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

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.