The Ambiguity of Public Space
Street skateboarding exists within the ambiguity of public space. If there is no sign that says you can't skate, skaters take that as an opportunity to engage with a given property. If it does not blatantly say you can't, that is understood as maybe you can. But, the absence of a sign that explicitly prohibits skateboarding is not the same as permission.
The permission aspect of the space is up for interpretation, by all types of users, not just skateboarders. Perhaps an ordinance is written on an official document somewhere, as part of the city, town, or village rules regarding trespassing, vandalism, noise levels, or transportation. However, if the parameters of the space's usage is buried within the fine print of such a document, or barely visible on a small sign near the entrance to a park, for example, no one can reasonably be expected to abide by those rules.
If there is any ambiguity present in a public space, the responsibility probably falls on the design. So, if a person entering the space with the intent to use it does not understand how they should use it, they may not be to blame. This applies to all sorts of public parks across the world. Usage is dictated by design and usually does not involve any kind of interpretation, insofar as the average user is concerned.
Single-Use Design and Outliers
Even though skateboarding has more practitioners and enthusiasts every year, I might argue that skaters are still not part of the average user group, because they require a specific-use public space for their activity. Skateparks are designed for skaters and they know that so they enter and interact with the space according to its design.
The outliers at skateparks may be graffiti writers, drug users, RC car hobbyists, and/or even children without skateboards or a wheeled device who need adult supervision. These groups and others like them might be understood in the same way that street skaters are when they occupy public or private space that is not intended for skateboarding.
Graffiti writing on skatepark ramps and other features seems to have increased in the past three to five years. Surprisingly, even though it is pervasive I have never witnessed anyone painting. The graffiti could be perceived as representative of the broader street-level community outside of skateboarding or within the fringes of skateboarding. The writing seems to function like any other type of writing, in that it both interprets a given structured reality and lays claim to some portion of the environment. The tags and images are also, seemingly, intended for other users to see, read, and agree or disagree with - again, like writing in general. Graffiti writers are interpreting the skatepark as a page or canvas on which to paint, which is outside of the scope of the space's design.
In terms of drug use, obviously a skatepark is not meant for this purpose. Anything other than marijuana consumption, which is increasingly legal in the United States, is extremely rare. I personally have not even seen anyone drink a beer at a skatepark within the last decade. RC car folks - these are usually warm weather users and are infrequently present, but when they are at a skatepark they do obliviously take up a huge amount of space.
Children in Skateparks
Children who need adult supervision are a major disruption to the function of skateparks. These junior users are often not equipped with skateboards and/or are not instructed on how to operate within the skatepark. Most kids have scooters. Most kids on scooters have parents who sit on the edge of the skatepark property and observe from afar. Most kids on scooters do not understand the flow of a skatepark and the respect factor that guides that flow. Many parents give children permission to play in the skatepark as if it were a playground, even if they don't have a scooter, board, bike, or blades. These foot-bound children usually find some obstacle in the skatepark that they can use as a slide. Even when a public park has a playground that is singularly built to accommodate children and their parents, these disruptive users continue to appear at the skatepark, kinda randomly. If a child is on a skateboard in a skatepark, their erratic and sometimes careless maneuvering is less disruptive because they are not as agile with their navigation, compared to scooterists or those without any wheeled device. Junior skateboarders also have a firmer grasp of the way they should act and move in a skatepark. They are considered less disruptive because adult skaters have more respect for them.
Impact of Location on Skatepark Experience
Of course, the location of the skatepark really informs how many unintended users may appear to interpret the design for purposes other than skateboarding. If a skateboard park is situated in an industrial area, near a major highway, and/or is located in a zone that does not have a thriving nearby residential community with a relatively high percentage of recreationalists, there will be less unintended usage. When a skatepark has a fence around it, akin to a prison yard, less children will appear. Without a doubt, the frequency of the outliers' presence at skateparks varies and depends on the day of the week and the time of day.
The design of a specific-use public space for skateboarders provides community members the opportunity to engage in their activity with little to no resistance from the remainder of the population. The skatepark was funded, designed, and built with the intention of offering skaters a unique environment that functions as a result of the permission aspect. Skaters are allowed to skate in skateparks, whereas they are almost uniformly prohibited from skating in any other public or private space.
