Design and Construction of Concrete Skateparks
How to Get the Skatepark You Need
by Stan Liederlich
Reprinted with permission from Sparkplug Skatezine
Building a skatepark can be a difficult task for a town to attempt. Despite the fact that thousands upon thousands of dollars can be spent, towns often end up with a facility in their hands that skateboarders consider junk. Unlike other facilities that a parks and recs department might build, such as baseball fields and basketball courts, there are no standard plans and dimensions for a skate park. Skate parks are more akin to golf courses, where each one has its own design and challenges. No one would consider having one standard blueprint for golf courses and skate parks are no different. This essay is an attempt to educate the laymen about skateboard parks and a few key design issues in the hopes that they will better understand what it takes to make a good skatepark.
What type of Skatepark?
A brief outline of the different parks that can be built.
- Modular Park -
A modular skate park is one where pre-manufactured ramps are bought and then arranged on existing asphalt. The ramps and obstacles can be made out of a variety of materials:pre-cast concrete and metal-framed ramps with a composite skating surface are the two predominant types. These parks are not a favorite among skaters, but the advantages are obvious. They are inexpensive, ready to skate in just a few weeks and are easier to push through the paper trail of a town's bureaucracy. Plus, they are fairly easy to dispose of when they no longer are needed.
Before a town goes for this easy option they should consider seriously these drawbacks. These type of parks have little chance of being considered good or even adequate by any skater with moderate experience. Most manufacturers have little interest in skateboarding besides making a quick buck. Unless the obstacles are made of concrete they will quickly delapitate and become dangerous. Expect only one or two years of regular wear before serious maintenance is required. Most concrete systems lay their obstacles on top of the existing surface and roughly patch in the gap. Better systems recommend a general contractor custom install all the flat areas, but for that amount of money, a cast-in-place style park would be price competitive. All in all, these parks will yield the minimum benefits at the minimum costs. They are good for towns who can't (or won't) spend a lot of money on a skatepark. For any serious amount of money, these parks are not a bargain, with the alternatives being able to offer so much more.
- Ramp Park - A ramp park is here defined as a skatepark made out of wood or metal, built mostly on-site by a work crew. A very popular choice for indoor skate parks, they are moderately priced and can be changed periodically to keep the skaters interested. With new surfacing technology and pressure treated wood, wood parks can withstand the outdoors for longer periods of time than before. Although quite similar to pre-fab ramps, don't be fooled, having the park built on site allows for a much more creative design and will be more skateable than a bunch of isolated obstacles. A good work crew can build fun mini-ramp quickly and cheaply. Plus, with wood you can always add more later. The biggest drawback is maintenance, even the best built ramps aren't going to last for ever. Also, the cost of building increases exponentially the more complex the design is. The bottom line is, if a town already has a good skateable flat surface, contacting your local skater/carpenter will give you much more mileage out of your dollar in terms of quality than purchasing a pre-manufactured product.
- Concrete Park - If you want to something that is truly good and you can afford it, a custom-built concrete skatepark is the only way to go. As you might have noticed, this article is biased toward them and why not? They are simply the best things for a skateboarder to skate. And while other types of skate parks can adequately serve a skateboarder's needs, it is a concrete skatepark that skaters are dreaming of. Here's why:
- Concrete allows for a more natural and organic form. While a skilled carpenter could surely replicate a concrete park, the amount of engineering and calculation it would take to match a complicated concrete form would be so time-consuming it would be ridiculous. Concrete naturally takes a skateable form.
- Concrete is permanent and requires the minimum of maintenance.
- Concrete has the fastest surface and always feels solid under a skater's feet.
- Concrete parks are seamless and fully connected.
- All the things skaters like to skate (curbs, ditches, stairs, ledges, pools) are concrete in the "real" world.
- The original wave of skateparks were concrete. Concrete is a part of skateboarding's history and it's forms helped evolve the sport.
- Concrete is the most enjoyable to grind.
There are a few pitfalls to concrete, the first being the cost. They are the most expensive and unless you build in stages, the cost will be all up front. Furthermore,you only get one shot. Unlike ramps that can be taken apart and rebuilt, concrete is rather permanent for better or worse. If the builder is inexperienced, you can end up with a lumpy and rough molten mass of concrete. Don't suffer the mistake Hyannis, Cape Cod (right) made, where they had a good design, but somehow, somewhere it is was decided to give the concrete a broom finish instead of the desirable glossy smooth finish. Ensure that the contract goes to a qualified builder with skateboard experience.
Important Design Elements
- This is how all the elements of the park work together. An abstract concept, sure, but crucial to a good skatepark. It might help if you consider it the skateboard equivalent of fung shei. I can't define exactly what flow is or even tell you what makes a skatepark have flow but I can tell you what some of the things a good flow accomplishes.
A good flow allows skateboarders to hit all obstacles comfortably from all angles. It allows skateboarders to ride the whole park as one and yet directs traffic so collision courses are kept to a minimum. It keeps the skaters skating continuously. It gives you enough speed at all times. It connects all obstacles in a way that seems right.
