I spend a lot of time on this blog wallowing in the past. The reason being is I’m at a weird mid-point in skateboarding – As a Dad I don’t get to disappear on all day missions the way I used to, and I certainly don’t have time to single handedly run any huge projects like skate comps or skatepark campaigns. What wallowing in the past does get you is anecdotes and good advice about the world, and if my experiences can help someone campaigning for a new skatepark, then that’s good enough for me.
The context for this blog post is that in the slightly murky time between the late 2000’s and the time this blog went on hiatus in 2013, I ran a rather dogged and extensive set of skatepark campaigns in Coventry. I don’t know how I got lumped with this responsibility, but I think this blog, my ability to be organised and get stuff done, and my connections with park builders of the time made me the logical person to carry the torch.
Prior to me doing anything, Jim The Skin and Steve Spain had been the torch bearers for skateparks in the city. They had luckily intercepted terrible skatepark ideas for Covpark (the Memorial Park Skatepark) and Holbrooks Bowls. Because of their involvements both parks avoided becoming tin can nightmares, although a lot of their core advice was promptly ignored leading to the biggest frustrations with both parks.
Their interactions with the council had made them both jaded and uninterested with once again stepping into meeting rooms to explain why a metal bank on a long strip of tarmac didn’t constitute a skatepark. They had nudged the council enough to at least get parks built from concrete, but for many skaters of the late 2000’s this wasn’t enough. Skatepark design was advancing, and is still advancing, at an alarming rate, and the parks built in Coventry at the turn of the century were outdated (and were falling apart) not even 10 years after they had been built.
Enter an idealistic skateboarding blogger in his early 20’s with a knack for making skate videos and nagging council officials incessantly. I put together a little zine with interviews, photos and next steps outlined for the council, as well as a PowerPoint presentation about the situation. I turned up to the council office in a suit. I had a clear aim: change their opinion about skateboarders, get them onside, treat this like a job interview, but instead of a job, we get a skatepark. This meeting taught me the first lesson I will pass onto you…
1. Council bods will say whatever you want to hear to get rid of you
It doesn’t matter how you dress. It doesn’t matter how well presented, rehearsed or produced your material is. You could literally have pictures of the Hellmouth opening up at your local park, and the council will react the same way. They will nod sympathetically, make noises of approval, show surprise like you are introducing them to a fantastic new world. It’s all bullshit.
What they are doing here is giving you the illusion that you are being listened to. This is OK. This is literally their job. They get hundreds of crackpots like you or I every week, obsessed with one very small issue, which to them is huge in scale. Once you have finished they will give you some very informative and positive sounding responses that make you feel like you’ll be skating a park just like Venice Beach in 6 months time. Again, this is what councils do.
The hard truth is, this step is necessary, because the council has to know that you (and your local scene) have intentions to campaign for a skatepark. They are integral for when you actually have money, and need some suits to grease the wheels and cut some red tape to allow you to spend it. In the case that they are resistant to a skatepark, this formal meeting is a warning shot: a declaration that your city needs the skatepark you are asking for, and you and your mates won’t stop until it’s built.
So they can say whatever they think you want to hear, as long as you remember that anything nice they say is probably as useful as a chocolate teapot.
Now, this meeting I had was followed by an on-site meeting with representatives from Bendcrete. The starting point for my conversation with the council was that our local was falling apart – panels sinking into the ground, chips of concrete coming off the ramps, etc. The council set up a meeting with Bendcrete to investigate repairs. Your next lesson here is…
2. Skatepark Builders are looking for work, they aren’t your mates
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some skatepark builders are some of the best skateboarders I know. Some of my mates work for Skatepark Building companies and do cracking work. Ultimately a lot of them want better skateparks because, like us, they are tired of shit skateparks as well. But let’s be honest here – they have bills to pay, they need jobs coming in. And in some cases when you meet with a skatepark builder you won’t be meeting with someone like you at all.
This meeting with Bendcrete was with 2 old boys in button down, tucked-in shirts, both wearing brown loafers. Neither of them skated, or if they did, they hadn’t in many years. These guys came across as playpark equipment providers. They came in looking for a job, and with the council quietly sidelining a new skatepark, suggested repairs. Bendcrete offered two solutions: an expensive job to lift the ramps and pack the underneath to stop the sinking, or a cheap job to sand off the concrete where the lips had formed at the base of the ramps. Next lesson…
3. Councils will always choose what is easiest/cheapest for them
If you want a landmark skatepark, prepare to do the work yourself. Councils do not want to cough up cash, or do any legwork, for this kind of facility. In our case the council picked the option that was cheapest for them: have Bendcrete sand off the concrete, and forget about the problem.
