Issues Facing California's Skate Parks PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 07 April 2009 12:05

Issues Facing California's Skate Parks

By Marti Childs and
Jeff March

Spring 2002
Volume 58, No. 2
Page 32

Three years ago, California Parks & Recreation magazine conducted a comprehensive exploration of the skate park concept, examining liability issues as well as the potential of skate parks to help reduce crime and vandalism by inviting skaters to come in off city sidewalks and into an organized activity area. Since then, the number of skate parks has soared faster than a skateboarder on a half-pipe jump. Rarely seen outside a few pioneering mid-sized cities a few years ago, skate parks have now popped out of the landscape all the way from tiny Ripon (population 10,000) to sprawling Los Angeles.

The rapid rise in the number of skate parks was encouraged in part by enabling legislation that limited the vulnerability of skate parks to legal action arising from injury claims. One bill, AB 1296, modified a section of the state’s Health and Safety Code in 1997 by declaring skateboarding a hazardous recreational activity (HRA) and alleviated skate parks of liability for injuries sustained by skateboarders age 14 or older. With proper warning signs posted, skate parks were granted a measure of immunity from liability for injuries resulting from failure of a skateboarder to exercise proper caution. Similar legislation, AB 915, introduced in 1997 by Assemblyman Scott Baugh, applied to in-line skaters, but set the age threshold at 18 or older. The bills required cities, counties and park districts with skate parks to submit annual reports to the Judicial Council detailing information about lawsuits filed by persons injured while skateboarding or in-line skating on public property.

Both bills contained a sunset clause, with an expiration date of Jan. 1, 2001, for AB 915 (the in-line skating bill), and Jan. 1, 2003, for AB 1296 (the skateboarding bill). Driven out of the Assembly by term limits, AB 1296 sponsor Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) won election to the State Senate and he’s now sponsoring a bill, SB 994, that would renew the provisions of AB 1296 and extend its sunset date to Jan. 1, 2008. The Senate already has passed SB 994, and it’s now awaiting review in the Assembly Judiciary Committee before going to the floor of the Assembly. “From there it goes to the governor’s desk, where we expect it to go through,” said Jayme Murray, legislative aide to Sen. Morrow.

An apparent majority of public skate park operators have been operating under the false impression that AB 1296 (the skateboard bill) superceded and enveloped AB 915 (the in-line skating bill). It did not. And state Government Code section 831.7—which identifies bicycle jumping, downhill skiing, kayaking, trampolining and body contact sports among its listing of HRAs—does not specify that classification for in-line skating.

The multiple-use dilemma

Complicating matters, skate parks are being asked to accommodate more than just acrobatic in-line skaters and skateboarders. Thrill-seeking cyclists and scooter riders want to test their skills on ramps and jumps as well, putting skate park operators in an awkward position. They don’t want to turn recreational enthusiasts away, but they’re reluctant to allow them to use the same courses as skateboard riders—justifiably so for maintenance as well as safety reasons.

“Bicycles and scooters can tear up the concrete finish on ramps and damage coping on jumps not designed for their use. While skaters and skateboarders coexist very well, there is a need for separate facilities designed with proper materials specifically for BMX use,” declares Anne Schultze, recreation coordinator for the city of Modesto, which operates a 13,000-square-foot skate park. Airborne bicycles, with their handlebars, kickstands, chains and gears, pose substantial hazards to kids on skateboards.

Although skate park operators had sought changes in legislation—specifically, reduction of the age threshold below 14 and inclusion of language encompassing in-line skaters, cyclists and scooter riders—Sen. Morrow’s office did not pursue such changes due to opposition from the powerful trial lawyers’ lobby. “We tried to lower the age to 7, but the bill wouldn’t have made it out of any committees,” said legislative aide Murray. “The language is as narrow as it is only because that’s as much as we can get through.”

But the limitations in California statutes haven’t prevented park and recreation agencies from exploring recreational options for skateboarders, in-line skaters, trick cyclists and scooter riders. Dick Guthrie, for one, avoids placing much emphasis on legislation, recognizing its limitations. Guthrie is director of human services for the city of Claremont, among the state’s pioneers in skate park development. Now a seasoned veteran in skate park administration, Guthrie is chairperson of the Southern California Skate Park Coalition. That organization is a collective that serves as a forum for exchange of ideas and disseminates information to its membership.

“ The current legislation, and the proposed reauthorization, SB 994, provides a bit of a comfort zone to residents of communities,” observed Guthrie, who has become a respected authority on skate park development and management.

