How skateboarders are transforming open spaces in London and beyond
Chris Lawton, Community Development Officer at Skateboard GB and Visiting Research Fellow at Nottingham Trent University, describes how the grass-roots skateboard community’s commitment to redeveloping skate spaces could turn London greener, not greyer.
In nine years as a public policy researcher and a further nine as an economics lecturer – all the while being an active skateboarder – I’ve worked on numerous social, economic and environmental ‘problems’. Both policy and academic research tend to focus on defining and re-defining these problems, whilst being less curious about how communities and other actors attempt to address them.
Skateboarders can be artists, social entrepreneurs, skilled tradespeople, videographers and photographers, social researchers, community organisers and custodians of urban spaces – as well as sportspeople of sorts. A recent large-scale study by the Pullias Centre at the University of Southern California (2020) found that skateboarders felt motivated to participate by being with friends, maintaining their mental health and – importantly – being connected to a safe physical space (a skatepark or skate spot) from which they drew much of their identity.
This is epitomised by the record-breaking success of the Long Live Southbank campaign, which mustered the largest number of objections ever lodged against a planning application and helped prevent the redevelopment of the skate spot beneath the Southbank Centre. Deep identification with a physical space can drive young people to successfully take on well-resourced institutions with far-reaching positive impacts for public spaces in London and elsewhere. Skateboarding has the potential to transform urban spaces.
Alongside community organising in my hometown of Nottingham, where I co-founded the social enterprise Skate Nottingham, I’ve recently left academia to take up a new role as Community Development Officer at Skateboard GB, the National Governing Body. This has made me familiar with several projects in which skateboarders, working with their local communities, have transformed urban spaces from neglected, sometimes dangerous sites to valued community assets, often with significant elements of urban greening, including tree planting and public allotments.
The Hackney Bumps project, which Skateboard GB has supported in partnership with mortgage lender Habito, is an incredible story of grassroots hard work and perseverance, much of which happened during the first national lockdown. Hackney Bumps is a 1980s-era concrete facility in Daubeney Fields near Hackney Marshes and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It’s a mellow, undulating moonscape which complements the surrounding green space; the lack of the highly specialised forms that typify more modern skateparks fits nicely with the principle of ‘adventure play’ favoured by Hackney Council, enabling users to interact with the space as they wish, on bikes, skates, scooters, skateboards or on foot.
Through the 1990s, the space fell into disrepair – the riding surface became rough, cracked and barely usable, often littered with shopping trolleys and burned-out motorbikes. For the next two decades Hackney Bumps remained underused and largely forgotten. Local volunteers began working towards regenerating the site in early 2019 and became aware of an innovative Scandinavian approach to ‘polishing’ concrete skateparks, suggested by Daryl Nobbs at Norwegian skatepark company Betongpark. Funding talks for the project were progressing well until early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the funding body and Hackney Council to put all talks and possible funding on hold indefinitely.
Undeterred, local volunteers Nick Tombs and Greg King decided to do it themselves, painstakingly hand-polishing the site a few square feet a day every day, as part of their permitted daily exercise. This incredible effort became a rallying point for other users, and a vibrant community sprang up around the space in summer 2020 as the country began to unlock at the end of the first coronavirus wave.
Now the space is visibly well-maintained and well-used, including by a much larger proportion of women and girls, children and families than is usually found in skateparks. A successful crowdfunder and a self-made film, alongside continued support and expert advice from Betongpark, has made the project increasingly ambitious; the periphery of the skatepark has been updated with more modern obstacles, built by the skaters to a professional standard, whilst maintaining the abstract, aesthetically pleasing integrity of the main space. The Hackney Bumps community group are now working with local charity Hackney Quest to provide free beginners’ skate sessions for local children, alongside other activities such as mural painting with local graffiti artists.
