You’re 16 years old in Los Angeles. It’s a Tuesday afternoon and you just got out of school. Your mother is working late as usual and your father is nowhere to be found, nor has he ever been around. Your school doesn't have the funds for after-school programmes and you don't have the money to pay for the luxuries of sports clubs let alone pay for the bus fare to get to the local library. But, you have a skateboard. Throwing the deck in front of you, you jump on your board. You kick-push your way past the alleys, the corner drug dealers that try to entice you each time, and finally make your way to the local skatepark. Nothing more than concrete ledges, metal rails, and cement grooves, somehow this place feels like home.
When we think of classic crime prevention techniques at the street level, the focus is often on community control, the design and management of public space, policing and surveillance. Arguments often turn to breaking cycles of deviance and violence via mapping out crime "hot spots," cracking down on signs of visible disorder, and blocking out criminal opportunities in at-risk places. In countering juvenile delinquency, time, money and research is consistently dedicated towards finding the intervention programme that best acts as an antidote for stopping the onset of criminal careers. But, often misunderstood and under-researched, youth skate culture is an after-school programme that doesn't come with a heavy price tag in preventing and reducing juvenile delinquency.
Skateboarding Is Not a Crime
Skateboarders are in a subculture of their own. By outward appearances, they are disorderly. They are not the squeaky-clean, wholesome looking athletes you'd find on American cereal boxes nor do they aspire to be that way. Instead, skateboarding is reflective of skateboarders themselves: it relies on improvisation and getting-by on limited resources. Skateboarding uses pervasive public space. It is not bound to a field, a court, or the posh comfort of a yoga studio. But, as Barton & Johns remind us, the "social event" of skateboarders using stairs, handrails and plant boxes as a make-do playground can easily be translated into a "social problem" depending on the lens through which it is viewed.
In fostering a climate of social order and removing perceived incivilities there runs the risk of misidentification. Congregation does not confer crime and, instead, law enforcement and policy makers should focus on the context. When there is no space for art, play and recreation in whatever form, people will make space. When municipalities make rigid "no skateboarding" zones and close skateparks as they did in Amsterdam in 2013 which was faced with public backlash, skateboarders are often placeless. When skaters turn to the streets due to a lack of skateparks and skate safe places, they are unfairly labelled as street vandals, "little criminals," misfits, and bandits as opposed to alternative athletes.
This mislabelling is not an uncommon problem in the dialogue around crime prevention. Being an "at risk" youth in society is often improperly translated as meaning "of risk" to society, which only perpetuates narratives of public fear. When we hone in, stereotype and criminalize certain groups like skateboarders for being "different," we often disregard the kinship networks and mechanisms at play which prevent skaters from true criminal lifestyles.
The Case for Skateparks
As suggested by Sampson, we should "focus on changing places, not people." But, in the street-sweeping crime and urban decay clean-up effort an important question arises: Are we sweeping too broadly? The point being, "disorder" is not a universally true concept. Perhaps, some "disorder" and risk is, in fact, necessary for maintaining order and collective efficacy in communities. Skaters are often banished to the fringes of communities or public parks because of the loud noise they create. But public parks, especially in suburban America, are often met with strict park curfew hours to combat legitimate gang activity. Therefore, where are skaters to go? As risk prevention runs through the veins of today's society, better design of public space must include accessibility to skate-safe places.
Yes, skateboarding is a high-risk activity, but it offsets the propensity towards legitimately dangerous risk-seeking behaviour like crime and drugs. Skatepark implementations have been shown, in various case studies, to mitigate crime and authority-resistant behaviour amongst youths. Skateboarding as a sport creates civic and community engagement, has positive effects on mental health, and promotes healthy and active lifestyles. Skate projects in California's poorest neighbourhoods like City Heights in San Diego have acted as a catalyst for civic engagement. Meanwhile, indoor warehouses such as Denver's Skatuary rely on a fellowship model. Even against a backdrop of violence and war, skate schools like those funded by the Skateistan project in Afghanistan provide a foundation of hope despite the environmental and systematic hardships that permeate everyday life.