Shredding the Divide

June 27, 2024, Feature, by Marika Carley

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For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

Montgomery Parks’ skate park initiative cultivates inclusive communities

Visit a Montgomery Parks skate park on any given weekend and you will see people of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels embracing the thrill of the concrete bowl on various wheels — inline skates, roller skates, bikes and skateboards. You will also spot observers seeking fresh air, camaraderie and perhaps some physical activity as well. These public spaces provide opportunities for diverse groups with different interests and agendas to come together to play and connect.

Montgomery Parks, a large park system just outside Washington, D.C., in Montgomery County, Maryland, features 419 parks serving more than a million people. The department recently updated its long-term plan, the Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan (PROS), which revealed a trend: demand for more opportunities for physical activity and social interaction across diverse demographics. The county’s evolving landscape has transitioned from suburban to more urban, with densely populated areas once overlooked now gaining prominence. The revised plan aims to construct facilities that unite communities and foster increased physical engagement, social cohesion and outdoor exploration. This strategy spurred the decision to embark on the construction of five new skate parks, supplementing the existing three parks scattered throughout the county, as part of an inclusive initiative to enhance recreational opportunities.

Why Skate Parks?

According to Darren Flusche, Montgomery Parks’ acting deputy director for administration, it has everything to do with the changing needs of the county. Skate parks appeal to teens, young adults, working-age adults, and even some older adults who grew up skating and never stopped, or are starting up again. These groups are growing in Montgomery County’s population, as shown in the PROS Plan, and while skate parks are especially appealing to teens, that appeal is not exclusive to teens.

“The county’s parks need to evolve and skate parks appeal to such a broad array of people,” says Flusche. “As a result, skate parks must be designed with different types of users in mind.”

In July 2023, Montgomery Parks launched a countywide skate park study to find out what makes for a great skate park, including the types of features skaters want and what else besides the skate features should be there — restrooms, food options and places for people watching. To gather this information, Montgomery Parks launched a survey and turned to some nontraditional methods of engagement to solicit responses — like collaborations with local skate influencers and getting its mascot, Otus the Owl, involved. Otus and his skateboard made appearances at events, on social media and on local TV newscasts to promote the skate park survey.

The response to the survey was overwhelmingly positive.

“We found that skateboarders are really very eager to share their ideas — we had over 700 survey responses and many were from teens — a tough age group to reach,” says Melissa Chotiner, Montgomery Parks community outreach and engagement manager.

An impressive 45 percent of the respondents were between the ages of 13 and 29. “Even though skateboarding has been around for many years, the sport is currently experiencing a rise in popularity,” adds Chotiner.

Montgomery Parks Trail Planner Kyle Lukacs and his colleagues crunched that survey’s data. Lukacs, a Montgomery County native and skateboard enthusiast, occasionally acts as Montgomery Parks’ mascot when Otus needs to perform action-adventure activities, such as skateboarding and parkour.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to put on an owl costume and have so much fun,” Lukacs jokes.

Diving into the data, the team found that the types of features respondents requested often varied by region of the county, by age and by gender. There was general agreement on some amenities, such as the desire for a 10-foot-low flat rail, which is good for beginners and experts; easy-to-approach features; and open space. Lukacs’ big data find was that “users want skate parks to be more integrated into the park setting. They don’t want to feel cast off. We don’t fence off playgrounds or basketball courts. They’re a part of the park.”

One survey response noted, “Some of the most successful skate parks in Europe are really integrated into the environment. They look pretty and provide ample seating for anyone who would like to visit.”

Flusche reiterated the need to make skate parks welcoming to non-skaters and holistically designed. “We want to create an area for social gathering, social connectivity. Nothing attracts people like people,” he says. “People watching is part of it. It’s good to have a space for spectators.”

A Place for All

One of the driving visions for the new skate parks is the urban design concept of “placemaking,” a process in which the community takes part to reimagine and renovate public spaces.

“Not all spaces are equal. We want to create places where people want to spend time, places that are identified with a specific location and community. We’re looking to serve teens well,” says Flusche. “Teens want something to do where they can feel safe and be around other teens. Well-planned parks can do that.”

Montgomery Parks’ goal is to make the new skate parks unique places that cater to their users’ interests.

Most survey respondents preferred a street-/urban-/plaza-style park, while the classic bowl style was also a popular choice.

