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Aren’t skate parks supposed to cater to everyone? Different sports equipment and ever-increasing numbers of users are causing massive conflicts
By Ingo Naschold, founder and managing director of DSGN CONCEPTS and chairman of the DIN Standards Committee NA 112-07-02 AA “Skate and Parkour Facilities”
Whether in Bayreuth, Gießen, Tuttlingen or Jena - numerous German cities are seeing an increase in the number of conflicts in municipal skate parks. After several accidents, cities such as Tübingen and Frankfurt am Main have taken action by adjusting opening hours, limiting the number of users and adding more roller sports facilities. The reason: more and more often, children on scooters, Bobby Cars or mini bikes are whizzing around skate parks, sometimes causing serious falls and collisions. In neighbouring Poland, there has even been a recent fatal accident when a BMX rider in a skate park swerved to avoid a little girl on a scooter who had unexpectedly crossed his path while he was performing a jump and crashed in his attempt to protect the toddler. Many parents do not seem to be sensitized to the dangerous situations that arise when a child, who does not yet have the appropriate foresight, romps about between skaters unsupervised.
We, DSGN CONCEPTS, an office specialising in urban exercise spaces, have been observing this trend very critically for a long time and are already working on solutions with our team in Münster. Our appeal: skate parks do not cater to everyone. The limit of what is feasible has long been exceeded! What is currently taking place in skate parks must consequently be described as downright overuse.
Since the beginning of this year, we have been receiving calls and e-mails almost weekly from cities in all German states, all of which are facing the same problem: overcrowded skate parks, more and more dangerous situations, as well as highly emotional conflicts between unreasonable parents with their children and frustrated skaters.
However, what exactly is happening right now and why is this issue so highly charged and controversial? It is a fact that roller sports are becoming increasingly popular and that the numbers of skate park users are skyrocketing. For some time now, the sports scene has been moving away from standardized club sports towards low-threshold activities. In addition, skateboarding is now an Olympic sport and it can be assumed that this will lead to another sharp increase in the number of users. It has long since turned from a mere pastime and hobby into a sport that requires training opportunities. At the same time, other user groups such as children on scooters or even Bobby Cars are flocking to the skate parks. Mostly without good reason, because DIN EN 14974 requires users of skate parks to be at least eight years old. Conflicts are bound to arise. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic dramatically exacerbates the situation: all sports facilities are closed, only skate parks are usually open. For many parents, skate parks are now the place to keep their kids occupied somehow. There are no piano lessons, but the scooter originally purchased for getting to school is available at all times.
On the other hand, it would be inadequate to try to reduce the complex problem to this core alone. The "coronavirus effect" will might be somewhat mitigated again, but other factors play a role, each of which must be considered from different perspectives in order to arrive at a moderate solution for everyone. It is essential to start with the development of the existing skate facilities: while in the 1990s, with the emergence of the first municipal skate parks in Germany, around 70% of users still skateboarded, 25% inline skated, and the remaining 5% BMX biked, user groups have long since become more diverse. We have observed over the last decades that BMX riders and especially children are increasingly playing a bigger role in the concept of the facility. This alone poses great challenges for planners and those in charge, because not every skate park concept is always suitable for all sports equipment - skate parks are certainly not designed to accommodate scooters or even Bobby Cars.
Most of the existing facilities are modelled on a competition course. Here, skaters can practise their runs and tricks by riding along the skate park elements in a linear fashion, so to speak. However, this also means that they can only use the skate surface in question one after the other, without getting in each other's way. Children are not supposed to move around as they please. On the contrary, this is not only dangerous, but also makes the young people feel annoyed and frustrated and those in charge consider taking legal action. Most skate parks today are built following a multi-stage planning and participatory process, in which the local scenes have been involved intensively for years. And then, in the first few days, the facility is packed with kids scootering all over the place, so that those involved in the project are unable and unwilling to try their tricks and go back to skating somewhere else. Frustration inevitably sets in.
Only recently, skaters in Münster even launched a petition to ban "small children, scooters and cyclists" from skate parks - an act of desperation that reflects exactly how the situation is growing more acute. Last but not least, the radicalism of the petition, which we do not support as such, is due to the fact that skaters feel increasingly marginalised and displaced from the facilities designed for them. At the same time, attempts to explain the usage regulations fall on deaf ears with both children and their parents.
This is because both manufacturers and planners have always maintained that skate parks are suitable for all user groups and skill levels, usually using this as a selling point. On the political level, this is admittedly a very welcome argument for creating something for "everyone" with just one investment. Over the years, however, this has increasingly led to conflicts, as in the real world, mutual consideration does not work as well as theory demands. To this day, this myth persists and is still used by some planners to justify their concepts. The planning of skate parks and their requirements are constantly changing in a natural process. The demand for any type of roller sports is growing, making it necessary to have different areas instead of one area for all sports equipment and certainly not for all age groups.
In spite of all the criticism, we sympathise with the children and their parents: children naturally want to move, whiz around and test their limits. ... and that's just fine! Only where and how, that is the question that has been on our minds for quite some time and to which we have been trying to find solutions for a long time. For example, we would like to establish a new type of playground with a roller play area, combining the classic playground with the typical elements of a skate park or pump track. With modelled bumps and small ramps where the little ones can let off steam and test their limits without putting themselves and other users in danger. In Hemer, North Rhine-Westphalia, a separate area for beginners was built back in 2010, next to the facility for young people and adults. In Leipzig, a roller play area was built for the first time in 2018. Here, the basic roller sports elements, such as a small organic wave and a shallow banked turn, have been integrated into the existing asphalt surface. The concept is well thought-out and due to the proximity of the playground, the area is now preferably used by children for roller sports.
This is an approach that could help ease the conflicts with younger children in many cities. After all, the issue of overcrowded skate parks is not only about the dangers and frustration among young people and adults, but also about providing additional capacity in view of the boom that the Olympic Games are expected to trigger. Accordingly, it is important to prepare well in advance and to take a multi-faceted approach when planning new facilities, as well as to consider different areas and/or other facilities in the urban area for different sports equipment. As has been shown, for example at the Kesselbrink square in Bielefeld or at the open airea sports park in Oberhausen, skate parks with different concepts at one location tend to lead to less conflict for the users than an overall concept for all user groups. However, even with such large facilities, the capacity limits are already being reached in large cities today.
This makes it clear where things should be heading in the future and also that the planning task and the accompanying advisory function should not be underestimated. Anyone who deals with skate parks, pump tracks and roller play areas has to keep their finger on the pulse of the times and constantly adapt to new realities. Even today, we can no longer plan the way we did two years ago. However, it is the existing facilities that pose the greater challenges. There is no universal solution and each municipality must monitor the local situation and, in the event of conflicts, work out a compromise together with the various parties involved. It will usually not be possible to come up with a structural solution in the short term and one should try to reach a compromise by means of regulatory provisions. A ban on scooters should be the last option; if necessary, one could consider establishing rules on times of use first, which is what some municipalities are already doing. In these cases, the facilities can be used with scooters only up to a certain time in the afternoon or on certain days. If signs don't work, there is still the possibility to employ street workers, to get an institutional operator or to try to enforce the rules through a security service. The latter solution, however, has little in common with the skate park culture. In order to avoid this, we urgently need to appeal to parents to fulfil their duty to supervise their children and, above all, to the common sense of all those involved.