When it comes to skate urbanism as a discipline, Ocean Howell is the O.G. He based his masters thesis at Berkley on the topic nearly 20 years ago, and has been writing articles and lecturing in the field ever since. SOLO just published its interview with Howell from its latest issue that focuses on skateboarding and urban space. It raises some interesting points that are not often considered. The idea of cities weaponizing skateboarding to combat homelessness and push gentrification is something that we should collectively be aware of.
It’s crazy to use some of these methods for public spaces because they are supposed to be public. However, you also wrote about skateboard obstacles being put in shady areas to get skaters there and bowl out homeless people.
Yeah, the way I have often put it is, “If skateboarders are swept out of some places, they are used as a broom in other places.” That absolutely happens. City planners in America have skate parks as parts of their tool kits now. They don’t put skate parks in the middle of wealthy neighborhoods or a busy shopping district. They put them under bridges and that is absolutely not an accident. I have found plenty of examples of urban planners speaking very frankly about that – and if you think from an urban planning perspective, it makes sense because homelessness is a problem, and cities in the US don’t get funding from the government to deal with it. They’re asked to deal with it in an environment where they have very limited revenue to give to social services. So urban planners are concerned about property values because that means property taxes and that’s how they can provide social services. If you have large homeless encampments, that ends up to be a detriment to surrounding property values. The main thing that they need is more housing, but they have a built-in disincentive to create low-income housing – so they are trapped! I don’t blame urban planners, the vast majority of them are very well-meaning and feel terrible about this, but we don’t have a circumstance where there are reasonable social services and low-income housing in order to deal with the problem. So they are like, “I have to boost property values around here. I have a homeless encampment here and if I clear it and put in a skate park, that will get a couple of cool bars, art galleries, and coffee shops around here and that will attract young professionals.” That’s a standard part of urban planning practice in the US at this point.
So skateboarding is part of gentrification.
The story of Burnside is that there were some skaters that started pouring concrete underneath the Burnside Bridge and it got to a size that the city became concerned and said, “We are going to knock this down!” but all the surrounding property owners said, “Don’t you dare!” The skateboarders were kind of scroungy, but property crime went way down! There had been car break-ins and all these problems, and it was apparently an open-air drug market before. The skateboarders made the place safer, there are metrics to prove that. So the city was okay with it and started supporting it, and then it wasn’t long before there was a proposal for a skate park in Portland, and homeless advocates came out against it because they understood perfectly well that the city’s point in siting the park at that exact place was to get rid of the homeless people. So yes, Skateboarding has been instrumentalized by the urban planning profession in that way – and as I’ve said in a lot of contexts: because now we have cities listening to us and we are getting accommodated, I think we have an obligation to think about the larger responsibility to our larger community.
If you’re looking for a good Sunday morning read, this certainly fits he bill.