Bad flow sends you out of the park or into wall. It sends you down the same lines every time. You never have enough speed or you have too much. You never seem to be able to hit the obstacles at the right angle. Bad flow means lack of balance, in the design and on the board.
Flow is an intangible quality, and you truly never know if it works until the park is built. This is why you should try to consider skatepark building an art form. It takes a trained eye to see how a park will ride when it is still on paper. I will say this: I believe that if the shape looks good on paper i.e. aesthetically pleasing, it is certainly more likely to ride well than an off balance irregular looking shape.
Matt Anderson hoists a Lien Melon out of Marseille, France, a park that is renowned world wide for its excellent flow. This might be due to the fact that the rumors that the speed lines were mathematically calculated by a skateboarder for his master thesis in engineering are true.
- Perhaps the key factor to having good flow is the element of speed. Imagine for a second, a skatepark being a giant perpetual motion machine with skateboarders being kept constantly in motion by it. The less energy a skater expends to stay in motion, the better the park is. Perpetual motion in this manner is impossible, but if you can skate a park all day without pushing, it can be said the park has achieved the zen-like quality of having "good speed lines." In a park with good speed lines a good skater will have total control over how fast he or she goes, being able to slow down or speed up at will.
How is this achieved? Of course, there is no formula, but height, transition and spacing are the key factors in this equation. Height and transition are addressed elsewhere, but spacing should be addressed here. Too much flatbottom is a waste of space and money. Anything over twenty is too much. A few well placed pumpbumps can go along way. Finally, I give you the most obvious and most overlooked key to speed: the less that is in your way the faster you can go. Don't view a skatepark as a bunch of isolated ramps, but as one continuous, organic, concrete form.
- Question: How tall should a skatepark be? Answer: How long is a piece of string? Don't be taken in with the adage bigger is better and don't believe the myth that smaller is safer. The fact is a good skatepark should have obstacle of all heights and all depths. The height of an object should correlate with the terrain around it so that the rider can maintain adequate speed. Figure A has a variety of heights but if you imagine a skater going from left to right he would never have enough speed to clear the large banked pyramid after going over the smaller volcano ramp. And going the other way gives you to much speed going into smaller obstacle.
Because concrete can be built in-ground, you can make an obstacle larger by digging down instead of building up.
Varying the depths, as in figure B, accommodates all the different heights, while allowing the objective height to be relatively the same. A skateboarder can more easily maintain his speed with a design like this. Also, don't make obstacles on the edges smaller than the ones in the middle as in figure C. This sends skaters out of the park or into fences. Better to keep the obstacles in the middle a little bit smaller as in figure D.
Any obstacle that is over head high will be perceived psychologically as large and any obstacle below eye level will be considered small. Obstacles that are about eye level will be perceived as just right. The majority of the park should at least be eye level in height. Bigger walls will add challenge and speed, while smaller obstacles add spice and fun.
- Transitions and Pitch
- Transitions are the curved parts of a skatepark. They can either be a perfect radius or elliptical. Flat inclines are called banks. Pitch refers to how steep a transition or bank is at the top. Big radiuses (eight feet or more) have a lower impact on the body, but they seem slower and are harder to accelerate on. Any radius smaller than chest high is considered tight, which can be good. Here's some simple physics- at a low velocity tight trannies will accelerate you, at a high speed they can slow you down. Bigger trannies work best at high speeds, otherwise they can suck out your momentum.
In terms of flow obstacles that are meant to be jumped or rode over should have less pitch than ones that are meant to redirect the skater. In figure C the skater is going right off the side of the park. That quarterpipe is not steep enough. And the stuff in the middle is too steep to flow over. Figure D gets it right. The outside walls are bigger and steeper keeping skaters in the park. The obstacles in the middle are pitched less so you can flow over them better.
- I'll make this simple and brief: the more different stuff you have, the more skaters you please.
If you want to keep the local kids to keep coming back to your park, create a challenging park. With out challenge, skateboarding can get boarding. A good park will service a variety (there's that word again) of skill levels. Why be boring?
- Many towns are apprehensive about building a large grey concrete blob in the midst of other more familiar facilities. Most attempts at incorporating landscaping into the park have failed. Moreover, aesthetic elements, such as plants and elaborate fences, can squander much needed funds for the skatepark. Towns should recognize that these skate parks are beautiful to the skateboarder's eye and that skate parks are becoming increasingly part of the visual language of the modern world. Towns should not give up hope; all it takes is a little consideration in how to incorporate the skatepark into it's surroundings. Skate parks in fenced off rectangular areas often look ugly because fenced in rectangular areas are ugly. The park pictured left (Seylin Park, North Vancouver) is a great example of a skatepark blending in naturally with its surroundings. It's organic shape utilizes the hillside it rests on. Paths extend out on both sides of the park inviting you in and creating the effect that the skatepark is a natural part of the path. To some it may be ugly, but it surely looks as if it belongs there.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the skatepark mimics the adobe and clay architecture that the area is known for. While not the best park, it blends seamlessly with it's surroundings; so much so that it could be mistaken for a normal plaza where kids like to skate. While this writer could care less how good a skate park looks, it is important to know that it is possible to build a skatepark that
- This trait is important in any design, why should skateparks be any different? Besides containing all of the staple elements already proven to be functional, a skatepark also should have try to incorporate a few unique features. Concrete has so much potential and all of its possibilities are still unexplored. Any form can be made and as skateboarding's history has proved, any thing your wheels ride on can be skated. Don't be afraid to try something new or weird. You will be surprised at how creative skaters can be and their ability to adapt to different terrain.
