On May 22nd, Paine’s Park will open along Schuylkill River Trail, just below the Art Museum, providing a new venue for skateboarding—long-promised by the City after it banned boarding at LOVE Park in 2002. However, anyone who expects a fenced-in lot with ramps and half-pipes will be surprised. Instead what awaits is the kind of familiar urban plaza we may seek in order to sit on a bench and read a book. The big difference is that Paine’s is a plaza built to accommodate and welcome skateboarders as well as other uses. This fact makes the park an experiment of a new type of urban space that could be the way of the future.
In 2002 the City started stringently enforcing a skateboarding ban in LOVE Park, the downtown plaza at the eastern end of the Parkway. This was significant because by that point LOVE had become an international skateboarding destination. The X Games—the Olympiad of extreme sports—came to Philadelphia two years in a row, in part because of the fame of LOVE Park. However, just before the X Games opened in 2002 the City renovated LOVE Park to make it unskateable, and stationed a police officer to keep boarders out. California-based DC Shoes rushed to Philly to film a commercial at LOVE Park to market its skateboarding shoe label just before the park closed for renovations.
After enduring much protest and letter writing opposing the skateboarding ban, the City decided to support the creation of a new skatepark at the foot of the Art Museum. Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund was established around this project, headed by the skateboard-toting, law-degree holding, Josh Nims. Franklin’s Paine worked with a creative team led by architect Tony Bracali, now of Friday Architects. The City Planning Commission choreographed a thoughtful public process to design a park that could work for both skaters and the general public. A team of numerous others guided the ambitious fundraising effort that has finally come to fruition.
The team behind Paine’s insisted that the end result not be a fenced-in skatepark, but a space that imitates the successes of LOVE, as a public plaza that also allows skateboarding. This design decision reflects a change in the face of skateboarding—a multi-billion-dollar sport that has shifted from daredevil tricks on ramps, to favoring lower-impact moves on naturally occurring elements in the urban landscape—benches, ledges, stairs. This international trend, dubbed “street skating,” birthed a distinctively urban pastime, destined to run into challenges when boarders and traditional park users intersected.
Some take the view that skateboarding cannot be compatible in the same space as dog walkers, newspaper readers, and stroller pushers. Across the country, cities and towns outlawed skateboarding on public plazas due to fears that skateboarding will damage public parks or get in the way of other park users. However, this may prove to be an increasingly outdated view.
Some prominent designers believe that skateboarding can and should be allowed on public spaces. In the 1960s LOVE Park was designed by architect Vincent Kling, and imagined and promoted by city planning director Ed Bacon. In 2002 Bacon rode a skateboard in LOVE Park in protest of the city’s ban on the sport, at age 92. Kling was also there, and he told the press, “I built this place so that people could enjoy it. And that includes skateboarders.” Bacon and Kling recognized that although they had designed the park for one set of uses, new uses inevitably evolve in a dynamic city, and those uses should be embraced.
The Paine’s Park designers, Bracali and Nims, worked with skateboarders to analyze how they use public space, and created a plaza that includes dimensions and shapes that are friendly for skating, utilizing materials to reduce the damage, and taking care to mediate potential areas of conflict between different types of park users. At the end of the day, the approach adopted by Bacon and Kling, Bracali and Nims is the right one. It is the responsibility of designers to embrace new and exciting uses of public space, and to find ways to design the next generation of plazas to accommodate those uses. There are “skateable plazas” in other cities, but perhaps none as thoughtfully planned and executed as Paine’s Park.
I hope the Paine’s Park experiment is successful, and the City becomes comfortable adapting other public spaces to accommodate skateboarding. Skating is, by no means, the first new use to change the demands on our public spaces. The lesson is that we need innovative designers and landscape architects who can break free of the stodgy past, and embrace a more dynamic view for designing successful public spaces in the 21st century. Only then will our public spaces fully represent the desires of the public.