Issue #024 Published: 24-05-2019 // Written by: Jack Halpin-Doyle

Renegotiation of urban space skateboarding and gentrification

In cities, the effects of gentrification are vast and unpredictable. People become displaced, areas change from residential to commercial, and public urban space becomes increasingly privatised. Just like the effects, the responses and fights against these issues are also varied, whether they are taking place in cultural and activist contexts or by local community groups. One of the cultures, or subcultures, that play an interesting and important role in the fight against gentrification is skateboarding.

Skaters have a long and complex relationship with urban space and gentrification. We can see creative ways in which skaters have re-appropriated both public and private spaces. If we take the values and intended uses of office blocks and other corporate buildings, which serve the interest of a small percentage of people and typically give little back to the cities they inhabit, then we can see skater’s interaction with them to be of cultural significance. Skaters use structures that represent the dominance of capital interest and turn them into obstacles on which they perform tricks. It is an act of self-expression and creativity, which in turn adds positively to experiences of space in cities.

A notable and valid criticism towards a lot of art is that, however revolutionary or disrupting the message is, it happens within institutions which exclude certain groups or members of the public. Skateboarding as an art form goes tries to remedy this usual state of affairs. By performing in the public realm, skaters bring these ideas of rebellion and fighting against corporate power into the public sphere.

Seeing skaters use symbols of gentrification as part of their craft is an important statement against gentrification. Developers can build offices and apartment complexes, which may even include specific anti-skating architecture, but there will always be people who will find alternative and subversive ways of interacting with these structures. However, as well as playing an important role in shaping visible responses against gentrification, we must also consider how skateboarding is also being used as a tool of gentrification.

While a lot of skateboarding happens in uncontrolled, public environments, and always will, we cannot ignore the rise of skateparks and their role in reshaping neighbourhoods, especially in the last ten or fifteen years. While skateparks usually arise from a genuine demand and are usually community organised or orientated, there is also the inescapable fact that skate parks are often part of the gentrifying process.

One of the ways this is possible is through making traditionally working class areas seem “safe” to both new and potential middle class residents. This process has been dubbed “skatewashing”, through which the opening of skateparks and is used as a marketing tool for the promotion of a particular neighbourhood.

Skateparks are often installed alongside playgrounds and football pitches, and while these are positive additions for communities, they also act as markers of a newly “desirable” area. This is a complex phenomenon; while skateparks do act as important spaces where skaters can exist relatively unbothered, they can also signify gentrification and speed up the process of changing a neighbourhood.

As well as aiding in the gentrifying process, skateparks also serve to take skaters out of the street and keep them in sanctioned areas. If we are to take skateboarding as a subversive act we can see how skateparks, especially when they come as part of an “up-and-coming” neighbourhood, are used as weapons in the arsenal of neoliberal urban planning. This is not to say that skateparks should not be built, but rather that we should examine the motive that goes behind their construction, the way in which they impact the area they situated in, and how they are incorporated into the city.

If we look at London’s famous Southbank skatepark we can see where a local movement, Long Live Southbank, successfully stopped the park’s demolition and got the green light for the construction of a new section. This is the stuff that anti-gentrification dreams are made of: a skatepark being preserved in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Another good model of a city that has taken new and revolutionary approaches to incorporating skateparks into its cityscape is Malmö. Malmö has skaters that work with the local government, who build skateparks in the city centre, as opposed to the outskirts. Malmö also has architecture that is designed to be used by both skaters and non-skaters alike. This includes sculptures such as Alexis Sablone’s Lady in the Square, which resembles a face that can be used to skate or sit on.

This blurring of the lines between purpose-built skate parks and public amenities has a variety of effects. As well as keeping skating in the public realm it also opens up spaces to new interactions between skaters and other inhabitants of the city. Not only does it encourage new relationships to form, it also stops the tradition of skateparks being built away from urban centres and being used as a way to market neighbourhoods, and thus speed up the gentrification process. While skateboarding has been co-opted by corporate interests, there is an essence to skateboarding that can’t be capitalized on, and it is this energy that can make skating such a valuable weapon in the fight against gentrification.

 

Photo: Nicholas Constant