What every Urban Designer and Transport Planner could learn from riding a skateboard for a day; A Me
Not really...but that statement is a great tie in to what I learned from skateboarding starting at the age of 4 years old. In addition to bicycles I have used the skateboard as a form of first mile last mile solution for decades and on all three coasts: East, West and Midwest (fyi- Chicago is the Third Coast :). The biggest and longest lasting effect skateboarding has had on my life: it forever changed how I visualized and engaged with the designed environment.
Of course skateboarding damages surfaces and can be a liability challenge; I’m not condoning illegal use of public or private space for skateboarding. Skateboards have the smallest wheels of any common form of transportation including razor scooters or roller skates. On a skateboard you feel and are directly affected by every single crack, divot, pothole, rock or texture change in the street or sidewalk. Asphalt, concrete, marble, plastic, stone and other pavement surfaces affect movement and navigation. The point of positive engagement where something simply just works for skaters is relevant to all other forms of transportation too; whether we're talking about people walking, drivers, cyclists...etc.
The question we all have in our heads as we navigate our cities and towns: Can I use this? Is something going to be useful to me on my skateboard to land that trick I was dreaming about? Or Is it null and void to simply be passed up like other bits of our planned environment? Whether or not a curb, ledge, bench rail or stairs are skateable is where it will prove it's relevance to me, design interaction. That includes the other objects or surfaces surrounding the object of interest; like whether not landing a trick could result in me or my board falling into a water fountain?!
Photo: Adam Shomsky
The whole city or suburb becomes a potential usable, useful, and valued landscape. Whereas most people pass through a designed space on the way to somewhere else, skateboarders spend hours in seemingly mundane "spots" entertaining themselves and passers by as they bring the space alive and use it for a purposes beyond what it was originally intended. Each new skater brings a new trick or a new approach to skating the Spot: Collaborative design. If someone wants to pull off a new trick they need a new approach.
Skateparks are great but not everyone has access to one, access to a vehicle to get to one, or even enjoys skating obstacles in a park in the first place. Of course skateboarding damages surfaces and can be a liability challenge; I’m not condoning illegal use of public or private space for skateboarding. My point is that by visualizing the landscape from the perspective of all users, especially those with mobility impairments, we are forced to step outside of our biases and that is where equity and good urban planning collide. I'm not saying skateboards are a supreme form of transportation nor am I saying skaters should be top priority when it comes to urban planning. My skateboard experiences are just an example of how bias affects our design thinking.
I can't even count the number of times I've passed through an intersection around the United States of America and thought to myself, "How in the hell would someone in a wheelchair ever make it through there?!"
The sad fact is that we are far from design equity in urban planning and transportation design. The up shot is that there is a ton of space to innovate, collaborate and create new opportunities for equity in design planning.
Looking at future planning as cities become more dense and populations grow there is tremendous opportunity to crack the code and bring the equity gap down to a conclusion. Streets should be useful and safe for anyone from stroller bound children to wheelchair bound elders and if that was the only measure by which we held designers responsible then it's not a perfect measure. I don't have an absolute solution but I share the common idea that urban design should be safe, intuitive and accommodate all users with priority given to walking, cycling and public transportation. I believe it was said best by Enrique Peñalosa, governor of Bogota, Colombia: "...applying that democratic principle that public good prevails over private interest, that a bus with 100 people has a right to 100 times more road space than a car...protected bikeways also are a powerful symbol of democracy, because they show that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car."