UrbSanity: Concrete social, an urban skate park at McNabb

Photo: Demetri Mouratis (Creative Commons)

Photo: Demetri Mouratis (Creative Commons)

Originally published in the Centretown Buzz
by Sarah Gelbard
November 15, 2013

We like to romanticize nature and tend to limit our view of parks as exclusively greenspace. We want to imagine that planting a few more trees will somehow cure our urban ills. So it is not surprising that the chapter of the Centretown Community Design Plan (CDP) addressing parks and public space is titled “Greening Centretown.”

Without denying the importance of plants in an urban neighbourhood, the objective of “adequate, accessible and innovative public open space” needs a diversity of solutions and tools. Trees and lawns are not the only way to “soften the hard character of city spaces,” or to “add beauty to urban settings.”

Fortunately, the CDP does broaden its sights and proposes that “parks and open spaces are essential neighbourhood amenities that support a diversity of formal and informal recreational uses,” and “each park should complement one another in function, as opposed to duplicating roles.” There’s an important component here: the function and use of these spaces.

It is important to remember that our open public spaces can be truly vital and vibrant parts of our urban landscape. Their function is far more complex than just beautification and “reconnecting to nature.” Open public spaces are social spaces. They help to shape communities and become reflections of the diverse identities of the neighbourhood.

Like many urban neighbourhoods, Centretown suffers from limited number and size of open public space. Equally as important is the limited diversity of those spaces. Walk through any of our parks and you will encounter, almost exclusively, families with young children, and people walking their dogs. Walk 10 feet over to the sidewalk of the mainstreet and you encounter a far more diverse population.

Why do we think of parks as places for young children and dogs? Wouldn’t we all benefit from the fresh air, the exercise, and the social interaction? The Ottawa Skateboard Community Association (OSCA) certainly thinks so. OSCA has been petitioning the city for a central professionally designed concrete skate park.

5221207437_1b96f68614_o (Small)

Photo: Drew Shannon (Creative Commons)

In a review of the 14 skate parks currently in operation in Ottawa, OSCA found that there are only about 20,000 sq. ft. of “adequate facilities,” primarily at Legacy Skatepark in Centrepointe. Based on the Skateboard Park Adoption Model (SAM), a formula used to calculate the size of the skating population and amount of space required to accommodate them, Ottawa requires approximately 45,000 sq. ft.

In March 2013, the City held a public meeting for the redevelopment of McNabb, including a proposal for a skate park. OSCA organized “Operation: Overthrow McNabb” and rallied over 100 skaters to attend the meeting not only as a respectful show of unified support, but also as a demonstration that youth want a say in neighbourhood development. It seems to support OSCA’s argument that skate parks can engender a sense of civic engagement and stewardship.

The McNabb Park redevelopment has allocated the 13,000 sq. ft. of the former lawn bowling club pitch to a new skate park. The project is being developed by the Canadian design and construction company New Line Skateparks. Construction is scheduled for spring/summer 2014.

The professionally designed concrete park will be a vast improvement over the prefabricated modular elements that comprise (and compromise) the majority of existing skate parks in Ottawa.

New Line describes their park designs as “one of a kind site-built concrete skate parks that not only provide compelling world-class terrain, but celebrated public spaces that incorporate culturally relevant art and sculpture, inviting viewing/socializing areas, sustainable development principles, and strong connections to surrounding amenities.”

Concrete can create interesting landscapes that people will use when well designed.

The other lesson here may be to start re-blurring the lines between skate parks and the urban elements they have been designed to imitate. Purpose-built skate parks emerged both out of a commercialization of the skateboarding explosion in the 70s, and a push to ban and prevent skateboarding in the public spaces where it originated. I’m curious to see if the benches, curbs and railings in the rest of McNabb will be skateable or if they will be equipped with anti-skateboarding measures.

By reintegrating skate parks with open public places to create skateable urban environments we can create flexible, adaptable, and inclusive parks to serve a broader community. The urban fabric of downtown neighbourhoods, where space is at a premium, benefits from and essentially demands this kind of multipurposed land use. A piecemeal allocation of land-use and budget into segregated activities is simply suboptimal.

There is perhaps an overlooked opportunity to overlap and integrate features throughout McNabb, which would have the added potential of overlapping budgets and space. Landscaping, seating, lighting, playground equipment, community gardens: many of these elements could be integrated with the skate park, and the skate park with them.

Overlap, intersection and juxtaposition are part of what makes Centretown such an interesting and liveable neighbourhood. They are values that should be reflected in our parks.

Skateboarders are an interesting addition to the discussion of designing public space, not just because of the way they creatively negotiate space, but how they negotiate sharing it. It is a skill we could all benefit from developing.

OSCA is currently running a campaign called One Square Foot to raise money to fully realize the McNabb Skatepark. The city budget is estimated to only cover 7,000 of the 13,000 sq. ft. of allocated space. Every donation of $40 adds one square foot to the park. Donations can be made online at 1squarefoot.ca

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