All photos by Rob Whiston
DIY skateparks always exist on borrowed time. This has previously been a rule that very few skateparks have been able to escape. It’s a rare thing for any DIY park to exist under the radar of local authorities, and this is doubly true in the UK – with the odd exception (mostly around the Bristol area). This country has a bizarre attitude toward any form of impromptu DIY forms of community improvement – the British people are sticklers for red tape and “doing things through official channels”. So it stands to reason that people in the UK detest a DIY skatepark.
Against all odds, however, Bournbrook DIY bucked the trend. The crew over in Selly Oak took an unloved, ugly rectangle of concrete and turned it into one of the nicest skateparks in the Midlands. I use the word “nice”, because not only did they make a good skatepark, they did incredible work on the surrounding grounds to make the space a lovely patch to not only skate, but to just hang out even if you don’t skate.
It’s rare for any skatepark to have that impact on the whole community. But it’s the kind of impact that only comes from the action of individuals acting outside of council control. Red tape brings in all manner of waiting, consultation and opinions that can harden and chip away at the soul of a community space like a skatepark or garden. The very core of what makes these things work is the people at the ground level, and the more “official” these spaces become, the less they represent the spirit and character of the community who the space is for.
Bournbrook has been on a bit of a roller-coaster on its journey to become recognised as a legitimate skatepark, and last year it seemed like the space was finally being given the go ahead to permanently remain as a positive space for the local community. Skateboard GB were even forging ahead with a plan to copy the success of the park at other DIY sites across the country. UK skateboarders finally had hope that the weird dance of getting skateparks built we had to put up with before might finally have changed for the better to give us full control over the spaces we use.
Unfortunately, Bournbrook Skatepark has once again ended up in jeopardy though. After initially giving a thumbs up to the skatepark, Birmingham City Council have now begun consultation on demolishing the site and replacing it with new housing. The skatepark group who have spent countless hours on building and fighting for the skatepark have been making their voices heard via this planning form on the council’s website.
And this brings me back to my earlier point. The British people hate it when young people take a space and use it for a reason that was not the original intention. By our very nature the people in this country hate skateboarders on public property. They cannot mind their own business and let people enjoy themselves. No matter how positive an impact skateboarders make to a space, the people of the UK would rather remove them entirely and keep the junkies and drunks that previously occupied these public spaces.
In the case of Bournbrook DIY, skateboarders and other pro-active members of the local community took an unloved space and made it loved. They gave it character, they gave people a reason to travel miles to come skate this patch of concrete, to frequent local businesses and raise the profile of the area. Local people added immense value to the park, and now it is full of people, and non-skaters want to spend more time there. Last time I skated there a chap stopped to sit on a bench, read a book, and eat his lunch – and given the state of the park before the skateboarders moved in I can’t say that would have happened before.
The value of that land, the reason why that area is now considered desirable, is largely down to skateboarders making it a cool place to be. Skateboarding added value to the space, and now the council are cashing in and selling the land to housing developers – lining their own pockets off the hard work of skateboarders and other like-minded individuals.
We have a real decline in areas where young people can go and be themselves, be active and be social. Youth services have been routinely attacked and defiled by the Tories over the last 12 years. When people create spaces like Bournbrook, that should be cherished and protected at all costs – not sold to the highest bidder so another mediocre toff can add more to their already ridiculous wealth.
Birmingham City Council completely misunderstands that places like Bournbrook DIY are the reason people move to these areas. The Deaner, M32 and Daveside are reasons skateboarders pack up and move down south to Bristol. The sense of freedom, creativity and inclusiveness attracts people to live in your city. Removing these spaces is admitting you don’t want any of these things in your city at all.
If that’s what the council wants, then that’s fine. But now that skateboarders in the Midlands know how important these spaces can be, and have seen the positive impact DIY skatepark can offer, the genie is out of the bottle and isn’t going back. If Bournbrook gets demolished, sure it’ll be sad, but it’s not going to stop any of the original crew behind the park from building more parks like it. And it’s not going to stop other skateboarders in other cities from doing the same.
In Coventry, skateboarders have fought for a new skatepark for over 10 years – and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the answer to dealing with Midlands based councils who just don’t listen to skateboarders is to ignore the council, grab an overgrown slab of concrete and build your own park. The fact that Birmingham City Council allowed this skatepark to exist at all has given us all the go ahead to forge on with DIY parks of our own, and ask for forgiveness after the park is done, instead of asking for permission.
So I’ll gladly say that we should save Bournbrook, but I will also say that none of us can trust local councils with these spaces we care so much about, and if none of these spaces are safe – then we should just build as many of them as we can, whilst we can. Bournbrook’s legacy is so much more than the physical skatepark, and even if a housing developer gets their way this time, I doubt they will be able to stop the huge array of DIY parks that will follow.