This didn’t necessarily solve our problem. And the chips in the ramps got worse. A year or so later we met with Gravity (after I told the council to never get Bendcrete involved again). Despite this company having actual skateboarders on board, the same rules applied. They were a good company, and obviously did the hard sell on a brand new skatepark – but the council wanted the cheapest solution. They picked up the task to do minor concrete repairs on the park, which again was a plaster over the larger issue that the skatepark was aging badly and no one really wanted to skate it.
I kept in touch with Jake Hipwell from Gravity – he was a nice chap, and at the time Marc Churchill was working for them, so basically they had a lot of skateboarding experience to bring to the table. Behind the council’s back, I worked with Gravity on extension plans for the Memorial Park. We had a couple of ideas come through, and I was told to basically share these up for other local skaters to see what the reaction was.
I threw these plans up on Facebook, and the reaction was, at first good. The new design had some jump boxes for the BMXers, and we had done some cool stuff with the layout of the skatepark to make it fun. Having said that, there were people who weren’t pleased. Here’s your next lesson…
4. You cannot please everyone, and no skatepark is perfect.
Think about two skateboarders who enjoy skating wildly different types of terrain. Example: let’s take Sam Beckett and Alex DeCunha. Sam Beckett is a transition powerhouse. He skates vert ramps and bowls. Huge ramps. Alex DeCunha is a street skating wizard: he’s all about ledge dancing, technical flip tricks and stair sets.
Now, with a very limited space (let’s say, half the size of a tennis court), think about trying to build a skatepark that provides the kind of skatepark both would be 100% happy with. Even if you somehow manage that, you then have to think about catering to BMXers, Rollerbladers and Scooter Kids – who, again, all want something different.
This was the issue I encountered with that first design from Gravity. Here I was thinking I would sort out a rad park and everyone would love it because, by default, it’s better than Covpark. The problem is, when there is potential for what doesn’t exist yet (and even when something decent does get built *cough*Leamington*cough*), people want the ideal skatepark that lives rent-free in their head.
There’s a theory called the “Ice Cream Problem”. If you tell 100 people they can have free Ice Cream as long as they all agree on the same flavour, you will end up with Vanilla or Chocolate. There are people who flat out cannot handle certain tastes and if you try and introduce more niche flavours they will get shot down. This is how you end up with everyone being served something that is just fine and not the thing that any one person or group absolutely loves.
Despite what some may tell you – the perfect skatepark doesn’t exist. And what I mean by this is that there is no single skatepark on the planet that everyone loves. Pip once described Stratford Upon Avon skatepark as perfect, and to be honest I couldn’t understand what he meant. Meanwhile, I really enjoy my local park in Leamington, but there are many who really don’t like it.
No skatepark design will please everyone, in the same way that certain ice cream flavours cannot be universally loved by everyone, and it’s a fool’s errand to try and make something everyone likes. Because the Vanilla version of a skatepark is so painfully boring and is basically going to be a cookie cutter version of something that you might find in the next town over, it’s a waste to build something everyone can agree is good.
To be honest, what makes a skatepark good are it’s imperfections and quirks (that’s what makes them challenging and fun to ride), and that’s beautiful. The problem is a lot of people don’t understand that. Most people think they can design a skatepark better than the people whose job it is to literally design skateparks. Demanding a pump track in the comments of a post on Instagram does not make you a skatepark designer.
The biggest complaints came from a rather opinionated rollerblader – who took fire at our decision to build a whippy China Bank into the side of a really high ledge. According to him we were ruining the only good thing in the skatepark. He came at me with a bunch of aggro and accused me of not being someone “who understands how the skatepark is used” (at the time not knowing I was a local skater). After some harsh words, he realised I was a local just like him and backed down, offering to help and meet with the council if I needed backup.
Many people will get weirdly aggressive about skatepark designs. They will tell you that you don’t know what you’re doing. They will act like they can do it better than you. Don’t let this get to you. The truth is, if they really could do it better than you, they would’ve given it a crack themselves. And if they truly knew how much hard work goes into these campaigns, they would be glad for all of the help they can get from other locals.
