I don’t know a single skateboarder who hasn’t tried designing their own skatepark. Every single one of us has a preference on the type of obstacles we like to skate, and I’m pretty sure combining those into our dream skatepark is a personal goal many of us would love to see come to fruition.
However, our current idea of what makes a great skatepark is formed by the decades of history in skatepark design that has come before. After seeing some new skatepark designs on social media and wondering how certain decisions found their way into modern designs, I was curious to look at the history of skatepark design.
I’m by no means a skatepark designer and I am terrible at building stuff, but the processes behind building these spaces has always fascinated me. I’ve always wondered how the selection of obstacles we take for granted found their way into the skatepark in the first place. As with anything, history holds the answers.
This history prior to the 1990’s is going to be a bit murky. A lot of old parks have disappeared and trying to nail down exactly when certain features or trends made their way into parks is difficult given just how wide reaching and organic skateboarding can be. I shall try my best though, and apologies for any ambiguity.
According to a very quick Google search, the world’s first skatepark was in Carlsbad, California. Built back in 1976, this park featured loads of wave-like bumps and humps, snake runs, and a wooden vert ramp. Other than the vert nothing had coping, and at the time there was nothing to really emulate as no other skateparks existed. Unfortunately this park doesn’t exist anymore – when the skateboarding “fad” passed the local council had the place filled in with rubble, and eventually demolished, despite a noble campaign to restore the park and open a museum about its history.
As for the UK, well there’s some debate on which is actually the oldest park on these shores. Some claim it was the original Portland skatepark, some claim it’s Harrow, and some claim it’s Skate City. Only Harrow still remains. Similarly these all followed the template of Carlsbad, being built around the same time – not much coping, a lot of bumps, and maybe a vert ramp.
The 80’s is where things accelerated in park design, as the “fad” aspect of skateboarding started to shift away and the lifers started to rapidly push the boundaries of what was possible. Vert was still heavily influential on skatepark design, with transitions and big wooden goliaths taking up the lion’s share of designs of the time. Maybe more so in the UK than the US, these spaces also attracted BMX riders, so the spaces were perhaps being designed as more of a “multi-sport” social hub than just a sports arena for skateboarders.
Pool skating had its influence on skatepark design, with skateparks beginning to include bowls that featured actual coping! You still had many parks being built in the old 1970’s mold though – Hackney Bumps cropped up in 1986 as one of the first examples of a council plopping down a skatepark in order to rejuvenate a dodgy area. You can also see some park designers getting extremely inventive with stuff like the Heartsease Bowl, AKA The Bathtub, in Norwich.
Some parks just evolved from their 1970’s incarnations, or cultivated a huge, dedicated local community long into the 80’s. The Deaner continued it’s evolution from 1970’s relic to modern day DIY mecca, and this same story was replicated for many other old skool relics like Stockwell. Street skating had taken off in earnest during this time, but due to the very nature of street skating being something you do on the street, it’s stamp still wasn’t really felt on skatepark design yet.
The 1990’s saw skateboarding bubble away quietly, with not many skateparks cropping up, and the street being the primary location to skate. In the UK this meant a lot of private, indoor skateparks cropped up, offering a bit of everything as an alternative for the crappy British weather.
The original Radlands Indoor Park opened in 1992, featuring a vert ramp and lots of street inspired obstacles – gone were the bumps and waves of the 70’s, replaced with funboxes, rails and ledges. By this point coping had long been an integral part of quarter pipe design as well, and was used throughout street courses to help people keep their speed, and even throw in the odd ramp trick if that was their thing. Radlands is no longer around, with the name survived by the new concrete plaza in Northampton.
Radlands had competition from The Pioneer in St Albans, which is the oldest indoor skatepark in the UK. The Pioneer is a youth club which has been around for over 70 years, with the skatepark being a relatively recent addition which practically revolutionised and rebranded the club as a hotspot for UK skateboarding back in 1991. The skatepark is now synonymous with the youth club’s name, and is a regular haunt for many of the Death team members. The size of the park is huge, but has always favoured smaller street style obstacles over huge vert ramps, showcasing similar obstacles to Radlands like funboxes, ledges and rails.
Near the end of the 1990’s, the Tony Hawk Pro Skater boom forced skateparks into building a huge range of outdoor skateparks. Many of these councils had been burned before – building huge concrete oddities that quickly became unused and derelict. Wary of the same thing happening again, councils opted for smaller, prefab skatepark designs built by companies like Bendcrete and GBH. By this time street skating was a primary driving factor in skatepark design: if you were lucky, your local park may feature stairs, Euro gaps and handrails. At the very least quarter pipe sizes began to shrink, with 4 and 5 ft ramps being favoured over vert ramps, and nearly every skatepark had a mini ramp around this size.
The bigger and more ambitious parks of the time prior to this were built in wood: Stratford Upon Avon, Redditch, The Level, Oxford Wheels Project, and many others preferred wood over concrete. Perhaps an odd decision given the UK’s wet and changeable weather, but many of these parks offered a greater variety of cool obstacles over their concrete counterparts at the time. Stratford Upon Avon in particular was notable for its 12 ft high vert ramp, Oxford inspired spined mini ramp, and selection of funboxes and ledges.
