Nottingham is one of the original homes of UK skateboarding with a large skate community that helps feed the city’s art, music and fashion scenes with a DIY sensibility. Skate Nottingham are a not-for-profit community organisation dedicated to changing perceptions of skateboarding and raising its profile as a positive, healthy culture and community that can help the city we love become more active and inclusive.
Skateboarding has been a big deal in Nottingham for more than fifty years. From the Malibu Dog Bowl in Lenton Abbey in the seventies, to the Hyson Green Bowls in the eighties, to Broadmarsh Banks and Old Market Square in the nineties, and Sneinton Market today, Nottingham has featured heavily in international skate magazines and videos.
Several generations of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire skateboarders have jumped on planes and turned heads worldwide, including Worksop’s Carl Shipman – who had his name on a board with Jason “My Name is Earl” Lee’s company – Mark Baines, Alan Rushbrooke, Pete Hellicar, Will Golding and now Alex Hallford, who this summer won first place at Bowlmasters in Brixlegg, Austria.
Yet when the 2017 opening jam for Nottingham’s small skate facility at King Edward Park was featured on East Midlands Today, it was relegated to the whimsical “and now for something different” spot. This is fine and predictable, but seems rather silly now we’re seeing skateboarding joining the 2020 Olympics. Plus, it’s one of only six sports worldwide for which Nike produce equipment, has sufficient mainstream appeal for Louis Vuitton to collaborate with New York skate brand Supreme, and is a huge reason why Vans shoes rake in more than $2 billion annually. Niche it is not, but potentially radical it still is.
Nottingham is one of the few big UK cities to keep a Blair-era by-law banning skateboarding on the books. Although it’s now rarely enforced, its “No Skateboarding” message remains on signs around public spaces like Sneinton Market. In contrast, Hull is at an advanced stage in its mission to become the UK’s first “skate-friendly city.” There’ve been several years of close dialogue with its skate community on how they can help revitalise disadvantaged and underutilised areas, resulting in the newly opened skateable plaza in front of a multi-purpose cultural centre, to acclaim from local press and skateboard media.
Nottingham, as the youngest large UK city according to the Office for National Statistics, may not be in the realm of nearby Kettering, whose public space protection order not only bans skateboarding, but prevents under-eighteens from going out alone at certain times. However, our city could do much more to learn from the practice of Melbourne, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Berlin and Malmö; highly liveable cities that work collaboratively with their skate communities. The brittle attempts to design and manage-out youth and youthfulness from urban centres, as depressingly illustrated by Kettering, are described by Cambridge criminologist Elizabeth Burney as “punitive populism”, which aims to exploit voters’ “fear of youth.” In this, skateboarding can be a victim of its own success. It’s uniquely good at engaging hard-to-reach young people disinterested by mainstream sports; the sweet, nerdy, creative kids last to be picked for the team, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who lack the means to join tennis or cricket clubs.
Nottingham has a number of systemic challenges that skateboarding can help solve
Nottingham has a number of systemic challenges that skateboarding can help solve. It has low progression rates from local schools to higher education, high health inequalities, low social mobility rates, and the lowest proportion of university students who stay after graduating. Several of Skate Nottingham’s team, including myself, came to Nottingham to study and then stayed; to start families and businesses, pursue professions, start bands and invest in our futures, but mainly because we’d been welcomed within the city’s skate scene.
A growing body of academic research shows that skateboarding raises aspirations, teaches resilience and perseverance, encourages global travel, provides a collective safety-net and sense of identity, and builds social capital as well as pride of place. Remember the petition to save the London Southbank Undercroft space? Skaters achieved the largest number of objections in UK planning history to protect it.
Skateboarding links to a wider culture that engages young people in the visual and digital arts, including film, photography and design, as well as fashion and architecture. It’s pursued throughout our active lives, like some kind of gosh-darned martial art. Despite its reputation as a “youth culture”, an evening at Sneinton Market will reveal an intergenerational community including forty-plus dudes, and females of all ages.
In an age of online echo chambers, the physical community that grows from skateboarding is incredibly, desperately valuable. Like any valuable thing, it is delicate. Professor Ocean Howell – former pro skater and historian at the University of Oregon – observes how skate scenes increase a city’s cultural capital, and therefore property values, and tend to disperse less politically desirable users of public spaces; particularly the homeless and street drinkers. When describing how the City of Philadelphia responded to skateboarding in Love Park in the nineties and early 2000s, Howell mapped out a timeline that saw skaters being marginalised and criminalised while simultaneously being co-opted to increase an area’s value as bohemian, urban and edgy.
