rango uses cleverness to avoid violence as much as possible. Rango is in fact the true “dandy”, who has transformed himself into a “ a medium through which divine forces express themselves.” (76). These “divine forces” allows Rango to bring an almost Jesus-like presence back into the struggling townspeople of Dirt.

Rango is less of a typical “patriarch” and more of a “pathfinder” someone who is meant to transform the status of Dirt from a “desert into the garden” (98). Although Rango survives till the end of the film, he has still mad a “sacrifice” by abandoning the comfort and assurance of civilization. Rango makes this choice for the greater good of restoring Dirt, which cements his “sacrifice, like Moses or Jesus, by which the world becomes transformed” (Williams 101).

Following the logic of Williams argument, since Rango is a dandy he is also an “imitator of Christ” (105). Being the embodiment of good, the Tortoise Mayor as the false dandy is an “imitator of Satan”; a harsh claim but fitting for someone comfortable with letting his own townspeople die from dehydration and starvation in the name of greed. The Mayor is complex in that in addition to the false dandy he also holds the position of the “religious zealot”. The promise of water is held over the town similarly to a preacher proclaiming the any-day-now resurrection of Jesus. The townspeople follow along, desperately, and even worship the water spigot like a cross, ritually marching towards it in a procession (and performing an unusual hoedown), begging for hydration. Although failing during the first procession, Rango eventually brings the “deliverance” of water that the Mayor had so vacantly promised. The Mayor Tortoise, a false dandy and Satan, must eventually be exercised from the town and killed by the dandy. When Rango allows this evil to be destroyed (without getting his hands dirty of course) he gains a respect from Rattlesnake Jake, his last significant threat and is transformed into the “the self-reliant, masterful figure for whom the unknown holds no terrors.” (Williams 93).


Rango as a sheriff and the Mayor Tortoise at the water vault.

Outside of the Puritan logic of Williams argument, Rango holds another symbolic position, that of the “non-heroic Hero” (Porfirio 83), a character displaced from “all the fixed ties that bind a man to a community” (Porfiro 84). Alone in a terrarium he is already detached from his natural chameleon community with nothing but inanimate objects as his friends. Upon arriving in Dirt he must account for this gaping “loss” of a community and “vulnerability” (from having been kept and domesticated) and find out how to survive on his own.  In doing so, Rango moves from the terrarium, aka a noir “claustrophobic interior” (258) as discussed by James Ursini in “Noir Westerns” and into the wide, open landscape of the west. To underscore this motif this first shot of the film is a close up on Rango in his terrarium, (a stand-in for the noir retreat of a private detective’s office) doing acting exercises with plastic friends, while the ending shot is a pull away from the newly restored town, water gushing everywhere with living, breathing friends. With an ending shot that cranes away from a newly restored town, we have another possible reference to High Noon (and countless others). The difference here being that in the case of High Noon, Will Kane leaves because his role as sheriff, as it has become under appreciated, even misunderstood, while Rango still has time to bask in the glory of his good deeds — although who knows for how long.  

In addition to celebrating many Western Noirs of the past, certain Western tropes are cleverly subverted in Rango as well. The traditional conception that the actor of the Western is little more than a misunderstood yet well-educated Easterner is challenged and expanded on by making the main character an actor himself. In My Darling Clementine the Hamlet soliloquy evoked by the local actor Mr. Thorndyke, according to Scott Simmon in “Concerning the Weary Legs of Wyatt Earp: The Classic Western According to Shakespeare”, is used only it seems as a “mood that is never quite argued out dramatically” (155), indeed many of the other Hamlet references were cut out of the film, most likely to not complicate the Western (154). In Rango we witness the role of the theatre/actor in Westerns grow from an underscoring visual “mood” with minor plot overlap and into the clear thrust of the story. Rango in this film serves as the bridge between a (past) carefully woven theatrical intrigue to a (present) theatrical foundation. The Western fascination with Shakespeare is referenced by Rango when he performs a small scene in the beginning of the film with his inanimate terrarium friends, naming them characters like Malvolio and Balthazar. By bringing the actor to the forefront (and placing it into the character of a chameleon) Rango subverts the idea that the West is too rugged and uneducated to accept an actor as their savior or even a respected citizen.

For all of Rango’s optimistic subversion and nuanced approach to Western Noir, the theme of “man under sentence of death” (Porfirio 88) underscores much of the film. When we begin, the main narrators of the film the mariachi owls, tell us that this is the story of the “life and untimely death of a great hero”, an idea they repeat till the end of the film. As well, when Rango first enters the town, a young cactus mouse named Priscilla who advises Rango throughout the film, (similar to the young boy in High Noon; a faithful ally and admirer) tells him that “strangers don’t last long”. Although Rango breaks the spell of surviving the Noir world he has carried into the Western, the threat of it continues to hang over him like a curse.

In surviving and restoring Dirt, Rango is given a rare hopeful turn that many Western Noirs are unable to complete or hold onto for long. This optimistic, or at least temporarily optimistic outlook that the film gives us, is partly due to it being an animated kids movie, but another interpretation may lie underneath this. In films like Out of The Past, where Robert Mitchum must die for not choosing to live in one world (the Noir/civilization or the Western/wilderness) this film may be condemning humans as more flawed than animals.

With Rango we don’t just celebrate our chameleon hero for having become the pathfinder who denounced civilization and survived while doing so, but we also celebrate the animal kingdom as a whole for being able to do what humans have failed to do; choose one world over the other. Humankind has failed to protect and split nature from the city, particularly in regards to land development. We see this in golf courses and resorts whose installation often eclipses protecting the surrounding purity of the wilderness. In this sense, Rango lacks the character flaw of greed. He is conscious of what the West means and also the threat of civilization and industrialization too, which allows him to balance both “the Dionysian [emotional] communion with nature, [and] the Apollonian [rational] knowledge of civilization” (Williams 100). This makes Rango a unique hero, one that is able to bring his knowledge of both words together in harmony rather than discord.