Skaters Have Formed Communities for Several Decades
The desire of skaters to continue skateboarding under any and all conditions of permission or violation, popularity or unpopularity, and in almost all geographies since the early 90s was so overwhelming to cities, counties, townships, and villages that skateparks became a sensible urban design decision. The abundance and persistence of skaters across generations has made skateboarding pretty much a mainstream recreational activity. In many areas of the world, skateboarding is still a seasonal practice due to weather conditions and the near impossibility of running a financially successful indoor skateboard facility. However, even though many places only see seasonal skating, there have been more experienced and novice skaters growing and forming communities every year for the past 35 years.
The skateboarding that takes place in permission-based skateparks is an extension of skating that was previously enacted on terms of violation or criminality in public streets or on private property. Trespassing, vandalism, and loitering were requisite illegal activities for skaters to commit in order to skate. Historically, skateboarding initially flourished in middle class suburban areas with suitable climates. Then skating's popularity grew in all such suburban areas, regardless of climate. After that, skateboarding saw a rise in urban environments, where it blended in with and took inspiration from other types of street culture.
The Evolution of Skatepark Design and Popularity
Following that same trajectory, skateparks began as concrete destination parks in the late 70s, early 80s. Users had to largely rely on private vehicular transportation to gain access. During the 80s, similar concrete parks with membership and/or admission fees, as well as helmet and pads requirements, were constructed in various suburban locations, including indoor facilities in less favorable climates. Once insurance policy concerns regarding liability made these pay-to-play recreational enterprises cost prohibitive for mostly non-skater-skatepark-owners, in combination with a market downturn and lessening of consumer demand, access to permission-based skateparks drastically diminished.
By the beginning of the 90s, experienced and novice skateboarders had to either build their own ramps, usually out of wood, travel to a park one to three hours away by car, or skate in the street. Thus, skateboarding entered into an underground cultural status and throughout the 90s attracted more and more urban or urban-influenced suburban users. The rise of urban street skateboarding was perhaps catapulted by its newfound cultural cachet and the associated marketing efforts of that cachet by independently owned brands in the industry. I would also suggest the realization of its affordability and accessibility by parents and kids in or near cities added to the growth, even though virtually all densely populated cities did not have public skateparks for city dwellers to access. The access of skaters at this time was inherent in their agency to directly engage with the found environment itself, wherever it was located. Private vehicle transportation was unnecessary, because skaters developed a new style and approach on any and all streets or architecture in their immediate environment. Some outdoor and indoor skateparks were around in the 90s, but they did not attract as many skaters as did the streets.
Around the year 2000, with the release of the THPS video game on PlayStation and the increasing viewership of ESPN's X Games, and probably a huge amount of marketing risks taken by Tony Hawk himself, public skateparks started popping up in the suburbs and then slowly bled into outer borough areas of cities. The majority of these late 90s, early 2000s skateparks were designed as temporary constructions, rather than permanent facilities. Many of them were built with affordable materials like wood and metal and could be removed without a large-scale demolition operation. The liability was often addressed by memberships, admission fees, and safety equipment requirements - as seen in the original skatepark business model.
Later on, these parameters were dissolved due to bureaucratic complications and replaced with the Skate at Your Own Risk policy, which puts all liability on the user. Skaters of this period typically utilized skateparks as starting points, gathering places, areas for community discourse, and safe spaces - especially for children from dysfunctional or abusive families. They were considered more of a training ground where one could hone their skills before expressing themselves in the found street environment. Skaters did not consider wood or prefabricated skatepark environments worthy of reverence, possibly because of the nature of their construction. A lack of effort and care by the builder extends to the structure and environment and from there to the end user.
Following the skateboarding boom of the early 2000s, there was a slight dip in mainstream skateboarding popularity and marketing. Simultaneously, the skate communities that were healthy and self-sustained were interested in establishing skateparks that reflected their committed relationship to found environments, including the material composition of the landscape. A few years before and after 2010, permanent skateparks started getting built and were usually concrete. Community action, the unsustainable cost of temporary skatepark repair and the dangers/liability associated with decrepit facilities, and the steadily growing population of skateboarders created an undeniable demand for better skateparks. Many were built with allocated funds from local or city governments and some were built with a combination of donated funds in a deceased child's honor and tax money. In every case, permanent skatepark construction involved a massive grass roots effort by the community.
