Anti / social

By Luke Browne
Photography by Luke Browne

Featured in Capital #52
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Can you even read what it says up there?’ a very angry middle-aged male shouted in my face one sunny Sunday afternoon. I replied, ‘Yes I can read, and from my interpretation the writing on the cenotaph statue roughly translates to: young people gave their lives so youth can have youthful ones.’ He shook his head and stormed away. A moment from my 14 years as a skateboarder.

I’m generally a pretty relaxed person but the recent prohibition on skateboarding in the Tory St temporary urban area has got my gears grinding.

The problem on Tory St seems to have begun with noise complaints, and escalated to media claims about anti-social behaviour including skateboarding and puking in the new planter boxes. People are very quick to assume skateboarders are delinquents, because skateboarding is banned in some public places.

A few days later I skated past the Tory St installation to find contractors installing thin wooden planks all over the new structure and a bunch of new ‘No Skateboarding’ signs. I noticed a man telling the contractors what to do, so I had a word with him to see what was going on. Turns out the $140,000 temporary structure was being ‘skate stopped’. This man, apparently after multiple community meetings and forums about the use of urban shared spaces, had no idea that it might get used by skateboarders. It was pretty funny that while we were talking an elderly couple walked past, stopped to read the newly added signage and said, ‘No skateboarding? What else are you meant to do on this thing?’ According to this guy, BMXing and parkouring were fine, but the few scratches caused by skateboarding on the temporary structure were ‘not okay’.

I’m not saying this area should have been especially designed for skateboarding (although that would be amazing): but why wasn’t such a dominant urban activity considered in the design process? There are so many ways around the issue. You could put time restrictions on when it could be used, use different materials, add metal edging to some parts, or have a skateboarder or someone who knows about skateboarding involved with the design process, even if only to incorporate ways to deter them.

‘No Skateboarding’ signs everywhere automatically puts us into that ‘anti-social’ category of behaviour, which is ironic as skateboarding is very sociable. Apart from the obvious benefits of young skaters doing something that is relatively healthy, affordable and accessible, skateboarding is increasingly being recognised as encouraging qualities from creativity and entrepreneurship to resilience, confidence and independence.

I am biased because skateboarding is my life, but being in the industry has let me see first-hand how it can change others. I grew up in Hastings where there are a lot of ‘troubled’ youth, and a prevalent gang culture. Almost every day after school I would go to the small indoor skate park where I would find kids who didn’t have a place in conforming society. Here they could be themselves, work at their own rate, fail over and over again until they succeeded, then start all over again on the next trick or obstacle. They were in charge of their own decisions, progress and challenges. That’s what got me into it. I had played football as a kid but hated the regimented training and coaches yelling at me. When I found skateboarding I realised I could teach myself at whatever rate I wanted to, do it almost anywhere and find it fun. It still had a team aspect, everyone who skates is on your team regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race or skill level. I quit football and never looked back.

Skateboarding is the sum of all my success and fuels all of my creativity. I own my own skateboard company which sells throughout New Zealand and Australia. I film street skateboarding and shoot skate photos for magazines here and overseas. Skating has fuelled my art and graphic design career as well as teaching me many lessons in life.

People often ask, ‘Why don’t you use the skate park? That’s what it’s for.’ The skate facilities available in Wellington are featured on the Wellington City Council website under ‘stuff for kids.’ Not only is this undermining because the majority of skateboarders are young tax-paying adults; but it suggests that the areas are for all kinds of activities, not just skateboarding. It’s not uncommon to find children using the ramps as slides or sitting on the ledges that are meant to be skated.

The newest skate park, in Lyall Bay, was meant to be a reasonably big skate plaza, but its funding was cut, reducing the final area down to about 20% of the original design. Chaffers skate park is over 10 years old and has never been upgraded – apart from metal edges which were added by local skateboarders themselves. The Rec Centre in Kilbirne is the only sheltered area for skateboarding in Wellington. It actually used to be an indoor skate park in the late 90s, but now it’s a shared area with an extremely slippery and dangerous surface. After visiting it on the weekend, I realised how much the place was used, not only by skateboarders but also toddlers and children running, jumping, bicycle training, soccer, basketball, hockey – all at once. It wasn’t a safe environment. In Khandallah there’s just a lump of concrete, an area that shouldn’t be called a skate park. Tawa, the same. Island Bay actually has a half pipe. But they’re all badly made, and the only thing the council does in terms of upkeep is painting over graffiti.

The best facility, which has been built from the ground up by skateboarders, is Treetops in Newtown. It was the skate community’s own initiative to create somewhere to be used just for skateboarding, with ramps and all kinds of obstacles. The council granted permission for the ground to be resurfaced, but wouldn’t put a cent into the project. After two rounds of crowd-funding and no council support other than permission, it was resurfaced and upgraded for the second time. Recently, the council was kind enough to supply a skip bin.

Putting aside the poor quality, and small number, of Wellington skate parks, we also want to challenge ourselves. It’s the nature of skateboarding to explore, find new challenges, work outside the box. That’s why most people get into it in the first place. Always skating in a park is like playing the same level of a video game for 10 years, rugby training on your own turf without ever actually getting to play anyone, or practicing just one piece of music forever.

Around the world skateboarding is being integrated into society. Copenhagen and Berlin boast skate-friendly public spaces, while Sweden has one of the largest skate parks in the world, a skateboarding-based high school and even a skate ambassador in City Hall. In Portland Oregon skateboarding is recognised as a mode of transport, with the same laws as cycling, and skate friendly routes around the city. Closer to home, in Auckland, where there are 38 skate parks compared to Wellington’s seven, they are adding skate-friendly areas outside the library and in Aotea Square. Even Lower Hutt Council has included skating facilities in Riddiford Gardens.

Skateboarding will be a sport at the next Olympics and already some skateboarders are considered professional athletes, with six-figure salaries and sponsors like Nike, Adidas, New Balance and Converse jumping on board with huge budgets. Skateboarding is increasingly central to debates about the value of public spaces. It also adds artistic, cultural, educational and commercial value to our urban lives. It’s helping to address some of our most difficult social challenges, and providing hugely disadvantaged children and youths with hopes, skills and futures. Skateboarding contributes to many industries including fashion and advertising. Recently Wellington Tourism, for example, ran an advert with 50+ people skateboarding along the waterfront.

Despite all this, skateboarders are still seen in a bad light in Wellington. Skateboarding should be welcomed and celebrated as something diverse and positive. Instead it is restricted from many new areas around the city, shared spaces, open spaces and urban areas. If we’re such a forward-thinking, creative, artistic, future super-city, why is skateboarding not a part of the plan? Take note WCC, there will be a skateboarder on the council soon enough.


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