The Politics of Skatepark Development

“In a way this is a story about the community learning about its own diversity that it didn’t realize it had.”

–Jacob Brostoff, assistant city planner, St. Helens, Oregon

If the city where you live is willing to build a free public skatepark without a grassroots movement by local skaters, then you are very fortunate. In a less enlightened community the only recourse may be to get organized and lobby the city government to build that facility. Skaters everywhere will grit their teeth when I suggest that the surest way to get a skatepark built is to apply the politics of everyday life and take a well-planned, business-like approach. However, by working within the system you have the greatest chance for accomplishing the task quickly and efficiently. This is not the only way, but it has proven time and again to be highly effective.

Building a skatepark will take all the help you can get. A solid grassroots organization of skateboarders and their friends is one of the first things you’ll need in order to gain the support necessary to build your skatepark. This organization will be the key to planning, promotion, design, and construction of the park. It has been my experience that few city council members want to listen to adults (who do not skate) lobby for the construction of a skatepark that they will not use. In order to be successful, the city government needs assurance that those who are slowly losing their places to skate due to legislation and tenant complaints will be involved throughout the process. In short, those who will be future users of the park should lead the way.

Making Contacts And Establishing The Organization

The first step in forming an organization is to get in touch with every skateboarder you know or see. During a recent campaign, we formed a skatepark committee after the publication of an advertisement in the local paper. This advertisement asked all concerned parties to attend a meeting to discuss the building of a skatepark within the municipal park system. As a result, approximately 25 local youths, representatives from the parks and recreation district, members of a local Catholic church, the city planner, and several concerned adults attended the first meeting. During this initial meeting, the group planned how to reach other members of the community. It was decided that this would initially be accomplished by putting up posters designed to increase public interest and ask for broader community involvement.

As new members of a skatepark committee are recruited, they need to recognize the necessity for a strong commitment to the organization. Each member needs to be made aware that it takes a lot of work to build a public skatepark and that there is strength in numbers. All members must try to put aside any hang-ups regarding the involvement of a mix of skateboarders, in-line skaters, and BMX freestyle bikers. Aside from the history of conflicts between these groups, this must be done for two reasons. First, all of these interested parties need to be represented by the organization as a whole, as all are going to share in the use of the park in the future. Second, and most importantly, it can be assumed that when working with the city, any hint of disagreement among group members or potential users of the park is going to be the surest way to get the project placed on the back burner. In short, you lose.

Regular Meetings

A newly formed skatepark committee should plan regularly scheduled meetings. Places for meetings will depend on the size of your community, but usually public locations like the city library or recreation center are among the best possible choices. As an alternative, a local skateboard shop or a residence might serve as a meeting place. What is important is to find a safe and comfortable place to hold meetings where parents and other interesteddults (including the press) feel welcome. I often work with skaters of differing ages from different schools and socio-economic backgrounds who have joined together for a common goal. Choosing a public meeting place offers “neutral territory” where no individual or group feels in control. Being in neutral territory contributes greatly to establishing structure during meetings. Structure is needed in order to stay focused on the task at hand. Also, by using a community facility we often gain access to computers, fax machines, telephones, and copy machines. The parents of skateboarders are excellent resources for establishing contacts for meeting locations and access to needed resources. Just ask–you might be surprised by what you get.

One of the first decisions to be made by a newly formed skatepark committee is the setting of a specific date and time to discuss issues, plan campaign strategy, and to increase the commitment of the members. Ideally there should be no change in the meeting day and time, throughout the entire project. By maintaining a consistent meeting day and time you allow members to disappear for a bit and then drop back in. This often happens as youth members are quite mobile (e.g., moving from one parent’s house to the other) or lose interest for a time as other priorities take over. Changing meeting times increases the likelihood that only the core group continues to participate throughout the life of the project. This in turn directly limits the number of individuals who can participate, feel committed to, and ultimately go away with a sense of ownership in the project.

Skatepark committees also require youth spokespeople who are willing to and comfortable with talking to the public. It’s helpful to choose a few articulate (outspoken) individuals who will consistently act as public spokespersons for the skatepark organization during speaking engagements while other members may come and go. It is also helpful to choose other members to help coordinate, organize, and record the events of each meeting.

Organization Membership

Youth

Most skatepark committees are comprised of youth of different ages and socio-economic groups. Members will also represent interests in various sports including skateboarding, in-line skating, and BMX freestyle biking. Although groups will change over time, you should expect that youth members will continue to attend weekly meetings throughout the planning, design, and fundraising phases of the project. A small group of the most ambitious members may also help with construction of the park. Overall, involvement in a skatepark project will offer the youth valuable life skills. In some instances the physically demanding and sometimes tedious manual labor of building a skatepark provides just the motivation committee members need to stay in school. If you are in a leadership position within a skatepark project, consider offering letters of recommendation to members of the committee after the project has finished.

