The skatepark in Fiskars, near Helsinki. Courtesy of Janne Saario

A Finnish skateboarder and landscape architect rethinks these historically community-aggravating youth spaces.

At six years old, Janne Saario became a skateboarder. His country, Finland, hit an economic boom in the mid-1980s and cool cultural imports from the United States were flooding the market. Saario and his friends were hooked on skateboarding videos, and wanted to adapt the sport to suit their Northern-Helsinki suburb, Torpparinmäki.

“We would scour the city to find locations that had a certain atmosphere,” Saario says. “Finland didn’t have skateparks at the time, so we invented our own.” Areas with Rapakivi granite, for example, were great because the boards’ wheels made nice sounds when they rolled over the natural rock. A curb with an elaborate façade behind it could make for an interesting place to photograph a trick.

“Skateboarding made me into an architecture nerd,” Saario says with a chuckle. Saario was discovered at 17 by a skateshop team, and ended touring the world as a professional for Element. During his travels, he documented skate parks in various countries, and as his skating career wrapped up, he decided he’d study landscape architecture in order to build better parks for teens worldwide.

In defense of skateparks

Saario sees skateparks as a public area that serves the needs of young adults. “There are playgrounds for young children,” Saario says. “But where are the spaces for pre-teens and teenagers to hang out, especially if they’re interested in alternative cultures? Teens need a place to figure themselves out.” Malls, Saario notes, might be a place to congregate, “but they’re commercial buildings not designed expressly for teenagers.” There needs to be a site where teens can meet and grow, Saario says.

When it comes to skater safety, Saario isn’t so concerned with a few scrapes or even a fracture or two; he jokes that “some broken bones are a mark of healthy lifestyle.” This point has been recently echoed by contemporary psychologists, notably Dr. Mariana Brussoni, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and an injury-prevention specialist. Risk-taking, Brussoni says, is different for different people, but if teens are given freedom to decide a course of action for themselves, they build creativity, resilience, and executive functioning.

Plus, Brussoni believes that the likelihood of teens participating in dangerous activities increases when teenagers are marginalized and don’t have their own spots to go. “Teens are historically left out of public spaces,” she says. By contrast, in a 2009 study from the Tony Hawk Foundation that surveyed 102 police officers in 37 states, the majority of those officers saw skateparks as a public asset that led to a decrease in juvenile crime.

A crowd gathers at the West Blaak skatepark. (Courtesy of Janne Saario)

A blueprint for a successful skatepark

Though they’re a teen-friendly third space, many skateparks receive noise complaints, and as a result, may be  deemed too much of a nuisance to maintain. Some parks are removed after only a few years of use at the request of nearby residents, possibly resulting in thousands of dollars in city funds squandered. However, Saario doesn’t think this is inevitable. The parks that go astray, he believes, are a result of poor community planning, awareness, and design—and sometimes independent business contractors who don’t have the skaters’ or the community’s best interests at heart.

“If a landscape architect is designing a space like this, they need to take the time and map land that’s accessible, but far enough away from residential areas so as to not disturb local neighborhoods,” Saario says. Cities often have multiple locations where new recreational spaces can be installed, and some idea of the ground conditions they’re building on top of, but Saario says landscape architects are needed so that officials can understand what design options are available within each site, and whether multiple types of users are permissible.

Saario’s final requirement for designing a park is that it’s built around a unique element that encourages conversation between groups and imaginative ideas. “I grew up skating inside an asphalt pool named The Footprint of the Giant,” he says. “When I met other skaters in the city, they knew where we were from—we had an identity. Skateparks need to have a strong concept that creates a sense of place.”

The skatepark in Fiskars. (Courtesy of Janne Saario)

For an example of integrating a local landmark within a new park, Saario points to Fiskars, a village about 100 kilometers from Helsinki. Fiskars city officials recognized the need for a recreational space for kids and teens, but weren’t sure where to place it so as to avoid any disturbances. The officials asked Saario to analyze a number of possible locations for the park and suggest the best placement. Saario’s solution was to tear down a concrete manure silo near an abandoned barn at the edge of the city. In its place, a number of concrete bumps, curbs, and ledges (pictured above) were added to create the park’s surface. The final design used the brick walls from the original silo structure to support the newly poured concrete. “We were able to cut down on the park’s expenses this way,” he says. “And architecturally, there was a nice contrast of new against old.”

Because skateboarding is now roughly a $5 billion industry, skatepark design is big business—and it sometimes flops. Older park models, such as the 15-year-old Skatepark Westblaak in Rotterdam, weren’t always successful. In the case of Skatepark Westblaak, ramps made out of stainless steel panels needed to be removed and fitted with a more agreeable material for skaters. “The metal would burn skaters’ skin during the summer and the sun would reflect into the skaters’ eyes—it was dangerous,” Saario says. He was called in to overhaul the space and make it more user-friendly, and found numerous issues with the older construction. “We were building underneath the sea level in the Netherlands—the pre-existing space didn’t account for issues of drainage since the entire city is at sea level,” he says. Furthermore, the foundations were built on top of a metro line. Now, the mostly-concrete park has re-opened for skaters and other independent sports.

Saario’s humble about his work, though, and says his main goal is to keep his designs appealing and younger skaters involved in the process, so that they can give feedback and feel included. His upcoming projects will focus more heavily on keeping parks innovative and more sustainable. “The sport’s about adjusting yourself and understanding yourself within the environment, rather than having an environment made for skateboarding,” Saario says. “Make a skateable landscape, rather than a landscape for skateboarding.”

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