When irritated business owners lobbied for a skateboarding ban in 2003, Tacoma, Washington’s 8,000 skaters were faced with two options: go big—as in winning funding for a municipal skate park—or go home. Instead savvy skaters have responded by positioning informal skate spots as an innovative tool for planners rather than an urban nuisance. Thea’s Park, a waterfront public facility, is the first location for one of several micro skate parks that Peter Whitley and other local advocates are creating to steer activity away from commercial areas.
Micro parks have several advantages over large proprietary ones: they don’t come with six-figure price tags, they can be tucked into small portions of underused public space, and they aren’t limited to a single niche within the larger community. “It’s harder to share a skate park with nonskaters than it is to share a [traditional] park with skaters,” Whitley points out. The signature of micro parks is that they mimic or build directly upon those tiny coveted (but often prohibited) spots that skaters already flock to. The designs blend into the urban landscape, piggybacking on the existing features. “We’re attuned to the fact that what we create needs to be attractive and, when appropriate, multiuse,” Whitley says. “We don’t want to put up barriers.”
Lightly trafficked Thea’s Park has a skate-friendly sidewalk bordered by a winding concrete curb that skaters salivate over. They had enjoyed relative ano-nymity in the area until 2003, when city officials cemented aluminum stoppers to the curb. But a graffiti problem developed without skateboarders, who in fact have done a lot to dispel the myth that their pursuit is a gateway to destruction and vandalism. As industrious boarders DIYed Portland’s now famous Burnside Park in the early 1990s, they cleaned an area filled with trash, needles, and squatters. Similarly citizens built a community skate park in Oakland after cleaning up a vacant trash-filled Caltrans property. Both parks were saved when politicians and community members defended their positive impact on the neighborhoods.
Once it became clear that skating was an asset at Thea’s, Whitley and company successfully lobbied their micro proposal to the city, a project totaling a modest $2,000. “Skaters assume the responsibility of keeping the park clean and attractive,” councilman Bill Evans says. “They’ve taken ownership, and that’s what citizenship is about.” On July 26 skateboarders young and old took crowbars to the metal deterrents and liberated the curb. “Getting fifteen-year-old skaters to a planning meeting can be tough,” Whitley jokes. “But if there are crowbars, they will do their part.” The second step, adding a “manual pad”—skate lingo for a rectangular concrete slab—with granite edges was slated for installation in October.
Whitley is now mapping out a series of similar satellite parks throughout Tacoma, one of which will be part of a mixed-use redevelopment of the Thea Foss Waterway. Anticipating a skate problem along the project’s central esplanade, Tacoma special projects manager Bill Iyall added a micro park to the plans. Funded with a state matching grant, the park eliminates that potential and has the added benefit of attracting parents who bring their children to skate. With continued official support Tacoma is on course to become a model of innovative planning—and the country’s first truly skateable city.