This is not just a skatepark

Reconceptualising skateparks as spaces that cultivate creativity and self-expression

Who knew that I would find purpose in the screeching of urethane wheels challenging the smooth surface of concrete, the sound of maple wood smacking the ground before taking flight, or the unrehearsed performance of kids bravely traversing a space that belongs only to their imaginations? I smoothly roll through what seems to be familiar terrain, searching for new ways to discover it, sheltered by my concentration and search for instant rewards. This distorted concrete slab is my refuge; an asylum for those wanting to develop a sense of resilience and self-determination whilst nurturing an agility to deal with the often harsh realities and urban threats omnipresent within our world.

This is not a sports field. I’m not an athlete. The skatepark is my studio, my gallery, my stage, my dance room. I am an artist. I am a skateboarder. While skateboarding has been conflated with sports, many skateboarders have resisted being defined within the framework of competition – instead, distinguishing the activity by its ability to communicate and provide a medium of self-expression. This realisation remains a fundamental facet which has guided the approach taken in developing the Eyethu Skatepark as a transformative space which serves as a regenerative instrument of integration and community building.

While this was our realisation, the state had a very different perspective of skateboarding. Authorities continue to hold on to an outdated and unwarranted negative stigma attached to the activity – imposing repressive laws and measures upon already marginalised youth in the city who face exclusion from other opportunities. Skateboarding is a crime in Cape Town, and the by-law prohibiting the activity in public streets and public spaces deems skateboarders rebels, social deviants and nuisances. This perception, however, is at least partly contested within the institution and the political landscape of the City. This was seen during 2014’s World Design Bid Application, in which the City stated: “skateboarders sometimes have the unfortunate and misguided reputation of being rebellious ‘anarchists’ with no regard for law and order; often this is due to their use of public space. The lack of dedicated spaces for them to practice their sport forces them to use shared open space, so clashing with other users. There are few venues in the City that allow skateboarders and there are little to no public skate parks in or around Cape Town.” While the 2014 World Design Capital initiative saw the City lay claim to one skatepark, ribbon cutting ceremony included, the repressive laws remained and the guidelines for developing culture-centric spaces for young people failed to be translated into its development processes.

The journey of Eyethu Skatepark as a project and movement began nearly five years ago, when few could imagine that a community-led skatepark project would surface and overcome so many social and political challenges residing in the legal and institutional systems. None of us imagined having to lobby for the importance of youth, creativity and culture in the paradigm of building inclusive and just communities. But it was apparent that creativity was seen as a luxury only afforded to a few – much like skateboarding, it was overlooked, undervalued or recklessly disregarded in the communities that desperately needed interventions that would contribute to social cohesion, inclusion and cultural diversity.

Hout Bay, much like other neighbourhoods in South Africa, is a community that desperately needs these kinds of interventions. It is inseparably bound up with the social formation of the society in which the city is embedded and the segregation of race and ethnic groups have historically been the central characteristic of social, economic, and spatial organisation. Social exclusion in the South African context is multifaceted and complex, with layers of unequal power relationships to exclude certain groups of people from engaging or participating in economic or social life. There is an increasing body of literature that implies that culture, or participating in culture, has an impact on social capital formation; that culture and creativity are vital components in contributing to building or strengthening economic growth, through employment opportunities in the cultural and creative industries; and that they play an important role in urban regeneration. But this line of thought is grounded in considering culture as an ecology which shifts from the instrumentalism of creativity and culture towards an understanding, and conception, of the public value of culture and the fundamental role it plays in the fight against social exclusion. The legacy of both colonial and Apartheid policies still endures, and many of South Africa’s post-Apartheid policies have been directed at correcting these injustices responsible for social exclusion.

few could imagine that a community-led skatepark project would surface and overcome so many social and political challenges

The Eyethu Skatepark is located at the intersection of formality and informality, on the border of wealth and poverty, amidst urbanisation and colonial legacy. It is a refuge space for youth desperately wanting to escape the zones characterised by poverty and misery, rather imagining and participating in developing spaces that exhibit dynamism, vibrancy and creativity. While the park is located at the community sports grounds and is coupled with the activities of formal sports, the skatepark has etched its own boundary and evolved the current perspective of a cultural space. When such a term is applied to urban Africa, it is used to describe a limited number of ‘cultural institutions,’ such as museums or theatres, within which culture can be preserved or consumed. Recently, however, there have been greater attempts to include culture in the policy frameworks of development and approaches have been aimed at the explicit integration of culture in the definition of the new urban agenda. Cultural infrastructure is beginning to be recognised as playing a fundamental role in contributing to making cities safe, sustainable, liveable and resilient.

Reconceptualising the skatepark as a cultural space, rather than a sports field or play park, has helped the project frame the strategic importance of this space in the formation of a sustainable and just community. It has reactivated government’s response to the historically oppressive policies to focus on improving the conditions of ‘marginalised’ communities through the development of cultural and public spaces, throwing emphasis onto them as prime instruments for redress and equality. While our City was named a UNESCO Official City of Design in 2017 for working towards a common objective of placing creativity and culture at the heart of development plans, the strategic importance of these industries remains overlooked and undervalued – too often an afterthought in developing sustainable and regenerative communities.

This is not a sports field. I’m not an athlete. The skatepark is my studio, my gallery, my stage, my dance room. I am an artist. I am a skateboarder.

For the purpose of this community-led skatepark, we had to navigate the disconnected relationship between state and creative civic movements, and burdening democratic despotism. The process called for change, and revival of collaboration in the process of city-making and community building and from the onset: the artist was the Imagineer. We began as a diverse group of multi-disciplinary creatives connected by the desire and responsibility to contribute positively to our community – and evolved into a wider network of individuals, organisations and communities that responded to the call for collaboration.

words – vicki scheffel , marco morgan
photography – dwayne senior, stefan jacobs, tim eccles, matthew johnston
location – cape town, south africa

Benjamin Barber wrote, “in the face of the most perilous challenges of our time – climate change, terrorism, poverty, and trafficking of drugs, guns and people – the nations of the world seem paralysed. The problems are too big, too interdependent, too divisive for the nation-state.” Barber cites the unique qualities our cities worldwide share: pragmatism, civic trust, participation, indifference to borders and sovereignty, and a democratic penchant for networking, creativity, innovation and cooperation. His arguments are compelling and emphasise a shared responsibility in shaping our cities, our communities and our futures.

This diversity of cultures, heritages and knowledge are vital parts of cities, integral to their identity and dynamism as hubs of social and human development. It is our hope that by expanding the scope of cultural infrastructure, we will help to widen the discussion and counter the tendency to narrowly focus upon only traditional cultural facilities – also taking into account the tangible built forms of cultural infrastructure as well as the less tangible and more youth-oriented types of cultural infrastructure. By defining what constitutes this at a community scale, a more diverse range of significant cultural infrastructure types can emerge, and government departments and agencies can more adequately provide for specific community needs. The tendency to define cultural infrastructure by its function rather than by its form allows for a broader and more inclusive understanding, whilst framing it from a functional perspective also highlights the diverse roles of cultural infrastructure and its valuable contribution to a community’s social fabric, economy and overall quality of life.