While writing these blog posts I have often wished readers had some background knowledge of the way I think about skateboarding’s relationship to urban environments. This post is intended to reveal some of my thinking through the analysis of a specific location I find interesting.
On 4th street in Santa Monica, between Pico and Ocean Park, sits a pair of mirror image apartment buildings. The two buildings span the entire west side of the street between Bicknell Avenue and Pacific Street.
The pair of buildings were built in 1959, during an era when new freeways were ripping through the Los Angeles Basin and the city’s street car system was nearing death. It is no surprise then, that the buildings flaunt ample parking and reject the pedestrian realm of the sidewalk.
As you can see in the image above, the building practically turns the sidewalk into a driveway, isolating its tenants from the street.
The sides of the buildings feature more parking spaces, a driveway (leading to even more parking spaces), and an awkward space between them. In recent years, this useless spatial by-product has been frequented by skaters, reinvented as a manual pad.
The apartment buildings’ design spatially isolates tenants from pedestrian realm activities, but it does not provide protection from the sounds of street life. In my experiences skating there, sessions typically ended within a few minutes when a tenant would yell at us for invading their homes with the obnoxious sounds of skating. The booms, rattles, and snaps were of course echoed and amplified by the parking caves and large flat walls. Eventually, the building began attempting to tame the streets’ loud behavior with a design solution.
As seen in the video above, the metal “skate stoppers” hug the corner of the ledge and are designed to prevent skaters from grinding and sliding the edge of the surface. Unfortunately for the tenant’s sensitive ears, skaters weren’t attracted to the surface for it’s edge, but instead preferred to ride through the middle of the platform while balancing on two wheels. The skate stoppers were completely ineffective.
On the other side of the buildings is a nearly identical space that was also frequented by skaters.
The people in charge of this space invented a very different design solution, but one that proved equally ineffective.
The mini fence is stylish and unlike the skate stoppers, it does not appear overtly defensive. However, the fence’s absurdity is realized when one notices it accentuates nothing but a slab of blank cement. The fence’s creators were just as ignorant of skateboarding as their mirror image neighbors. The midget fence is easily popped over by skilled skaters and is a much more interesting and exciting obstacle than the original manual pad.
Recently, I was passing through the neighborhood and noticed this new feature that (for the most part) finally destroys the space’s appeal to skaters. Skateboarding forced the property owner to use their dead space for something. Albeit extremely minor, the people of Santa Monica have been provided with an amenity (a little bit of green where there was once just cement).
Okay, perhaps this planter would be more of an amenity without this hostile sign.
The other side has undergone an even more extensive redesign, which completely renders the spot unskateable. While it must be some of the ugliest landscaping in the city, these five planters do provide a little bit of green where there was once only cold, hard cement.
I believe the evolution of this specific space demonstrates a fundamental reality of street skating: it is an symptom of defensive, uninviting architecture. The most skateable terrain tends to be the most uninviting terrain for people. Places built primarily for cars typically have the scale, surface smoothness, and emptiness required for the free flowing act of skateboarding. The manual pads off 4th Street are a perfect example of this type of terrain.
My thinking on this topic is entirely influenced by former pro skater-turned academic, Ocean Howell’s paper titled “The Poetics of Security: Skateboarding, Urban Design, and the New Public Space.”
You cannot skate in a fine-grained city, you need the scale and austerity of the auto-friendly super block.
The defensive architecture of redevelopment was a laboratory for skateboarding: vast plazas, full of modernist architecture, that were empty most of the time.
In this paper, Howell argues that street skateboarding is a symptom of redevelopment architecture (think Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles) before detailing how developers are now building more sophisticated pseudo-public spaces designed to subtly control the unwanted behaviors they inadvertently fostered.
Clearly, the owners of the buildings on 4th Street are not the sophisticated developers discussed in Howell’s paper. However, the evolution of the owners’ attempts to control unwanted behavior on their property mirrors the actions of Howell’s developers: from skate stoppers to more subtle “friendly” design.
Skateboarders are not consciously deciding to skate auto-centric urban design and most are not interested in the broader significance of their activity. Instead, street skateboarding’s significance is best seen from a macro or societal prospective as a collective unconscious response to an uninviting built environment. As our cities have become easier to move through encased in thousands of pounds of steel, our cities have become increasingly cold and uninviting to human-scale activities. Skateboarders temporarily humanize dead space by converting it into a space for play.
Street skateboarding is simultaneously an example of humans’ ability to adapt to our environment and an expression of our natural human needs. We evolved as physically active and social creatures, interacting with many different people while moving through and interacting with our surrounding physical environment. Street skateboarding and it’s culture allows some people to behave like our ancestors in the very different environment of the modern city.
The thinking presented here influences everything I do related to skateboarding. I hope this post will help readers better understand my photography and the inspirations behind what I write in future posts.