The continued assistance from a dedicated group of skaters not only helps to reduce the overall cost of the park, but also increases the skaters’ feelings of ownership of the park after it opens. In addition, the newspaper, radio, and television media always enjoy the various opportunities to capture the youth in action, either fundraising or working on the construction of the park.

One of the first lessons the youth committee has to learn is to not underestimate the contribution that any individual within the community can make. They also need to be taught how to represent the skatepark committee and its mission by being polite and focusing on the goal of completing a skatepark. This process begins by training committee members in networking within the community. For example, I often have to stress to youth members that they are always representing the skatepark committee and any individual they come into contact with is important. For example, that scruffy-looking fellow asking questions might just be the mayor’s uncle or a potential donor of goods or cash. The moral is “Don’t judge by appearances, and never blow someone off because you can’t see how he or she could help.”

Adult Facilitators

Adult facilitators are typically the committed parents or other interested individuals who are willing to give up a substantial portion of their free time to get a skatepark built within their community. Most often they are skate moms, but not always. Although campaigns will benefit from as much adult participation as possible, at least a few adults should consistently attend and facilitate all meetings.

It’s the facilitators’ responsibility to do as much as possible to create an environment where people feel safe and their ideas are valued. It’s necessary to have at least two adults present at all skatepark-committee meetings. Most often, the adult facilitators’ role is to simply maintain the focus of discussion, ensure that everyone has a voice, make clear what was being decided upon, and record the vote. If design is the first phase of the project, the skatepark designer can facilitate those meetings. It helps if a volunteer coordinator can be recruited to attend and assist at all meetings.

The Youth-Volunteer Coordinator

Recently, after a campaign had just begun, an anonymous donor offered to match dollar for dollar any money raised by the youth committee (up to 10,000 dollars). The city council was told about this anonymous donor and agreed to do the same. However, it was decided that the youth needed direction in order to fundraise effectively. They needed the guidance of a committed adult. Hence, a young man was recruited to be the youth-volunteer coordinator–he was a former skateboarder, had grown up and worked in town, had excess energy and interest, was respected by adults and young people, and shared the motivation to get the park built. The duties of the youth-volunteer coordinator were to recruit and organize the youth volunteers, plan the speaking engagements, provide transportation, and coach youth members in speaking skills. Additionally, this individual kept the youth committed and energetic until construction began.

The youth-volunteer coordinator must be a dedicated and energetic individual who is committed to working with youth and community members. The person chosen for this position has to be respected and liked by the youth, and also organized and responsible when working with the community. The job of the youth-volunteer coordinator will likely prove to be the most difficult because of the need to coordinate events, assist the youth members to speak in front of groups, and do other tasks that the youth (and adults) don’t particularly enjoy.

This person has to help the youth understand that these public awareness and fundraising efforts are necessary in order to meet their goal of building a skatepark. Of course, this is sometimes difficult because many youth are not particularly interested in delaying gratification, planning for the future, and speaking to strangers about their needs and wants. After the fact, most committee members will tell you that designing a skatepark is fun, but fundraising and public awareness is generally unpleasant work. Select this individual carefully, as a youth-volunteer coordinator who has these characteristics and remains throughout the project will be critical to completing your skatepark.

Adult Members

It is helpful to involve as many parents and other interested adults as early in the skatepark campaign as possible. Adults are essential connections to city government and business. At first, the city council as well as other groups and businesses might not pay much attention to a group of local youth, but recognition improves when youth are backed up by a group of adults who are ontact with is important. For example, that scruffy-looking fellow asking questions might just be the mayor’s uncle or a potential donor of goods or cash. The moral is “Don’t judge by appearances, and never blow someone off because you can’t see how he or she could help.”

Adult Facilitators

Adult facilitators are typically the committed parents or other interested individuals who are willing to give up a substantial portion of their free time to get a skatepark built within their community. Most often they are skate moms, but not always. Although campaigns will benefit from as much adult participation as possible, at least a few adults should consistently attend and facilitate all meetings.

It’s the facilitators’ responsibility to do as much as possible to create an environment where people feel safe and their ideas are valued. It’s necessary to have at least two adults present at all skatepark-committee meetings. Most often, the adult facilitators’ role is to simply maintain the focus of discussion, ensure that everyone has a voice, make clear what was being decided upon, and record the vote. If design is the first phase of the project, the skatepark designer can facilitate those meetings. It helps if a volunteer coordinator can be recruited to attend and assist at all meetings.