Whilst these arguments were in full swing on the internet, I kept in touch with the council – who were now aware that we were in talks with skatepark builders and had a campaign going in earnest. In order to keep in their good books, I was roped in to do several unpaid jobs for them.
When repairs happened on the skatepark, I was called up to tell local kids to get off it until the concrete was dry. I was brought in to help with a graffiti art workshop at the skatepark by the resident artist who didn’t understand what a Graphic Designer was (she kept confusing my job with a Graffiti Artist, and was confused when I said I wasn’t very good with spray paint). I was called upon to do several back-scratching exercises for Coventry City Council, and I did them to keep them on side. I thought that work would all pay off when we got our skatepark. This is where I learned my next lesson…
5. Don’t do unpaid work for the council
Remember, the council wants the cheapest option, and will tell you what you want to hear. If they see a local skateboarder who’s hungry to make an impression and get some clout for a skatepark project they have no intention of funding, they will see how much they can bleed out of you.
Realistically, performing unpaid jobs for the council gets you nothing, and gets them everything. I personally didn’t get paid. The skatepark campaign didn’t get paid. But the council got to make themselves look good. They got positive PR, they had a dogsbody they could unload all of their youth and skateboarding problems onto, and they kept me busy enough that I wasn’t nagging them about a skatepark.
At this point, the skatepark campaign at Covpark was just hitting dead end after dead end. We couldn’t move anywhere without funding, and I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to write a funding bid. The council were extremely tight-lipped about what I needed to do to make things move beyond a 3D CAD model on a piece of paper. I felt honestly really broken by it.
Enter my wife, Emily – who had seen me bash my head against this for a couple of years. She thought the Covpark idea had run its course, and wanted to change tact. We looked into the opportunity of opening an indoor skatepark. Another chap from Warwickshire called Adam was also following a similar path, so we joined up with him and merged with his project: Culture Skatepark.
Emily and Adam did an awful lot of number crunching and business plan writing. We had idealistic goals on what we wanted this park to be. We had a very strict idea of what we believed was an ethically run skatepark – with reasonable prices, a good selection of obstacles and an in-depth knowledge of our closest competition (Creation Skatepark, which at the time had burned bridges with most of the skateboarding community).
We signed up for more unpaid council work and brought a considerable amount of experience and advice to the Summer Jam event in 2012 – designed to coincide with the Olympics. This event had ramps and obstacles designed by Mark Gonzales himself. We offered an extremely popular event, ran it professionally, and got some of the best ramps-for-hire you can get – and no money ever came toward our project. The council like to boast that they spent £15K on that event, but £15K would’ve been a great cash injection to get our project off the ground, for a permanent indoor facility in Coventry.
What this event did was make the council look very good. We posed with them in the paper, shaking hands with Councillor Jim O’Boyle (remember that name), and listened to them give soundbites to the paper about Skateboarding being fantastic and how good it was to see young people doing something so positive in the city.
The Summer Jam got some of the Youth Services lot on our side, and after that we began running trips out to parks with them – providing massive sessions for the locals and showing them what kind of parks we were missing in Coventry. Our mates at Youth Services had a lot in common with us: passionate individuals looking to make a positive impact on the city, screwed over by the council time and time again.
Following the success of the Summer Jam, we pushed to get a building for Culture Skatepark. We found a perfect location, and even did a park design to fit inside it. The design I made had a kidney bowl and a rad plaza inspired by The Berrics and real life legendary street spots. The problem was we were stuck in a catch-22 with the council. We needed to change the usage of the building to be a sports and leisure facility – but the council wouldn’t let us do that until we had the building. And we couldn’t get the building because it wasn’t a sports and leisure facility. And so we were at an impasse.
Emily reviewed the business plan and the more she looked into it, the more an indoor skatepark seemed like nothing but financial suicide for three people in their mid-20’s who had no monetary backing. We made the difficult decision to step away from the project, and shortly after I decided to no longer be at the helm of a skatepark campaign.
This isn’t the end of the story though. Following my retirement from skatepark campaigning – two other park campaigns started up, and promptly roped me in to sit in the back of the room and grumble. Zac Parkinson from Kenilworth was the first one to get in touch. Kenilworth’s skatepark was made from faux-Woodward ramps – playpark company Rhino had licensed the Woodward brand and slapped it over a bunch of metal framed, plasticky, marine ply ramps.