Before Hackney Bumps, bringing historic skateparks back to a level of contemporary usability has been prohibitively costly and difficult, leading to a Local Government preference to tear down and start again. The Hackney Bumps community has provided a blueprint for small-scale, low cost restorations that are sensitive to heritage, have a relatively low environmental impact, and enhance the diversity and inclusivity of the user community by engaging them in the build process. A wave of similar projects is beginning to transform other such spaces from the 1970s and 80s, including the concrete skatepark at Romford, which gained Grade II listed status in 2014 – the first skatepark in the UK to be listed by Historic England.
The potential impact on public spaces is clear, but can essential green space benefit from this sense of ownership and responsibility for community land? More than 100 miles up the Ml, Bournbrook DIY, in Selly Oak, Birmingham, has blurred the lines between self-built community skatepark and urban garden. Bournbrook Recreation Ground is one of the UK’s oldest legal graffiti spots, but had otherwise been in decline for decades; its rectangular concrete play area and basketball court were in a state of significant disrepair, leading to a critical lack of outdoor amenities for nearby residents. Local skater Shaun Boyle – like Nick and Greg in Hackney – felt driven to make a difference during the first lockdown. He started clearing the bushes and waste and built a small skateable ledge; he was soon joined by volunteers from a diverse user and resident community, and the project grew. The whole area was cleared, verges re-dug and flowers and small trees planted.
Visiting Bournbrook today, it’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago the site was filled with rubble, rat-infested piles of waste, thorny bushes and broken glass. Alongside a professional-standard skate space, which has just successfully completed a ROSPA inspection, there’s a well-maintained community garden, shaded sitting areas overlooked by newly planted shrubs, an accessible pathway cleared, dug and paved by the volunteers, and a wide mix of ages, genders and social backgrounds using the skatepark or enjoying the outdoor seating spaces.
As in Hackney with Betongpark, Shaun and the other volunteers in Birmingham were helped by experienced professional skatepark builders. The hand-polishing devices used successfully on the Hackney Bumps were lent to the Bournbrook volunteers, cementing a relationship between the two projects.
Another similarity between Bournbrook and Hackney is the role of local
academics; Esther Sayers in Hackney and Berni Good in Bournbrook. Esther started skateboarding in her 40s and is a teacher and researcher in arts education at Goldsmiths, University of London. Berni is a psychologist undertaking research on the wellbeing and psychology of video game players, and has been part of the Birmingham skate scene for many years. As well as challenging the stereotype of exclusively young male skatepark users, they’ve brought their intellectual curiosity to these projects: Berni talks authoritatively about the impact of Bournbrook on skaters’ wellbeing, and Esther enthuses about the importance of the outdoor public space in Hackney to explore the relationship between bodily movement, learning and gender.
Together these two projects have had big impacts on my practice. We’re really proud at Skateboard GB to be one of the only formal organisations to have supported both projects, in terms of in-kind advice and financial contributions to outstanding capital costs, kindly enabled by Habito.
In my project in Nottingham, we took inspiration from the can-do attitude displayed in Hackney and Bournbrook and applied it to our ‘problem’: a partially finished skatepark within the city’s most disadvantaged ward. The local residents of the Sneinton Tenants and Residents Outreach Programme (STOP-TRA) had effectively taken on maintenance of the wider green space, King Edward Park; the park sits on the footprint of one of Britain’s first asylums and has been a key amenity since the Second World War, when it provided war garden allotment space for residents to grow their own vegetables. The group had re-established the neglected allotments and renovated a former nursery building as an events space, but needed a bigger workforce to improve the space further. To tackle this, last summer we established the ‘Skate & Give Back’ project; in exchange for free skate lessons, parents and young people scraped old paintwork from the pavilion, joined residents on their weekly litter pick around the wider green space, and helped with allotments. It was a vital moment of outdoor togetherness and shared purpose after the trauma of the first wave of COVID-19.
Like Bournbrook and Hackney Bumps, a visibly improved green space and facility for outdoor exercise in Nottingham is the project’s legacy. The challenge now is to sustain activity in these spaces, all of which are unlikely to receive significant Local Government support in the foreseeable future. This means collaborating more with other groups committed to our green spaces, and finding new ways to draw energy from skateboarders’ unique range of interests, motivations and skills.