Skate for Life: Chris Lawton on How Skateboarding in the City Has Progressed Over the Past Year

Words: Chris Lawton
Photos: Alice Ashley, Simon Bernacki, Vantte Lindevall, Tom Quigley & Aurore Roussel
Thursday 20 May 2021
reading time: min, words

Skate Nottingham’s Chris Lawton reflects on the events of the past year, exploring how skateboarding continues to help people in Nottingham...

In early 2020, skateboarding in Nottingham was riding high. Our Light Night installation with artists Instar and the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, Skate of Nature, engaged 1,000 people with top-notch skateboarding and trippy UV artwork over two chilly February nights. This followed the country’s first city-based festival of skateboarding in summer 2019, Skateboarding in the City (SITC). Taking place over nine days across multiple Nottingham venues, the 640 skaters rolling around Nottingham included two very large and two average-sized Finns from the city of Tampere, cementing a close relationship between Skate Nottingham and Tampere’s skater-led organisation Kaarikoirat (‘the ramp dogs’). Tampere’s skaters have done much to address challenges that also haunt Nottingham: low graduate retention and brain drain of local talent, low-paid local jobs and cycles of precarity and exclusion, and a disinterest from mainstream sports and culture platforms in anywhere that isn’t the capital city. 

Just before COVID-19 swept across Britain, we finished the Skate & Create project with Backlit Gallery.  59 young people and adults, aged between 6-46, designed, built, skated and then exhibited concrete, metal and wooden forms, developing construction and creative skills and raising aspirations to work in a wide range of trades and professions. Nowhere else in the UK was doing anything of this scale, ambition and purposive targeting at social, economic and ethical challenges. 

In Spring 2021 Nottingham skateboarding is riding high again. Alex Hallford’s win at the national championships cements his status as the UK’s highest-ranked male skateboarder, moving him significantly closer to this summer’s Olympics, alongside third place for Nottingham’s Miriam Nelson in the women’s park discipline (and Miriam isn’t even in her teens yet). But, as for many people and places, the interim between these two points has been relentlessly tough. 

Skateboarding’s superpower is its ability to motivate people of all ages, often in pursuit of individualistic aims (fun, self-expression, skill progression, the conquering of fears), to come together and cooperatively delay gratification for the greater good. Working on a skate video for months or even years before anyone sees it. Self-funding photography exhibitions just to see your mates’ smiling, possibly-drunk, faces. Grafting dustily day-after-day to create DIY skate spaces that get torn down immediately, having briefly transformed a neglected part of the city into a vibrant space for togetherness. 

COVID meant that, to keep individuals and communities safe, moments of togetherness have been postponed or transferred exhaustingly into the digital world. The places that are reliably accessible to children, beginners and many women and girls – designated outdoor skateparks or managed indoor safe spaces like Flo – have had to close for large stretches of time. The streets may be skateboarding’s lifeblood, but when there is only the streets, the diversity that constitutes ‘skateboarders’ quickly rolls back to the bad old days of primarily young, white guys in cool clobber and very few people who are older, younger, of different genders or skin colour. That’s why healthy city life needs a wide variety of spaces that nurture wellbeing. It’s so rad that young children are getting into both skateboarding and its wider culture, but they need to be somewhere their parents know they’re safe. It’s beyond rad that so many more women and girls and people from the LGBTQ+ community now feel welcome and fully part of skateboarding, but if nineteen-year-old cis males still get hounded out of public spaces by “do a kickflip!” shouting morons, I can’t imagine what it must be like for people without the protections and privileges of heteronormative maleness. So ‘building back better’ for us in Nottingham means nurturing and developing spaces that are created for, and by, the community in all our diverse, amazing weirdness.

With a little bit of inspiration, a very imperfect skatepark became a space for togetherness and wellbeing for a couple of precious months

This takes us to what went down in a small but well-loved green space in Sneinton last August. Even with all the aforementioned patter about Skate Nottingham’s achievements, by this point I was at a low ebb.  Small community projects are like fidgety, fragile sharks: if we don’t keep moving forwards at pace, we sink. And once you’ve seen all the twinkling connections, like Professor X in camo pants, between skaters’ interests and our city’s problems, you can’t unsee all the things you need and want to do. Suddenly not being able to do very much ripped the sticking plaster off past bouts of mental ill health. 

Then a couple of films came out, connecting skate communities across space, as they often do. A friend from That London, Long Live Southbank activist and legendary skate film maker, Henry Edwards-Wood, put together a short piece about how, initially, two dudes, Nick and Greg, took it upon themselves to hand-polish the rough, crumbling riding surface of eighties relic Hackney Bumps skatepark, a few painstaking square inches a day. Others joined and the project grew. A space that was previously a graveyard for shopping trolleys became a vibrant community asset, with regular beginners’ lessons and ambitious plans to build more and better. Within a few days of the Hackney Bumps film, came the Bournbrook DIY film, telling a similar but different tale of young skater Sean Boyle and mates deciding to clear rubble and rubbish from Bournbrook Rec, Selly Oak, a venerable but neglected legal graffiti spot (that had counted Goldie, amongst others, as a contributor). Initially a ledge was built. And now there’s a DIY skatepark and community allotment, built to a high standard at no cost to the cash-strapped municipality. 

