Skate Nation

Colorado's becoming a mecca for skateboarders. But for the best parks, you'd better head for the hills.

These ramps were so poorly conceived that it often seemed like Skateparks International had confused a skateboard with some kind of stylish dolly. Our favorite was a preposterously unskateable ramp in Greeley nicknamed "The Goliath" because its unconquerable visage looked like an eight-foot-tall refrigerator box slanted at an 80-degree pitch.

Both Ryan and I had been skating since elementary school. But skateboards had been around a lot longer than that. In the late '70s, hundreds of undulating snake runs and vertical bowls dotted the North American landscape. But liability concerns caused insurance rates to skyrocket, and by 1981, most of these "attractive nuisances" had been bulldozed; skateparks were simply too risky for both cities and private owners to build and maintain. So in the early '90s, when the sport's mainstream popularity was at a record low, Ryan and I -- like the rest of the few and the proud -- hiked up our chins, sagged down our pants and took to the streets in search of stairs, rails, ledges and banks. As the decade progressed, Sunday nights in downtown Denver began to look like an urban adaptation of Lord of the Flies, with wild packs of teenage skaters circling between Civic Center Station and the old Skyline Park (may it forever rest in peace). Street skating had a rhythm to which we quickly became accustomed: stairs, kick flip, cop, run, wall ride, security guard, fuck off, hide, wall ride, cop, ticket, skate, rail, face plant, home, pay ticket?, skate.

By the late '90s, cities began to recognize that instead of constantly chasing skateboarders away from property, it was more cost-effective to build areas where skateboarding was not a crime. Still, Ryan and I were infuriated that driveway-building contractors and know-nothing Skateparks International were allowed to masquerade as skatepark experts. Would you allow a guy who'd never climbed a rock to design your $100,000 climbing wall? How about letting the weekend Harley-riding dude draw up plans for a motocross track? And, hey, why not have a tennis player take a swing at laying out your city's million-dollar golf course?

Some skaters were so bummed by these early skateparks that they went right back out to ride the streets -- where the cops were now less forgiving.

Ryan was studying architecture in college, and both of us had built numerous skateboard ramps over the years. So we came up with the name Urban Creation and created a four-color brochure that we sent to every parks-and-rec director in the state. Our aspirations weren't huge; I certainly wasn't looking to make skatepark design a career. This was simply a preemptive strike against crappy skateparks -- and we thought we might even collect some money in the process.

The initial response wasn't promising. While our friends and parents were impressed that we were showing any initiative at all, city bureaucrats saw us for what we were: a couple of punk kids. Unlike legitimate skater-owned companies such as SITE Design, we were clueless about the proposal and the bidding process. We had only vague notions of construction costs. And insurance and liability? Um...

What we did know was the perfect height and angle for a pyramid obstacle. Too mellow and it wouldn't give enough boost, too steep and it would throw you right off your board. Just as a surfer can tell at a glance if an incoming wave is rideable by its depth and height, we intuitively knew at what point a particular skateboard obstacle became challenging and fun -- or janky and dangerous.

Eventually we got the chance to help design a skatepark for Elizabeth, a city forty miles southeast of Denver. Like many fast-growing Colorado communities, Elizabeth had sold its soul to developers and now had more money than pockets to put it in, so it issued a call for local landscape-architecture firms to design an outdoor sports area complete with softball fields, a roller-hockey court, a fishing pond and a skatepark. Denver-based Shalkey and Team brought us on as consultants for the skatepark, and together we won the bid.

Over the next six months, Ryan and I held a series of workshops with the young skaters of Elizabeth to come up with a design that integrated custom aboveground ramps with small concrete elements like ledges and stairs. The trick to putting together a good skatepark is to organize all of the obstacles in such a way that they can be hit in a series, in what skaters call "flow" or "lines." Creating good flow on paper isn't easy, especially for skateboarders who are used to perceiving things in a three-dimensional realm, so Ryan and I chalked out the entire plan to scale in an empty parking lot and rode our boards between the obstacles, making adjustments based on distance and speed. In order to stay within the town's budget, we maximized the flow to ensure that skaters would have more options with fewer ramps, and molded the skatepark's footprint to the surrounding park.

"Oh, man," boggled a fourteen-year-old skater at a workshop where we unfurled our plans. Up to that point, his most elaborate terrain had been the curb behind Safeway. "Oh, man, this is going to be so awesome."

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