Zac was looking to get this replaced with a brand new concrete park. I worked with Wheelscape and Gravity on some cool new designs and what we came up with seemed feasible and really fun. We just had to get the local parish council onboard. In our initial meeting with them, a room full of skateboarders discussed the immense health benefits of skateboarding, only to be incredulously asked whether skateboarding was really healthy at all. The next lesson is…
6. Non-skaters know even less about skateboarding than you realise
The fact that this middle aged woman sat there in a room full of skateboarders and questioned whether what we did was actually exercise was one of the most dumb-founding moments of any skatepark meeting I’ve ever attended. Half the room looked at her with complete confusion and she was promptly slapped down with a “Yes, of course it’s exercise?”. To which she shrivelled away from the conversation.
If you are campaigning for a skatepark, prepare for a lot of Boomers in suits and blouses to start trying to tell you exactly what skateboarding is. Ignore them. Remember, you are the subject matter expert. You ride these parks every day. You know skateboarding inside and out. Don’t let them tell you what constitutes a skatepark.
Every time a council bod told me “You’ve got a skatepark in Memorial Park”, I wish I had just put the niceties aside and said “No, we haven’t. We have a pre-cast bit of concrete pulled out of a catalogue. The local skateboarders didn’t design it, it doesn’t represent them, it doesn’t offer what we want to ride, and it is your responsibility as our council representatives to remedy that.”. Never forget that these people work for you, not the other way around.
Zac and the dedicated local skaters in Kenilworth, despite their young age, raised an impressive amount of money. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough to build the park we had envisioned. The refurb was limited to replacing the old metal mini with a concrete one. This was all well and good, but then we were hit with worse news: remember, the council will always pick the cheapest option.
Enter Bendcrete. Undercutting the competition by a substantial margin, Bendcrete were brought in to build the mini ramp that we had designed with Gravity. Once they were on-site, they made several mistakes with the additions to the park, and when they built the mini, the concrete pour was abysmal, creating a very bizarre and difficult to skate mini. Zac quickly got used to it and skates it better than anyone I know, but I came away disappointed that the council basically took all of Zac’s hard work and spaffed it on another Bendcrete job.
The other skatepark project I was roped into was over in Leamington. Alex Walker was spinning up work on trying to replace the old metal mini at Victoria Park with a brand new concrete park. I joined this project in 2013, and then promptly ducked out of it for 2 years. When I moved to Leamington 2015, I re-joined the campaign, which had gotten a significant boost in numbers with a sizable group of local skaters involved.
I say I was involved in this – but really I wasn’t. I was burnt out on skatepark projects by now, and to be honest I never felt like this was a project that needed me. Despite their disagreements, both Alex Walker and Morbid worked together to produce a really fun, awesome park that I genuinely enjoy skating. Both of them are strong-willed individuals with a clear idea of what they are after – so to me it was no surprise that the skatepark got built. They literally willed that thing into existence.
I know a lot of people have issues with the way the skatepark turned out, but as I’ve mentioned no skatepark is perfect for everyone. The park was built in 2016 and to be honest it’s been a rapid 5 years. The park still feels like it was only built yesterday, and I’m still finding new ways to skate it. I’m a fan of the place, but to be honest it suits my kind of mentality in skateboarding: drop in, go fast and fly about. It feels like a DIY park in some places due to how packed in everything is, and I genuinely love that about it. It isn’t like anything else out there. The rush to get the park built had just confirmed how I had felt since my experiences in Coventry though, and taught me my final lesson…
7. It’s OK to walk away.
Campaigning to get people to build a concrete collection of ramps to ride a skateboard on is hard, mentally draining work. Everyone I know who has been in the same position – Jim The Skin, Spainy, Emily, Adam, Zac, Walker, Morbid – all says the same thing. I never realised you could get so exhausted with so little to show for it. And if you’re not exhausted from the countless uphill battles with councils, you’ll be tired from the army of people you are supposed to represent who are constantly complaining that the work you’ve done isn’t exactly what they would expect.
If you ever decide that you don’t want to deal with any of this bullshit, you just want to skate, and you just want to enjoy what skateparks you do have rather than pushing for more, that’s OK. Don’t ever feel like you owe everyone a new skatepark, and don’t break yourself trying to get it. Skateboarding owes you nothing, and if you aren’t enjoying any aspect of it, it’s OK for you to take a break from it and try something else.