The age cutoff in the legislation has not noticeably influenced provision of services to younger skateboarders. “Several agencies have even constructed skate parks with areas geared to younger skaters,” says Guthrie. “In some of the earlier parks, including our own, heights of ramps and other features were very moderate, typically with drops of no more than 18 inches. That has changed as time has demonstrated that kids pretty quickly learn the skills and adapt to some of the greater drops. Now parks commonly have drops of 4 feet up to 8 feet. As we’ve gone from so few parks to hundreds of parks, we’ve learned that regardless of ability level, skaters find places at which they’re comfortable in parks.”

The Southern California Skate Park Coalition has spawned a Northern California counterpart, headed by Terri Davies, safety analyst with the Yolo County Public Agency Risk Management Insurance Authority in Woodland. Membership in the two groups combined encompasses about 130 public agencies.

Davies, whose background is in construction safety, believes that park and recreation agencies should regard the 14-year-old threshold as a reflection of the judgment capabilities of skaters. “Younger kids may lack sufficient judgment to determine danger, so the responsibility lies with the parent or the agency, and both must take due caution,” she says. Despite the potential for injury, few lawsuits have been filed against skate parks. “Skaters regard a broken arm as somewhat of a badge of honor,” Davies explained. Consequently, skaters discourage their parents from reporting their injuries. Still, she advises agencies to enact ordinances “with some teeth,” mandating use of personal protective equipment and identifying acceptable and forbidden types of activities. “Although community service districts cannot enact such ordinances, any general city can and should.”

Materials and maintenance

While proper insurance, strong ordinances and clear signage provide a measure of protection for skate park operators against reckless use of their facilities, they have no immunity from accidents resulting from poor design or inadequate maintenance.

“Injury rates soar when skate parks are not built properly,” asserts Heidi Lemmon, founder and director of Skate Park Association USA, a nonprofit trade association that researches and suggests building and safety guidelines. The organization, based in western Los Angeles, also operates a separate nonprofit charitable organization that pursues grants to help public skate parks raise funds for after-school programs.
Lemmon advises agencies considering developing skate parks to engage the services of qualified, experienced skate park designers as well as building contractors. She says that general landscape architects are not necessarily knowledgeable about the specifics of proper skate park design. Height of drops, for example, are of less consequence than the overall layout of a course or the steepness of the curved ramps known as transitions.

“The other big mistake agencies make is sending designs out to bid with no qualifications, and awarding the contract to the low bidder whose experience is in paving driveways and is not accustomed to working with curved surfaces. They’ll give the concrete a brushed finish, and when the kids fall, that just rips their skin off. And they’ll use concrete rated at 2,500 pounds per square inch, which will fall apart when you’re skating on it. Concrete surfacing for a skate park needs to be rated at a minimum of 4,000 pounds per square inch.” She cites the unhappy example of a Southern California city that commissioned site planning from a competent skate park design firm, then awarded the construction contract to a paving firm that submitted the lowest bid but was inexperienced in skate park construction. “The surface was bumpy and kinked. A smooth surface lets kids slide when they land, but if the surface is bumpy, they’ll lose control or their skateboards are gonna grab, and they could be seriously injured. The agency ended up having to jackhammer up the entire park and rebuild it using one of the contractors we recommended.” Skate Park Association USA offers its members a list of recommended contractors and designers with a proven track record. “They understand the nature of precise transitions, speed lines, flow patterns, proper surfaces and other technical aspects of skate park design and construction,” said Lemmon.

Liability expert Allan Amico agrees. He’s a risk manager for the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, a self-insured pool of 87 public entities, primarily cities and also some special districts. Amico, who participated in efforts to introduce legislation that would provide more liability protection for skate park operators, urges agencies not only to have skate parks properly designed and constructed, but also to institute a rigorous maintenance program.

“Agencies must be able to show records of inspections and maintenance. That is a state requirement,” said Amico, whose office is in La Palma, near Knott’s Berry Farm. “In any case involving liability, the agency must be able to produce documentation of maintenance. Park maintenance supervisors should check for cracked concrete, metal reinforcing peeling away from concrete and other defects. Make sure that if a fall occurs, it isn’t going to be the fault of the park itself.”

The intensive use of skate parks gives agencies a good recreational return on their investment.

“Skate parks are not terribly expensive,” said Guthrie, noting that construction costs average about $25 per square foot. “So the average skate park, which is now about 12,000 square feet for most cities, is running around $300,000.” He offers a telling comparison: “A moderate-sized public restroom facility, now costs about $150,000 to $200,000 including design fees.” Because of the relatively low cost, Guthrie has become an advocate of construction of separate skate parks for skateboarders and cyclists.