Younger skaters (ages 5-12) liked the Vert style — vertical walls and other curved features — best, while the older crowd (older than 30) preferred the Snake Run style — paths that allow riders to cruise rather than doing tricks; more advanced skaters favored the Vert, Snake Run, and Flow — an overall functionality of elements providing skaters with freedom to create lines.

An older survey taker noted, “beginner obstacles end up being the obstacles that us older skaters gravitate toward. Smaller ledges, mini ramps, ride-on grinds, stuff like that, where the little kids and old duffers can shred on.”

Female survey respondents showed they were more likely to use scooters, inline skates or roller skates and preferred a large, smooth, flat ground area for warming up and practicing new skills.

Where It Began

Skateboarding originated in the 1950s in California and Hawaii, with surfers seeking to replicate the sensation of riding waves on land by attaching wheels to shorter surfboards. Termed “asphalt surfers,” this new sport gained momentum throughout the 1960s, culminating in the invention of the “Ollie” in 1978, heralding the rise of street skateboarding.

By the 1980s, skateboarding had solidified as a fully-fledged sport and subculture, with figures like Tony Hawk pushing its boundaries. In 2016, skateboarding made its debut in the Summer Olympics.

Reflecting on his youth in Syracuse, New York, Flusche recalled a predominantly white, punk rock skateboarding scene, which has since diversified, embracing men of color and hip hop as integral components of its culture. With the sport’s evolution, female participation also has increased. Lukacs, a father of two daughters, envisions teaching them to skate, highlighting the growing diversity within the skateboarding community.

Skate Parks Bring People Together

Darren Harper is a prominent Washington, D.C.-based skater who helped promote the skate park study through a collaboration with Montgomery Parks. Harper, self-titled the “Obama of Skateboarding,” started the sport as a kid living in Southwest D.C. in the early 1990s. “I would get on the bus and go down to Freedom Plaza [in downtown Washington, D.C.] and skate when I was just 9 or 10 years old,” Harper recalls.

He had a deep passion for skateboarding and displayed considerable skill in the sport. However, Harper faced criticism from peers who did not understand his fascination with it. “Some of my friends in the neighborhood would accuse me of trying to be white. [They’d say], ‘Black dudes don’t do that. Pick up a basketball or football.’ The peer pressure got bad.”

Harper acquiesced and turned to a street life, but the call of skateboarding always was present. Harper recalls reconnecting with an old skating friend who invited him to visit Southern California, where they attended a skate trade show in San Diego. He remembers meeting Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker who offered the D.C. skater a clothing endorsement deal. And just like that, Harper’s life changed. Without the individuals he met while skating at Freedom Plaza, who hailed from various parts of the D.C. region, this narrative would never have unfolded. “Skate parks bring people together,” Harper affirms.

Harper is now the father to two daughters who he calls the “Venus and Serena of skateboarding.” His daughters — Demi, 9, and Tink, 13 — already have endorsement deals and are competitive skaters. “I skate with my girls every day after school,” he says, proud that he can share his love of skateboarding with his daughters. “I was a street skater, but to learn competition skating you need to practice in a skate park.” He plans to take his daughters to Montgomery Parks’ new skate parks once they are built. Harper hopes his daughters’ skating will attract more Black girls, and other girls in general, to skating and inspire them to challenge themselves.

The Harper family is one of many eager to use the new skate parks. “We thought adding five new skate parks might be too many. We also thought we would hear that people did not want the skate parks in their neighborhoods. But it turns out that people want more parks and have them built in their neighborhood,” says Flusche. “We plan to build small neighborhood skate parks and large action sports parks that will draw visitors and their dollars from all over the greater D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region into the local economy. We’re only scratching the surface on the demand for these type of community amenities.”

Montgomery Parks’ skate park revival signifies more than just recreational development; it symbolizes a commitment to fostering vibrant, inclusive communities. By embracing diversity, promoting engagement and honoring the transformative power of skateboarding, Montgomery Parks paves the way for a brighter, more connected future for all.

SEE ALSO: “Creating Inclusive Skate Parks,” Joe Eberling, Parks & Recreation, February 2021, Vol. 56, Iss. 2; “Skate Parks Benefit All,” Heidi Lemmon, Parks & Recreation, November 2022, Vol. 57, Iss. 11.

Marika Carley is Public Relations and Outreach Specialist at Montgomery Parks.