Skateboarding represents a $4.8-billion market. The first skateboards were manufactured commercially in the 1950s. The first significant skateboarding boom was in 1963, and then popularity waned over the years until 1972 when urethane wheels were introduced. The new wheels were softer and provided more traction than the clay or steel wheels. Surfers took to the new skateboard and used it in a way that expressed the aggression and creativity of surfing, and this sparked renewed public interest in skateboarding. By the 1970s, skateparks were being built all over. During the 1980s, veteran skateboarders began starting their own companies. As these companies matured through the next decade, skateboarding honed its distinctly countercultural reputation through shocking marketing while their teams routinely performed newer and bigger tricks. By the mid-1990s, skateboarding had achieved coverage on mainstream television, and excitement over skate contests rivaled other traditional sports. Today, famous skateboarders have become household names.
Skatepark history reflects the popularity of the sport. During the 1970s, as urethane wheels boosted skateboarding’s popularity, skatepark entrepreneurs created retail skateparks to capitalize on the sport’s growth. There were few places that could compare with the unique terrain offered by these facilities, and skaters seemed happy to pay for access to them. There were a small number of free, outdoor “skate runs” in the country, but commercial skateparks dominated the industry. Skateparks were universally understood to be “pay-to-play” facilities.
In the late ’70s, a glut of liability lawsuits forced insurance underwriters to tighten restrictions on what they were prepared to cover. To that point, skateparks had been small operations run on shoestring budgets, and with rising insurance premiums, they closed. By 1980, the country had a small handful of skateparks left. Skateboarders took their tricks to the streets. Skateboarders also took their passion to building ramps. Before too long, skaters were building concrete structures in their backyards and derelict areas of town. To protect their improvements, they organized and gained legitimacy. They founded companies specializing in skatepark design and construction. Nearly all of those companies are still in business today.
Municipalities began to see the value of public skateparks and the positive impact they have on the youth. As skaters continued to be a nuisance by grinding ledges around town, cities looked to skateparks for a solution.
As public skateparks exploded across the country, new companies saw an opportunity to capitalize on the industry boom. Landscape architects dabbled in the “terrain artistry” of skateboarding terrain, while playground companies developed ramp-style products that they could sell to towns along with their jungle gyms and swing-sets. Without big marketing budgets, small skateboarder-run skatepark companies struggled to compete. Skateboarders themselves became the catalyst for positive change as they underscored the need for experienced companies with proven portfolios only be qualified to build their local skatepark. Their cities listened and, over time, more and more excellent skateparks were developed.
Today, nearly all of the world’s best skatepark designers and construction companies employ a landscape architect that is also a skateboarder. Only a small number of ramp-style companies remain in business, and no playground companies are involved in any meaningful way. It’s a good time for skateparks!