Our ‘problem’, a partially finished but well used small skatepark in King Edward Park suddenly looked like something that could be solved – with new purpose borrowed from Hackney Bumps and Bournbrook. So we dreamed up the simple idea of Skate & Give Back. Local resident Pete Wright and the Sneinton Tenants and Residents Outreach Programme (STOP-TRA) had campaigned for the skatepark, patiently supported our shenanigans, and organised weekly litter picking and other larger scale public works, including the renovation of the old Cherry Lodge nursery building. 

We couldn’t very well moan about the skatepark’s limitations without thinking about how we could work in solidarity with the residents of one of Nottingham’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. So, in return for free weekly skateboard lessons, children, parents and friends were encouraged to litter pick and start renovating the dilapidated pavilion building. Soon parents were turning up on a Sunday morning even if their children weren’t able to join the lessons, just to help scrape peeling paintwork off an old pavilion for a couple of hours. Skaters in their twenties worked alongside children and local pensioners. Residents who’d been prescribed volunteering by their GPs to help with anxiety spent their Sundays painting metal shutters in fresh green Hammerite and chatting to dudes with tattoos, beanies and five-panel caps, alongside mums from other parts of the city, while boxers sparred in the green square left in the middle of the skatepark and whole families on inline skates pushed around the surrounding pathways. With a little bit of inspiration, a very imperfect skatepark became a space for togetherness and wellbeing for a couple of precious months.

The project was finished, in collaboration with fellow Sneinton occupants Montana UK, by covering the now gleaming green pavilion shutters with original spray can artwork from local graff heads Scarce, Fry Face, F.F.W.I.H. and the legendary Dilk – with Scarce’s bright red heart poignantly marking the heart of the city’s skate scene. It says a lot about UK political and media interests that, at precisely the time this lovely story was playing out, councillors and journalists chose instead to lose their minds over a soon-to-be-sold-off Banksy popping up on the other side of the city – with celebrity trumping celebration of homegrown talent.

But even though it failed to light local politicians’ fires and kick-start discussion around the future of the skatepark, Skate & Give Back gave us our mojo back. With educational charity Ignite! Futures, we worked with more than 100 young people, online and (when we could) in person, to generate ideas for three new spaces for skateboarding, connecting their work to professional bodies like the Landscape Institute and the Forum for the Built Environment. And one of those spaces is actually being freakin’ well built, at Rushcliffe Country Park, Ruddington, ably photo-documented by homegirl Alice Ashley, who also had a big role in ensuring it accounts for the needs of women and girls. 

At precisely the time this lovely story was playing out, councillors and journalists chose instead to lose their minds over a soon-to-be-sold-off Banksy popping up on the other side of the city

This summer we’ll be working with Nottingham Castle early in their opening programme to take over the grounds with an evening of skating, film, music, food and fun. We’ll then use some resources from our one-year ‘Goodpush’ partnership with Oscar-winning international NGO Skateistan to get a crew over to Bournbrook DIY to collaborate on skate lessons and also hope to work with pals and inspirations Skate Southampton, Skate Manchester and Shred the North, as well as the homies over in Tampere, who in September open Europe’s second ‘skate high school’ (the first being in Malmö, Sweden), starting with twenty college-age students studying a curriculum spanning communications, filmmaking, event production, marketing and international development. Back in Nottingham, we’re proud to announce that the Leverhulme Trust will be funding a twenty-month research project with Nottingham Trent to investigate the experiences of women skaters: what it feels like to ‘be a girl who skateboards’ and how this affects their relationship with the city, how safe they feel and the sense of ownership and agency they feel they have in urban spaces. 

This will all be punctuated by the second iteration of Skateboarding in the City, SITC II. Kindly supported by the National Lottery Community Fund, it will take place towards the end of September, coinciding with the completion of a small skate-friendly public space at the foot of Sussex Street, in between the new Nottingham College Hub and the Nottingham Contemporary.

The twelve months since last March may have been the worst time of many of our lives, hopefully the next few months will be significantly better. But if Alex does get to Tokyo, it’ll feel even more like we’re missing a trick in Nottingham if we don’t bring all this potentially transformative radness together. Should a city that’s home to some of the best skateboarders on earth continue to lack a large, world-class outdoor skatepark? Isn’t it time those ‘no skateboarding’ signs at Sneinton Market finally disappeared? Is there not a common purpose in Nottingham’s aspiration to attain UNICEF Child Friendly City status and the contribution to so many childhoods that our city’s incredible skate scene makes? Prior to COVID, ‘we’ (by which I mean our ramshackle community as well as the municipality and partners like the Creative Quarter) had built a lot of momentum. As we tentatively look towards a future that can live with the coronavirus, it’s not certain if, or how, that momentum will be regained or potential met. ‘We’ (again, collectively) need to think bigger.

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