The 2000’s was a bit of a wild west for prefab flatpack parks as Bendcrete, GBH, Rhino and others filled the country with factory made playground equipment disguised as a skatepark. Bendcrete were the best of a bad bunch, opting for concrete prefab parts, and eventually seeing the light with some spraycrete designs too. None of these companies really made strides to push skatepark design further, regurgitating the same tried and tested selection of obstacles from the 1990’s.
Indoor skateparks continued to thrive, with many huge indoor parks opening across the country. Epic in Birmingham was one of the biggest, and local to me – bringing a massive landmark in skateboarding close to home and making access to a huge range of obstacles easier than ever before. Epic featured professional sized obstacles, with big gaps of all sizes, street obstacles, mini ramps, a best in country 14ft vert ramp, an intimidating bowl and a customisable street area full of moveable ledges and rails. The original incarnation of the park had literally everything you could want as a skateboarder. Many other indoor parks followed suit, using Epic’s offering as a checklist of what to include for their own dream indoor park.
Another shining light in the mid-2000s was the invention of the skate plaza. Popularised in the US by Rob Dyrdek, this was a brand new approach to skateparks, which saw skateable spaces try as much as possible to just look like your average street spot. No quarter pipes, no bowls, no vert ramp – the complete opposite of what skateparks started life as.
In the UK, the first skatepark to experiment with this was The Buszy, built in 2006 in Milton Keynes. The Buszy was made up of marble and concrete ledges on bog standard pavement slabs. It was exciting because it didn’t feel like a skatepark at all, but was completely legitimate as a skateable space.
Skate plazas were interesting mainly because they cemented the need for street obstacles in practically any skatepark space. It was no longer enough to just put down a mini ramp and a funbox. Plazas showed the importance, and cost effectiveness, of using ledges smartly, and it also helped that these spaces were often expertly disguised from public view, fitting into the surrounding architecture better than any traditional skatepark could.
Near the end of the 2000’s, following the advent of Bendcrete’s prefab stuff and GBH’s tin can nightmares, things began to improve considerably. Councils began to realise skateboarding was here to stay, and this prompted them to hire more experienced skatepark builders. Skateparks evolved again, combining the flowy, wave-like layouts of the 70s with the huge variety and endless possibilities of modern street obstacles, and in some cases pulling heavily from the skate plaza idea.
Companies like Wheelscape, Gravity and Freestyle cropped up to feed the demand for new parks, closely followed by Maverick Industries (apparently born out of some GBH employees who were tired of making cheap, metal knock offs, and wanted to build real, quality skateparks). These companies rapidly advanced designs of skateparks in the UK, as they took heavy inspiration from the amazing designs found in the states.
In 2010 Stoke Plaza appeared, signalling a new dawn of sprawling, endless possibilities. Councils were largely split in their approach to building skateparks, some still opted for the prefab nonsense of the 2000’s, whilst others began to come around to the more architecturally pleasing styles of modern skateparks. The new breed of skatepark builders, made up of people who clearly rode skateparks, introduced homages to famous street spots, wacky experiments which spawned new obstacle types and tricks of their own, all wrapped up with expert craftsmanship and design.
Radlands’ successor plaza was built in 2011, taking a softer approach to the plaza with a mini ramp addition, and a layout which encouraged endless flow. The preferred park builders of the era cleaned up throughout this time, travelling the country to provide endless little concrete pockets of fun in every village and town.
In general vert ramps weren’t in vogue, and many new parks opted for smaller quarter pipes that complimented the new skate plaza style of park building. The one thing that pushed ramp sizes up was BMX bikes, whose riders had trouble doing anything on smaller ramps.
Scooter riding brought the average age of your standard skatepark rider down by about 10 years, which in turn prompted councils to double down on smaller obstacles designed for beginners. This led to an increase in jump boxes, pump bumps, bowls and quarters, as skatepark designers were asked to essentially make a pump track for kids.
A small change that came about from this was a change in construction to banks in skateparks – scooters, with their low ground clearance, damaged the lips on old style banks, where flat concrete would meet an incline at a sharp angle. Many newer parks started to build angle iron or flat coping into the lips of banks to mitigate this.
Given how far we’ve come, skateparks these days are amazing compared to when I first started. The possibilities and fun that can be had within even just 2 square metres of any modern skatepark far eclipses any park from 2001. I have no doubt they will continue to evolve, and history proves this: we’re already seeing evolutions with a new focus on the “pumptrack”, and some park builders are now building these directly into skatepark designs instead of including them to the side of a skatepark as a side distraction.
We’re also seeing a focus on DIY, and re-claiming old skateparks to bring them up to modern standards – with parks like Hackney Bumps and The Deaner, there’s a focus on taking the past and adding to it with all the knowledge we have gained over the decades. There’s a real feeling that skatepark design isn’t about throwing away the past (for a while the “skate plaza” signalled that might be the case), but taking the past and incorporating it into modern standards to make something truly remarkable and fresh.
Pumptracks are the thing that spawned this blog post, to be honest. I have yet to try one out but I’m a little bit confused by them, and right now I can’t see the point past skating one for a couple of minutes and chuckling at going really fast – which is sort of what a bowl is for, right? But I think back to when street obstacles made their way into skateparks, and older skaters used to skating vert probably felt the same way. Evolution can be new and exciting, and as these things that start being placed at the side slowly make their way into a merged design with the skatepark, it can push skateboarding in new and exciting ways.