March 1st, 2024

Vancouver skateboard community longs for indoor space as city policy tries to keep up

By Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press on December 25, 2023.

Cole Nowicki performs a frontside rock and roll while posing for a photograph at the Strathcona skatepark in Vancouver, on Wednesday, December 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – When parents come into Michelle Pezel’s skateboard shop on Vancouver’s Main Street around Christmas, they often ask where their kids can go to practise.

Pezel, who co-owns Antisocial Skateboard Shop with longtime pro skater Rick McCrank, then has to explain that skateboarding in Vancouver during the rainy winter months is “tough.”

“They get a gift and it’s a skateboard and they can’t really use it that much,” she said.

“It’s dark at 4:30. There are not that many facilities even with lights in our city.”

As the sport morphed from a rebellious counterculture activity to making its Olympic debut in Tokyo, cities across the world have embraced the demand for facilities.

But for skateboarders in Vancouver and elsewhere in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, there’s a lack of city-supported covered or indoor spaces.

The region has produced and nurtured a long line of pro skaters including McCrank, Chris Haslam, Kevin Harris and Rob (Sluggo) Boyce. Indoor parks have come and gone, such as the Richmond Skate Ranch, where many pros, such as Colin McKay, honed their skills on its famous vertical ramp in the 1990s.

Then there are up-and-coming stars such as Breana Geering and Una Farrar, Olympians Andy Anderson and Micky Papa, Team Canada member Ryan Decenzo and legendary skateboarding figures like Joe Buffalo.

That legacy was acknowledged when the park board last year approved a 20-year plan to improve and expand skateboard amenities across Vancouver, known as CitySkate, with input from the skating community.

The report noted that while Vancouver has a reputation as a “hub for skateboarding,” no new skate parks have been built in the city since 2011, even as the sport surged in global popularity.

“Skateboarding has a long and rich history in Vancouver and the city continues to foster a thriving and engaged skate community today,” the June 2022 report said. “But there is a lack of amenities to meet the growing demand and requests from the community continue to increase.”

Pezel is a vice-president with the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition, which has advocated for more skate-friendly spaces for decades, especially indoor or covered facilities.

She said prohibitive costs make indoor parks difficult to sustain, and many have ended up going bust in the past.

Pezel said there are private indoor parks in Tsawwassen and Surrey and one is set to open in Langley, but there are none in Vancouver.

“Since I’ve been skateboarding there has been indoor skate parks, but, like, why don’t they last?” Pezel asked. “We went to many meetings and we were very clear we need to put this on the strategy and it just couldn’t ever make the cut and they just kept talking about costs.”

In the meantime, she said community centres around Vancouver have been offering “pop-up” skateboarding events indoors, while a covered ramp on Granville Island tides her and others over in the rainy months.

Michelle Larigakis, a planner with the Vancouver Park Board, was the project manager on the CitySkate strategy.

Larigakis said in an interview that the “breadth and diversity” of Vancouver’s skate community came as a surprise during the lengthy public engagement process.

She said a “huge” part of the public feedback mentioned the need for a covered or indoor facility.

“That’s definitely become a high priority item for us, and we’re looking for space and opportunities,” she said. “It’s just much more expensive and because we have limited real estate in Vancouver with a lot of other sports jostling for space in these parks, we have to try to balance all the needs of the community members, not just the skateboarders.”

Larigakis said the city is renewing older spaces, such as China Creek Skatepark near Broadway and Clark in East Vancouver, originally built in 1979.

She said the strategy also includes building on existing park infrastructure and incorporating skate-friendly features that don’t cost much to install.

Since adopting the strategy, Larigakis said the city and park board are actually “far more aware of putting in these little elements into the projects that support skateboarding in just really simple small ways.”

Cole Nowicki, a writer and longtime skater in Vancouver, said the winter months in Vancouver are “bleak,” forcing people to resort to skating in underground parking lots where the threat of getting kicked out by security guards is ever present.

“Every once in a while you get lucky and someone will build a mini ramp in a garage or workshop, but yeah, Vancouver’s lack of dedicated indoor skateboarding spaces, that’s been an issue for as long as I’ve lived here,” he said.

Nowicki wrote a book published this fall called “Right, Down + Circle: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater,” which examines the impact of the iconic skateboarding video game released in 1999.

The book explores the game’s influence on skateboarding’s popularity as it grew from a niche subculture populated mostly by young, white men into a widespread phenomenon that transcends age, race or gender.

Skateboarding’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games in 2021 brought attention and “legitimacy” to the sport, for better or worse, Nowicki said.

“You would imagine there would be motivation, whether that’s from the private sector or the government wanting to fund its athletes to be able to train to be the best they could be,” he said. “But that just hasn’t really happened in a serious way, at least not in this city.”

Mark van der Zalm’s landscape architecture firm has designed and consulted on a number of skate park projects over the past two decades in Canada and the United States, and helped with the CitySkate strategy.

When he started, van der Zalm said it was a struggle to convince communities “that skate parks were a good thing and they weren’t just magnets for drugs and vandalism and, you know, bad behaviour.”

“That took a long time,” he said.

Now, he said, local governments are more aware of the benefits of skateboarding as a healthy means of recreation, and incorporating the sport into cities’ recreational planning projects is no longer a fanciful notion.

He said the lack of covered spaces is a “thorn in the side of many skateboarders.”

“You can’t skateboard in the rain,” he said.

He said his firm designs skate parks for the “everyday person” rather than elite-level Olympic athletes, but he said the lack of dedicated indoor training facilities is a “legit concern.”

He said there’s been talk about opening such a facility in Langley, B.C., or Calgary, though no concrete plans have materialized.

“But right now, where we come in, is in community-based amenities and trying to just educate and inform people about the opportunity here,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for designers, for communities, for politicians to really recognize something that’s largely positive and get on board, literally, no pun intended.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 25, 2023.

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