The Youth-Volunteer Coordinator

Recently, after a campaign had just begun, an anonymous donor offered to match dollar for dollar any money raised by the youth committee (up to 10,000 dollars). The city council was told about this anonymous donor and agreed to do the same. However, it was decided that the youth needed direction in order to fundraise effectively. They needed the guidance of a committed adult. Hence, a young man was recruited to be the youth-volunteer coordinator–he was a former skateboarder, had grown up and worked in town, had excess energy and interest, was respected by adults and young people, and shared the motivation to get the park built. The duties of the youth-volunteer coordinator were to recruit and organize the youth volunteers, plan the speaking engagements, provide transportation, and coach youth members in speaking skills. Additionally, this individual kept the youth committed and energetic until construction began.

The youth-volunteer coordinator must be a dedicated and energetic individual who is committed to working with youth and community members. The person chosen for this position has to be respected and liked by the youth, and also organized and responsible when working with the community. The job of the youth-volunteer coordinator will likely prove to be the most difficult because of the need to coordinate events, assist the youth members to speak in front of groups, and do other tasks that the youth (and adults) don’t particularly enjoy.

This person has to help the youth understand that these public awareness and fundraising efforts are necessary in order to meet their goal of building a skatepark. Of course, this is sometimes difficult because many youth are not particularly interested in delaying gratification, planning for the future, and speaking to strangers about their needs and wants. After the fact, most committee members will tell you that designing a skatepark is fun, but fundraising and public awareness is generally unpleasant work. Select this individual carefully, as a youth-volunteer coordinator who has these characteristics and remains throughout the project will be critical to completing your skatepark.

Adult Members

It is helpful to involve as many parents and other interested adults as early in the skatepark campaign as possible. Adults are essential connections to city government and business. At first, the city council as well as other groups and businesses might not pay much attention to a group of local youth, but recognition improves when youth are backed up by a group of adults who are taxpayers and voters. Adults simply have much more experience accessing and working within the “system” in ways that younger members do not.

Group Structure And Rules

Many skatepark projects are so widely advertised that the meetings have a diverse group of committee members. As a result, there needs to be structure to the meetings or there will be little progress. Structure is needed for a couple of reasons. First, groups often include individuals with a broad range of ages (“youths” ranging from nine to 25), and many aren’t in the same grade, don’t go to the same school, and in some instances generally dislike other members of the group. Second, most of the meetings take place immediately after school. This means there is a lot of pent-up energy that needs to be discharged. I find it helpful to remember that from the youths’ perspectives, they are giving up free time to try to build something for the future when they could be skating (illegally) right then and there. During meetings it’s important to establish an atmosphere where all persons feel free to attend, have opportunities to express their opinions, and feel respected and valuable. The organizational rules I recommend for committees are simple:

1. Meetings are held regularly and are open to anyone.

2. Everyone present has the opportunity to speak on any issue before a vote.

3. Issues will be decided by a simple majority (more than 50 percent) of all members attending.

4. Once an issue has been decided by vote, it will not be brought to a forum or alteration without a successful majority vote to that effect. This rule comes in handy when committee members who’ve been gone for several weeks or months return to find that things have changed in their absence.

Most adult facilitators find it important to establish some boundaries and maintain them consistently. By establishing these boundaries, youths can more clearly understand what behaviors will or will not be tolerated. Rules of behavior at meetings and other committee events are also simple:

1. Acts of physical aggression are not tolerated.

2. Racist, sexist, and homophobic comments are not tolerated.

This may seem a little too buttoned-down, but these behaviors are simply not appropriate and don’t forward the mission of the group. It’s all about giving respect to other individuals with the expectation that you will receive it in return. Just because supervision and rules are necessary doesn’t mean the initial flow of ideas does not come from the group as a whole. Also, the presence of rules of conduct does not mean that frank discussion at group meetings is uncommon. On the contrary, the youth speak frankly about their experiences and thoughts, listen to music, and watch videos during meetings. After a time, I probably hear more inside information than most parents. As stated before, the goal is to make sure that all group members feel welcome and safe during discussions and activities. Overall, by insisting on an atmosphere of mutual respect, I’m able to get tasks done more quickly, while ensuring that from week to week people feel comfortable enough to come back.

Once the group is established and regular meetings are occurring, the next step is to establish contact with and gain the support of anyone in the community who can help further the cause. This approach to gaining community involvement is commonly referred to as networking. This includes, but should not be limited to, the recruitment of religious officials, nonprofit agencies, businesses, and law enforcement. The primary goals of involving the community are to demonstrate to city officials and financial contributors the seriousness and dedication of the youth and to expand fundraising efforts.

Community Involvement

Religious Officials

No matter what a person’s personal religi