Something For Everyone
By Mike McIntyre and Kanten Russell
Since 1997, team sports in America are in decline: basketball participation is down 17 percent, softball has dropped 37 percent, and volleyball has fallen 36 percent.
Meanwhile, skateboarding has surged 49 percent to 14-million U.S. participants, and building a skate park is a growing trend in community development.1 The Wall Street Journal notes, “The number of BMX bikes sold at U.S. bike shops rose 25 percent in 2016 from the previous year, according to the Bicycle Produce Suppliers Association and NPD Group.” Clearly, action sports like skateboarding and BMX racing are here to stay—and not just because they provide a place for the younger generation to have fun in a safe environment but because they connect communities and engage the public.
The brotherhood of the action-sports community has strong bonds because the members are excellent at involving local constituents; from grassroots fundraising efforts to design input to word-of-mouth promotion, these facilities often depend upon community involvement, both during the design process and after. Venues like BMX tracks and skate parks are turning blighted areas into spots for participants of all ages to connect with each other in an approachable and exciting way. The Project for Public Spaces2 further addresses what elements makes a public space “successful.” This nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization defines a successful place as one that is “accessible, people are engaged in activities there; the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, it is a sociable place.” Many action-sports projects adhere to these core principles and turn underused sites into attractive “gateway” facilities that welcome users and spectators alike.
In Texas and South Carolina, two very different action-sports projects resulted in “successful places.” Even though both projects had diverse program needs, they combine access and linkages; comfort and image; uses and activities; and sociability in a dynamic and engaging park atmosphere. And with a heavy dose of community support, they have become popular attractions.
Novant Health BMX Supercross Track
Novant Health BMX Supercross Track in Rock Hill, S.C., is an example of “If you build it, they will come.” Opened in August 2014, the track transformed a brownfield site into one of only two Olympic-trial-worthy Bicycle Motocross Supercross race tracks in the country at the time. Today, the facility attracts families as well as professional riders from across the world.
It was important to the city to design a facility that was of Olympic-training quality, but was also accessible to riders of all ages and skill levels—and this goal has been achieved. The dual-purpose track offers an 8-meter (26.25-foot) tall starting hill for professional and Olympic-level athletes and a smaller 5-meter (16.4-foot) starting hill for amateur riders and children as young as five. The BMX track also offers bike rentals, open-practice sessions, local races (BMX is a great spectator sport), orientation, rider development, and private track rentals for national teams. And on the professional riding scene, it has garnered much success by hosting local, state, regional, national, and international events.
The BMX track has increased the surrounding community’s interest in the sport through a variety of grassroots programs and major international competitions, while acting as a social arena for all. Mark Sexton, Operations Supervisor for the city of Rock Hill Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department, says, “The community has embraced the sport of BMX, and participation in our programs has steadily increased year after year.” In March 2017, the facility hosted the USA BMX Carolina Nationals that attracted over 1,600 riders from 43 states and 17 countries. This event also served as a qualifier for the UCI BMX World Championships held in July 2017. Sexton says, “Three local riders from our New Rider Orientation program qualified for this international event, which has not been hosted in the United States since 2001. To see firsthand how our program is helping young talent progress is amazing, and a true testament to what this facility is doing from a local perspective. We wouldn’t see that unless the community was really engaged with the program. In 2016, we had 8,200 visitors, not including special events, and this year we are averaging 740+ visitors per month.”
This project is a prime example of how keeping public-access and sociability components in mind when designing an action-sports facility encourages a local community to more actively engage with the local park—and one another.
The Station At Gulfton Park
More than 1,000 miles away, in Houston, Texas, a group of local kids came together to lobby, fundraise, and eventually help design their own skate park because the makeshift park (an abandoned gas station) was torn down. “If you dream of something and you want something, you can drive it and you can make it happen,” says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The design team met with locals to talk about what they actually wanted in a skate park, and after hosting a design charrette with them and putting some ideas on paper, the team came up with the layout reflected in the park today. The goal was to include something for everybody, whether transition in the bowl, quarter pipes, banks, hips, or rails. It was really about how the design could engage all ages and skill levels within the community. Keeping the public participating throughout the design process was the key—and The Station at Gulfton Park opened to an ecstatic crowd of all ages in April 2017.
The project is already perceived as a “successful place” for the surrounding community. Justin Wiederman, a local skateboarder, says that connecting with one’s peers is the key. “Seeing your friends, seeing yourself, seeing everybody around you progress, that is the coolest part about skateboarding.” And it’s not just about the here and now. He adds, “This skate park being a concrete skate park is amazing because it’s here permanently. It's not going anywhere, so it's going be here for generations. I'm going to be able to skate in it, my kids are going to be able to skate it, and my grandkids will even get to skate it.”
In the end, when designing action-sports facilities, there is no “one size fits all” in regards to what defines a “successful place.” However, a good designer knows that when the public is engaged, the park is accessible to all age groups, and a place for social engagement is provided, all of the ingredients to achieve a great space are within the public realm!
Mike McIntyre is the principal of the Action Sports Group at Stantec and an active BMX racer on the National Circuit. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kanten Russell, a former professional skateboarder, is a project manager for the Action Sports Group at Stantec. Reach him at email@example.com.
1 XtremeSport. http://xtremesport4u.com/extreme-land-sports/extreme-sport-growing-in-popularity/
2 Project for Public Places: https://www.pps.org/about/