Skaters obviously wanted a permission-based place to skate because only having the streets meant you had to deal with increasing friction from non-skaters and law enforcement, or you had to travel to or live in a major city where it was not seen as destructive/criminal like in the suburbs. And, when your only option as a skater is to hit the streets, you are commingling a positive, healthy athletic activity with actual criminal or quasi-criminal behavior, which is not conducive to overall participation in society. Such commingling renders skaters outsiders, even if they don't necessarily identify that way, and that outsider status is usually only appealing to the youth demographic. It also may not be the most responsible decision to encourage children to play in the gutter next to potentially fatal vehicular traffic. Therefore, to have a safe environment that appeals to the sensibility of skate culture, and to wrangle the majority of the activity into one particular area that lessened public disturbance, permanent skateparks popped up with unprecedented abundance.
Skateboarders Idolize Found Environments
Yet, skateboarders still idolize street skateboarding in found environments. A certain aspect of skateboarding culture still retains the desire to engage in violating or criminal behavior. In fact, among the top performing professionals and industry leaders, street skateboarding and the illegality associated with it is held up as the defining standard of excellence (this does not apply to vertical skateboarders who need gargantuan halfpipes, pools, or bowls). Skate company marketing strategies rely on street culture imagery to sell goods, to attract the youth demographic, and to push a narrative of grit, toughness, and coolness onto the younger end of the culture.
Adult skateboarders are more prone to abide by the rules and perform skateboarding in a space with permission. Adults who skate are not as concerned with the marketing messages - skate goods are not marketed to them - and there is little to no pressure from their peers to conform to any given image. In wealthier urban areas, places that have been systematically gentrified, you may see adult skaters in the streets. Or, in famous skate locations. Other than that, an adult street skateboarder is very unusual (this excludes those who use skateboards for transportation, like electric boards, longboards, etc.). The practicality and accessibility of the skatepark is satisfactory, and a responsible adult is probably not going to risk their all-around stability by engaging in petty criminal behavior. It simply does not make sense as a citizen who wishes only to enjoy themselves with a recreational endeavor.
Skaters Seize the Ambiguity of Public Space
Wherever there remains some element of ambiguity of design in a public space, street skateboarders will seize the opportunity to use that space. The more densely populated the environment, the less resistance skaters will face from non-skaters and law enforcement. In major cities, skating has a higher likelihood of blending in with the remainder of the urban chaos without causing any kind of abnormal disturbance.
The acceptance of street skateboarding varies based on culture and social norms. Broadly speaking, street skateboarding exists within the shadows of regular business hours, especially in central business districts and suburban environments. To access an alternative method of usage of a space, skaters have to navigate or contend with the protectors of property, including the workforce, the consumer public, security guards, and the police.
In short, if you want to skate the street, you will achieve the longest duration of occupation before or after business hours, or on the weekend. Residential and commercial districts present the most consistent amount of resistance, regardless of the day of the week or time of day. On the other hand, the opportunity for occupation is greater in industrial areas, on all days and at all times, because there is less civilian and police surveillance and more general types of noise.
In some cases, the ambiguity might even apply to private property, as seen with abandoned lots, warehouses, or any other building or land that is undeniably not in use and which usually has a concrete foundation. These vacant environments are the basis for the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) skatepark movement. Skaters with or without construction skills build their own concrete parks using community donation funds and volunteer labor.
If history demonstrates a lack of usage or a space has otherwise been proven to be underutilized, regularly or at certain hours, that is where the ambiguity comes into play. If a space is not being used, then it can be interpreted that it could or even should be used, riding the line between permission and violation, because that usage can potentially uplift individuals, build communities, and create positive gathering spots that did not previously exist. The integration of mixed-use infrastructure into urban and suburban environments, which accommodates skateboarders and other users, and brings them together rather than separates them, will probably result in the most harmonious relationship. And, if more urban design and skatepark building is focused on that kind of integration, skaters can positively engage with their environment and community without disrupting fellow recreationalists, residents, or commerce.