Back in 2013 I made that choice. I honestly didn’t want to run a skatepark campaign ever again. I will always be supportive and offer advice to those who want to pick up the torch, but for me the last straw came when I once again found myself being a “token skateboarder” – and clashing with Jim O’Boyle over skateboarders in town.
What a difference a year makes. In 2012, Councillor Jim O’Boyle shook my hand, and told us that skateboarders were one of the most positive groups of young people in the city. A year later, he is calling us an embarrassment and wants us banned from the city centre. I told you: Council bods will tell people what they want to hear. In 2012, they wanted to hear that young people were brilliant. In 2013, the people he was trying to impress wanted us banned from the city.
O’Boyle took to the local newspaper to grimace at the camera like he was straining for a shit, because he was just so angry about skateboarders skating street spots. He called us an embarrassment, a menace, and declared he would pursue a by-law to ban us from the city centre. Having shook this man’s hand the year before, and hearing this pure hypocritical nonsense coming from his mouth, I bit back. I got in touch with the same reporter who had interviewed him, and gave our side of the story.
I told the Coventry Telegraph all about our long, 5 year campaign – the stellar work we had done to raise awareness and all of the designs and planning we had done, and how the council had utterly failed us. I told him that the council had agreed on multiple occasions to work with us on a new skatepark prior to implementing any form of by-law. I told him that Jim O’Boyle was a hypocrite, and shared the photo of us at The Summer Jam smiling for the cameras. This provided them with a rather juicy angle for the story that made him look utterly stupid.
My interview went up on the Telegraph’s website, and we found many supporters outside of our scene who thought O’Boyle was a chancer who had been caught out playing both sides in this situation. However, there were also many detractors, who not only went after the skateboarders in the comments section, but, seeing as the article had been an interview with me – went after me personally.
I have never had my self-worth and identity attacked so viciously. It’s small potatoes considering the amount of abuse I’ve seen in bigger circles of the internet, but it’s probably a sign that society, especially in this country, can be needlessly cruel. The arguments I had spent years fighting against were brought up again, typed up by angry, sad keyboard warriors who were foaming at the mouth at the idea of anyone in their late 20’s riding a skateboard, and angry that anyone would question someone like Jim O’Boyle. The negative vocal minority were a minority, but this last moment of proudly being a face for Coventry Skateboarding took a toll on me mentally that I don’t think I ever recovered from.
Situations like this – putting your head above the parapet and having people aim at you – are perfectly reasonable excuses to walk away from a skatepark campaign. Actually, my advice to you is to walk away before it even gets to this point, or at least communicate from the comfort of anonymity as a “brand” account for a skatepark group.
The Coventry Skatepark Project, WMRR Campaign and Save Our Skatepark groups that I have briefly interacted with since I packed up my own campaigning have got this right. It’s OK to show a bit of the people behind the group, but the minute your name is in the middle of a war of words with councillors, it puts a target on your back.
I’m sorry if this has run longer than my usual skateboard guff – The side effect of becoming jaded about this stuff is just rambling on about it. So much time wasted on something that should be so simple. I could’ve saved you the time reading the above and sum up my experience with one sentence, that I have said time and time again: Getting a good skatepark built shouldn’t be this difficult.
These experiences didn’t stop others from trying though. The Coventry Skatepark Project picked up where I left off, and did some fantastic work. They took us closer than I ever got. The WMRR Campaign pushed further still, and if they complete their goal the skatepark they get built will far eclipse what I started campaigning for over 10 years ago.
Let’s also not forget the efforts of those in Kenilworth and Leamington who actually got stuff built. However you feel about what got built, the people who campaigned for those parks got something built, and in both cases they made both skateparks better than their previous incarnations by quite some margin.
I don’t want to put anyone off campaigning for a skatepark. In fact, I want everyone to do it. The squeakiest wheel gets the oil, and if every skateboarder was incessantly nagging their local council about skateparks, then the world would probably be better off. I think because skateboarders are the kind of people who just go out and do stuff and don’t overthink it, we often think something as simple as providing a place to skate is easy.
The point of this blog post was to at least show there are many factors which actively work against you – and if you at least know and recognise these, you, and your local scene, will be better off. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a sick new park, but at the very least my hope is you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment from whatever progress you make, and truth be told that’s all you can hope for in this life.