At the crux is the question of who has the right to use and cause wear-and-tear to the city. Millions are spent sandblasting buildings stained by vehicle emissions, and thousands are spent cleaning up after football matches and big nights out. Even bicycles – clean, healthy forms of transport and recreation – scratch the bike racks and street furniture they rest against. Although skateboard marks left on street furniture are usually slight and incremental, skaters see “skate stoppers” fixed onto ledges and benches; unsightly metal brackets, spikes or fixings that form a network of so-called “hostile architecture” that also prevent homeless people from sleeping on them.
In the bigger picture, shifting perceptions on skateboarding can help reverse the erosion of public space. On this, Ocean Howell said in a recent interview for Free Magazine that “skateboarders really are in the position to make cities more egalitarian places.” Recent developments like those in Hull seem to push back against a tendency to design cities just for shoppers, office workers and people spending their money in bars and restaurants. It’s for everyone. With an accelerating crisis in the UK high street and the increasing atomisation of UK employment, new ways of thinking about the city are all the more urgent.
Malmö in Southern Sweden, though cold and frequently wet, has wrestled skateboarding’s axis away from sunny California. Malmö is almost identical in size to Nottingham with a very similar story of de-industrialisation. But along with building a bridge to Copenhagen, its regeneration has been in no small part driven by its skateboarders and offers a powerful example of new ways of thinking about who cities are for and, in the words of Malmö City Council’s Skate Programme Coordinator, Gustav Edén, it demonstrates that skaters “are actually partners worth investing in.”
They built a ramp in a disused school, established one of Europe’s largest indoor parks in an old brewery – as well as an internationally-acclaimed secondary school within that park – and hosted Quicksilver’s Bowlriders championship. They then took it on independently, in partnership with their City Council, after Quicksilver withdrew after the 2007 financial crash.
Skateboarding raises aspirations, teaches resilience and perseverance, encourages global travel, provides a collective safety-net and sense of identity, and builds social capital as well as pride of place.
Skaters now travel to Malmö from all over the world. The enormous skatepark built for Bowlriders in Stappelbädsparken became the centre of the old harbour regeneration zone, and the skaters work with their council to activate under-utilised parts of the city, which still suffers from relative social disadvantage compared to elsewhere in Sweden. Deliberately skateable street furniture gently encourages skaters to utilise areas that have wider social benefits, while drawing them away from areas where skating is more problematic.
Nottingham skateboarders started visiting Malmö a few years ago. We were struck by how all kinds of people actively use the city; running, cycling, playing basketball, skateboarding and socialising, with space intelligently designed to encourage interactions between different groups. Few areas were just basketball courts or skateparks, and rather than being consigned to the outskirts, activity takes place among it, celebrating the city as an engine for leisure and living as well as work and commerce.
We were also struck by how much of a role the skaters played in social and community development; they’re leading the way in enabling more females to be active in the city, addressing the social pressures that dissuade young girls from traditional sports and exercise in their teens. Plus, the interests of young skaters in film, photography, design and architecture are unlocked through programmes of formal and informal education, and a rich ecosystem of social enterprises, charities, companies and fashion brands thrive; all in a city no bigger than Nottingham.
So, rather than travel every summer, we aimed to apply these lessons to the city we love. Working closely with Nottingham City Council, we designed and activated a small, community-led skate facility in Sneinton’s King Edward Park, for which we won the East Midlands Celebrating Construction’s Value Award in 2017.
In just one month, we introduced 51 people to skateboarding of all ages, more than half of which were female. We also ran a coach development programme, to equip young skaters with qualifications and skills to volunteer and undertake paid work teaching skateboarding, giving them the foundation to pursue “good jobs” in wider youth and sport development.
As skateboarding is far from just a sport, we work to extend its benefits to Nottingham’s cultural realms by running a free skate photography workshop for local young people and adults with The Photo Parlour, Nottingham’s community studio and darkroom. We’re also hosting regular community skate film nights and will be delivering the UK’s first international skate film festival this autumn.
With our National Lottery funding, we’ll be delivering more free skate sessions for women and girls and for older males, improving their physical health and wellbeing. Most recently, we raised finance to support three local skaters from diverse backgrounds to represent Nottingham at the innovative Skate Malmö Street 2018 event, where skaters from all over the world compete and help revitalise parts of the city at the same time. This funding campaign was kindly supported by Malmö’s skatepark and school, Bryggeriet, building links between the two cities.
Skateboarding has been in Nottingham for half a century. It’s not going away. It’s social, not anti-social. It’s cultural and counter-cultural. It activates unloved, under-utilised parts of the city and engages people of all ages in physical activity and a supportive community.
Skaters deeply love their city – particularly the incidental, underappreciated areas – with a passion that can be harnessed to all sorts of positive ends. Let’s demonstrate that skateboarding can be a good partner to the city. It’s rad, and it’s happening down Snenno, in skateparks, and on some kid’s driveway right now.
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