Monday, September 1, 2008

The New Face of Urban Mixed-Use


I recently went up to the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, and helped to build a skateboard park (for the record, I don’t skateboard).

Philadelphia-based nonprofit Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund and community developer New Kensington CDC teamed up to transform a long-abandoned asphalt area at Pop's Playground, in this working-class neighborhood, into a multi-use space with trees, benches, and natural obstacles that are good for skateboarding. This is a low-cost project ($15k max), with funds raised from an investment banking firm, a skateboard shop, and charitable donations. It is being built with all volunteer labor and got the official OK from the City Recreation Department.

Community support, City support, donated funds and labor. Sounds like a slam dunk.

I went up to Kensington to help out for a day. I joined Nick Orso of Franklin's Paine, a trained engineer and avid skateboarder, and his team, to mix concrete and lay cinder-block foundations. Throughout the day, a barrage of youngsters pressed their faces up against the playground fence, anxiously awaiting the new community amenity. Locals drove by, asked what was going on, and gave their thanks and approval. Next to the mixed-use park is a well-used playground (picture young parents with strollers, a basketball court, and children playing in a sprinkler). The future skate park was a vacant piece of asphalt that had marred the playground for almost a decade, according to locals.

Why would a non-skateboarding urban planner, like myself, be so interested in skateboarding? Don’t ask me. Ask Jane Jacobs. In her landmark 1961 book,
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote:

“...city areas with flourishing diversity sprout strange and unpredictable uses and peculiar scenes. But this is not a drawback of diversity. This is the point ... of it.”

Today, urbanists have embraced the concept that thriving cities welcome and attract a wide variety of activities. Further, Jacobs' belief in mixed-use spaces has become one of the core tenets of urban design. A lively and diverse mix of different kinds of people and activities in the same space is the key to a safe, thriving, and exciting city.

Over time as "strange and unpredictable uses" evolve, it is the challenge of planners, architects, and landscape architects to figure out how to design our spaces to accommodate them. Since the 1980s we have seen skateboarding evolve as one of the most exciting and challenging urban mixed-use trends of our time.

People typically think of skateboard parks as self-contained areas with ramps, but that is not the prevalent form of the sport today. In my May 19, 2008 opinion piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I explained:

"Skateboarding is more than 60 years old, but over the last 30 years it has evolved from a suburban West Coast phenomenon to an urban, internationally popular sport. Instead of self-contained parks with ramps, today's 'street skateboarders' want natural urban obstacles, such as low benches and ledges."

Numerous towns and cities across the U.S., after learning the facts about skateboarding (American Sports Data Inc. ranks skateboarding less dangerous than soccer, basketball, baseball and volleyball), have permitted new skateboarding facilities (a quick Google search brings up thousands of skate parks in the U.S.). However, these facilities are almost always equipped with ramps and bowls, dedicated for skateboarding as a stand-alone use. Considering the new trend of skateboarders desiring not ramps but plaza benches and ledges, it becomes clear that these places are designing for an outmoded form of the sport.

They are also missing the key opportunity that the new “street skating” affords to integrate skateboarding with a mix of other uses, capturing the spirit of Jane Jacobs for our modern age. The skateboarding element in mixed-use parks and plazas is key, because it attracts younger participants, brands a city as progressive and friendly to youth, and ensures a steady flow of people in the park (I have seen plenty of pocket parks that nobody uses... except for skateboarders).

As far as I know, Vancouver is the only city that has legalized skateboarding on existing parks and plazas. While Philadelphia has yet to adopt such a policy, it is paving the way for permitting skateboarding in new multi-use parks. The City of Philadelphia and Fairmount Park have donated land along Schuylkill River Park for a major multi-use plaza that will incorporate skateboarding – called Paine's Park (after Thomas Paine). There won't be any ramps or bowls. To the untrained eye it will look just like a normal urban plaza. To the skateboarder's eye, the ledges, benches, and curves will be just right for the sport. This is, perhaps, the first major example of a new facility that incorporates skateboarding as one of a mix of uses.

Paine's is a $6 million project. I serve on its capital committee and I believe it will be a great asset for Philadelphia. However, it is a keynote, downtown project. As the more modest community park in Kensington shows, accommodating skateboarding does not have to boast a seven-figure price tag. I believe that the Kensington project can serve as a pilot project for other community parks, built through a grassroots effort, in Philadelphia and across the U.S.

The folks at New Kensington CDC understand that in its most prevalent form, skateboarding is a safe, low-impact sport that can be integrated into mixed-use parks, creating urban excitement, ala Jane Jacobs. Like Paine's, the Kensington park will have no ramps. It will not look like a traditional skateboard park. Its designer put it best, calling the Kensington project “a skate park in disguise.” Thankfully, New Kensington CDC is innovative enough to understand the potential of integrating skateboarding into a mixed-use facility, and the City is open to allowing more facilities for skateboarding.

I hope that this project in Kensington receives both local and national attention. It is truly a prime example of how a City and a community can cooperate, innovate, and (at modest cost) energize an abandoned piece of land with new and vital uses. Perhaps with the landmark Paine’s Park downtown and the Pop’s playground facility in Kensington as models, Philadelphia and other cities will begin following Vancouver, incorporating skateboarding in the most vibrant and cost-effective way of all – by legalizing it on existing parks and plazas, rather than (or in addition to) building new.

The key is not being afraid to embrace fresh urban concepts that Jane Jacobs might never have imagined, but that perfectly represent her spirit. “Flourishing diversity” and “strange and unpredictable uses” are exactly what we need in our cities. Just ask Jane.


Read Nick's blog about the Kensington project

1 comment:

Taggart said...

Greg,

There's a meeting going on in the Juniata area tonight on the future uses of Juniata Golf club, which I believe Fairmount Park owns and/or operates. Apparently they are envisioning using it for something different over the next couple of decades (perhaps a park, with a restored Tacony creek to feed the Delaware River?) Obviously there are going to be some hot-headed golf lovers who come out in droves (or so I imagine) to put a stop to this. I'm wondering what your take on golf courses in the city are? Is it a legitimate use? Especially when the quality and appreciation of one of the remaining Philadelphia creeks is compromised by its operation? I know many golfers would argue that it’s a legitimate use, and there is already so much park space in the city (Pennypack, Fairmount Park, etc.) that more is not needed, but in a city that doesn’t have many great connecting bike paths, few of its original streams, tons of CSO (Combined Sewer Outfalls/Overflows), I feel any chance to add a beautiful park, replete with bike paths and playgrounds, and maybe fields (making assumptions here about the plan) while restoring a very important local stream, must be taken.

Tom