Don't think of skaters as hooligans – they save cities' forlorn and forgotten corners

Image: Sk8r via Flickr.

Skateboarders aren’t too popular with civic authorities. Routinely demonised as vandals and as a danger to other members of the public, they are often portrayed as an antisocial nuisance to be excluded by law, or sometimes lured away to officially sanctioned skate parks. Skaters, being predominantly teenage lads, can seem like an alien and dangerous sub-species, scowling from beneath hoodies festooned with zombies, occult runes or lewd cartoons.


Yet the real trouble with skateboarding is that it challenges the dominant use of cities, which remain controlled by civic and corporate interests whose primary purpose is to run the place as a machine for consumption. Pesky skaters are at very least an unruly nuisance getting in the way of valued customers, or, worse still, are enjoying the cityscape for free.

Iain Borden, the UCL professor whose ground-breaking book first brought the place of skaters in the city to attention recently suggested skating had achieved a more positive place in many cityscapes around the world, now recognised as a creative, challenging and healthy activity.

To an extent this is true. Skateboarding builds confidence and the social capital that can combat social exclusion, alcohol and drug abuse. The sport is becoming respectable with skateboarding designed into some spaces and superb new skate parks.

However, civic respectability may not be part of the attraction. Central to skateboarding is the sense of the skaters’ local scene, a heritage and culture that may be inscrutable to non-skaters. Skate culture is powerful social glue. Skaters will tell you that they can turn up in an unfamiliar city, skateboard in hand, and immediately be welcomed to join in with the locals.

Skateboarders’ bonds can also come as a surprise to city authorities. In the autumn of 2014 the city council in Norwich proposed a ban on skateboarding throughout the city centre. Norwich’s new skate park had been built, according to the council, on “the tacit understanding” that skaters would not use the city centre.

On the evening of the council debate to herald the ban the public gallery of the town hall was packed with skaters, with more left outside unable to fit in following a demonstration, and a public petition with more than 6,000 signatures.

Image: Aaron Pruzaniec via Flickr.

The council withdrew its immediate plans for a ban, although the possible use of a restriction, a Public Spaces Protection Order, has been mooted. This new PSPO legislation also threatened skaters in the town of Kettering, while more typical bans are also looming in Barking and Bristol. Iain Borden’s global optimism can seem a bit too sunny down at street level.

Stop, watch and learn

Skaters are not out to cause conflict. They would much prefer to be left to their own devices, often out of sight and out of mind. While the ominous hoodies and garish logos may look like trouble, it is worth taking time to watch skaters using their favourite spots, as against the fleeting encounters on the high street.

Skate scenes are very sociable, with their own etiquette for taking turns, working out tricks for competitions and looking out for each other. The sport fuels creativity through photography, video and graphics. Skaters treasure and look after top spots, raising money to build ramps and blocks. The spots may not be theirs to own, but they are very good at colonising a city’s forlorn and forgotten corners.

In my city of Newcastle upon Tyne the top local site, the Wasteland, was an old factory floor – skated for more 20 years. “Our summer home” the skaters would say – and they visited it up until the very day when developers finally excavated the concrete, including the parting graffiti: “Farewell our fair weather friend”.

Goodbye, Wasteland. Image: Mike Jeffries,Author provided.

A new wasteland has been found, again a demolished factory site – and money has been raised from DIY skate competitions to build new ramps and blocks. Revealingly, the same site is also features on a recent list of Tyneside’s top eyesores. The skater’s eye sees the city differently.

In Tyneside, their other favourite site is across the river in Gateshead. Called Five Bridges, it is a windswept plaza where pedestrian walkways converge under a vast and gloomy flyover. It is an unlovely space, but Gateshead Council put more than £11,000 into building skate ramps and jumps – a great deal of money to invest in entertaining unruly youths.

All those pesky kids are helping keep Five Bridges safer. Image: Mike Jeffries.

It did so after an elderly resident had told her councillor about the skaters who hung around on the plaza. Bracing himself for the usual complaints, the councillor was surprised to hear that she liked it when the skaters were there because then it felt safe to walk through.

So don’t think of skaters as hooligans and vandals. They are much more like a badly dressed version of the Boy Scouts, although the skaters I got to know through my research are not so keen on that cosy description. Maybe a better comparison is to the elves in the fairy tale The Elves and the Shoemaker, a mysterious and often invisible presence busily making the city a better place to live.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mike Jeffries is a Teaching Fellow in Ecology at Northumbria University, Newcastle

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.