- Lips, Coping, Railings and Ledges
- To the laymen these terms refer to any edge that a skater can do tricks on. What you need to know is that you need them. While the average person might think skateboarding's main purpose is to catch some air, you will find that the average skater is worried more about slapping down a smith grind or laying up a buttery krooks. Again in laymen's terms, controlling one's board while grinding or sliding a ledge or bar is the main focal point of skateboarding. If you're skatepark doesn't have some ledges and railings then you will have a lot of angry kids.
A couple of pit falls to avoid: do not make ledges and railings too low. twelve inches is not that tall even for a beginner. When you combine pyramids and inclines, ledges and railings less than a foot can be dangerously low. The natural way to do all tricks is to land on the obstacle at the apex of the ollie. Too low and the skater will over shoot miss! See illustration. Ledges and railings also can get in the way of the natural flow of the park. A few good ones are better than a thousand bad ones. Make sure the placement is well thought out and not put into any space that seems to have room. With flat metal railings, make sure rounded tube stock is used and not sharp edged angle iron.
Coping (the edge at the top of a transition) can be steel pipe or pool coping block. Steel is easier to grind and lasts near forever; pool block is considered a treat by most skaters, and because it delivers a harsher grind, it will need to be given a little maintenance for it to last. Which ever way you go (and it is here suggested to use both types at every park), make sure that it sticks out in front and on top a little bit; three eighths of an inch seems to be the magic number. Steel pipe should be at least two and a half inches in diameter and have a wall thickness of schedule 40 or more.
- Once upon a time vert skating was so popular that the two back-to-back walls of a halfpipe were considered the only ingredients needed for great skate terrain. Those days are gone with the popularity of street skating, miniramps and the modern skateparks. This does not mean that vertical is unneeded to make a good skatepark, it is simply not the main focus as it was in the past. Vert still provides a feeling unlike any other in skateboarding. It is essential to properly do airs and inverts, and most tricks take on a new level when done on vert. A common mistake a skatepark designer can make is thinking that by taking out vert they are somehow making it easier. While it may be a little less scary, often the flow is ruined as you can't get adequate speed to do what you want. In bowls with no vert and little steepness, skaters find themselves pumping twice as hard and getting less speed than they would in a bowl with vert. When designing a park, don't be afraid of vertical. It was the core of the first couple rounds of radical skating and it still matters today.
- Question: If skateboarding is an inherently dangerous sport can a skatepark ever be safe? Answer: No, of course not. Part of the thrill of skateboarding is confronting your fears and overcoming them. What the observer doesn't know is that when they see a kid "killing himself" jumping down some stairs, the skater is completely focused on what he is doing. Whatever happens is no accident, it is the outcome of the struggle between the skater's will and his own personal challenge. A skatepark can't eliminate this danger, it is what skaters go there for. In the past skatepark designers tried to make skateparks "safe" by rounding off the lips and making transitions less steep. Guess what? Accidents still happened. Skateparks can be made safer not by taking out perceived danger, but by minimizing hazards that skaters can't anticipate.
Poor construction is the leading cause of unexpected accidents. Kinked and lumpy transitions can throw a skater off balance. Seams that aren't flush or have too large a gap will be cursed by skaters even if they didn't fall. Rough surfaces not only make it harder to skate thus causing more falls, they take off more skin when you do. Even a fully padded skater is not immune. Rough surfaces have been know to rip pads right off. On the other side of the coin, surfaces that are too slippery are even more dangerous. Concrete surfaces are usually no problem except for the following: the park is spray painted or painted with the wrong paint; continuous kneesliding has left a plastic residue (this can be acid washed out); or deposits of a foreign material, such as wax, pollen, water or dust.
The other most common cause of unanticipated falls is collision. Traditionally, skatepark designers have dealt with this by dividing the skatepark into separate areas. This works fairly well, even if at the cost of overall flow, as long as it keeps inexperienced skaters out of the way of the experienced. This theory backfires when there is poor visibility between areas. Simply put, skaters can't see what's coming when people are crossing over. You're best bet to minimize collisions is a design with a good flow and minimal visual obstructions.
In the end, safety does not need to be "built in" to a skatepark. The most effective safety measures are already hardwired into the brain - fear and common sense. A safe skatepark is not one that eliminates all risk, but one that minimizes unexpected hazards.
If you're reading this I assume you've been reading the essay the entire time. If not go back and finish it! As for this "conclusion", I will let you make your own.