“That’s the hot-button issue now for those of us operating skate parks. Parks can be designed for bikes by providing for proper density of concrete, and proper steel-edge coping,” said Guthrie. Separate facilities also resolve incompatibilities between skateboarders and cyclists. “If you ask most BMX bike riders they’ll say, ‘we have no problem with skateboarders, so we can share the park.’ If you ask skateboarders you don’t get the same answer. We’ve asked. We do a lot of asking. The natural response would be to schedule hours or days for skateboarders and other days for bikes, assuming you retrofit your park to withstand the maintenance issue. The problem with that is you’re taking time away from your skateboarders. Scheduling also is going to increase the supervision that’s needed, because someone has to be there to monitor that.”

Modular equipment

Other options are available to recreation providers unable to underwrite the cost of developing a conventional concrete skate park. Manufacturers of playground equipment are now producing lightweight, durable, portable skate ramp systems made of metal or composite materials. Some agencies are collaborating with school districts in development of such facilities, while other school districts are initiating such projects entirely on their own.

Big cities have been much less reactive than smaller towns in developing skate parks. So the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, has begun a program of its own, called “Beyond the Bell.”

Operating skate facilities on a pilot basis on only six campuses as of this past March, the year-old program has entered a phase of rapid growth, opening one new facility each week for the remainder of the current school year, primarily on middle school grounds. The skate park equipment at the schools is modular, on wheels. After-school operation is supervised, and the equipment is loaded and stored in locked 40-foot cargo containers at night and on weekends. The project was prompted by the realization that schoolyards were already functioning as de facto skate parks.

“After school you see as many as 50 kids riding skateboards outside the school sites,” said Dennis A. Stecchi, the L.A. Unified School District’s regional recreation director in charge of the “Beyond the Bell” program. “For many years we pushed those kids away; we need to start embracing them.”

Raised by a single mom, Stecchi was once one of those disenfranchised kids. He’s still a skateboarder, and a strong advocate for the sport, which he believes poses no more liability risks than other recreational pursuits.

“High schools put pads on kids and tell them to hit each other. Skateboarding is a nonconfrontational, individual sport, with accident rates lower than any of the other sports,” Stecchi declared. “The injury rate on the apparatuses at elementary playgrounds are far higher than for participants in skateboard parks.”

Skate Park Association USA’s Heidi Lemmon agrees that skateboarding injuries are often far overestimated, explaining that some safety gear can contribute to injuries more than it prevents them.

“Pads do no more than prevent road rash, and wrist guards can be detrimental because a majority of injuries in skateboarding are caused by flying skateboards,” said Lemmon “Skaters want to make sure they can grab another board that’s flying through the air at them. That commonly happens because these kids will do the same trick over and over and maybe land it once out of 20 times, so the board is really flying out most of the time. Because wrist guards cover the thumb area of the palm, they can prevent you from grabbing a board. Wrist guards are more appropriate for roller hockey or beginning skaters, who tend to fall backwards. Kids at the beginner level shouldn’t even be in a skate park—they belong in front of their house. We advise agencies to post their signs, recommend the equipment, and then just leave it at that.”

Regulation enforcement

Lemmon offers an additional recommendation regarding enforcement of posted regulations.

“We really oppose cities using police to ticket the kids,” said Lemmon “Police departments are understaffed, and there’s too much crime out there. Having them baby-sit kids for the city or for the parents is such a waste of taxpayer money. Within the first three months after opening a skate park, one city wrote $43,000 in tickets to kids for violating safety regulations. That’s not really about safety, it’s about revenue. Police should let kids at skate parks get to know them, and should make sure their presence there is driving away drug dealers and pedophiles. That’s what the police are for. If mom wants to make sure that her kid is wearing a helmet at the skate park, let her go sit there and watch him. Our police officers have better things to do, and they deserve better treatment.”

But beyond all that, she believes the greatest problem confronting cities is inadequacy in the number and size of skate parks. “Most of them are jam-packed all the time. The city of Lexington, Kentucky, built an 80,000-square-foot skate park that is just a masterpiece, and Calgary built a 91,500 square-foot-park.” While such showplaces are beyond the budgets of most cities, she advocates building any facility within means. “Some cities that are unable to get insurance coverage for a skate park are building skate plazas by adding planters and benches within other parks. It’s not technically a skate park; it just happens to be a really fun place for kids to hang out and skate.”

Contact Information

So. Cal. Skate Park Coalition
Dick Guthrie, chairperson
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No. Cal. Skate Park Coalition
Terri Davies, chairperson
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Skate Park Association USA
Heidi Lemmon, founder and director
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California Joint Powers Insurance Authority
Allan Amico, risk manager
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Beyond The Bell Branch
Los Angeles Unified School District
Dennis Stecchi, regional recreation director
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