Teenagers Show Planners How It’s Done: Build Your Own

By Fernando Marti

Perhaps you remember hanging out after school, searching out those empty lots, abandoned parks, or downtown plazas with their concrete benches? They were the real playgrounds and obstacle courses of our adventurous minds.

Perhaps now, as urban planners, we spend too much of our time designing those places away, creating guidelines to keep those pesky teenagers from disrupting our carefully concocted urban scenes. In countless community meetings, when a youth voice is even heard, it is to say: give us places to be ourselves, to be loud, to be outdoors in the city.

Sometimes, thanks to the persistence of kids, parents and youth advocates, the long and cumbersome road to developing a public skatepark gets underway. A typical project takes years, sometimes longer, slowed by funding battles, liability issues, red-tape, and unsympathetic politicians, to be built someday when the kids are no longer kids. This is a story about how kids took on a bureaucracy and ultimately built their own park, their way.

Youth Activism

In California youth activism is a serious matter. High school students are organizing to protest youth criminalization laws and high-stakes testing, and to protect college affirmative action programs. Youth have also come to see neighborhood battles as their own battles. Unlike many of their elders, who often organize primarily to preserve their existing neighborhoods or to prevent environmental injustices, the optimistic nature of youth allows them to imagine what could be. Too often, to the detriment of our cities, we have not trusted youth to contribute to our communities. Now, they are making sure their voices are heard.

In 1997 in the sleepy Bay Area town of Alameda, teens from Encinal High founded HOME, a student-run organization created to give kids something to do after school. With eight other teenagers, sixteen-year-old skater Daniel Osborne created HOME’s Skateboard Task Force. They collected 1,600 signatures in support of their project to build a skatepark on an empty parking lot in the newly decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Station. They got the classic bureaucratic runaround. Though the Department of Park and Recreation offered $50,000 toward construction of the park, the kids would have to raise the rest on their own. At a standard cost of $25-30 a square foot, the kids had no idea where they were going to be able to raise the other $200,000-300,000 needed to build their 15,000 square foot park. So they decided to build it themselves.

Youth Build a Skatepark

For many, it was the Fall of their senior year in high school. They had to move fast if they hoped to see their skatepark done before they graduated. Working with Tom Arie Donch, a playground designer who specializes in community-built projects, the kids developed an ambitious four-month timeline in which to design the project, raise the funds, organize the volunteers and build the thing. For Arie Donch a typical community built playground takes anywhere from eight months to a year to organize successfully, but it often costs less than one-third of traditional construction, not to mention the many social benefits of a collective undertaking.

One of Donch’s main tasks is to help groups organize themselves and develop strategies to get the job done. A core group hashed out the design using clay models, while others organized committees composed of adults and teenagers to work with city officials, expedite permits, raise funds, collect tools and materials, sign up volunteers and cook meals for the build. The kids packed City Hall to convince the city to release the $50,000 for materials and engineering services, while they raised the rest as in-kind donations from local contractors and large stores such as Home Depot. Volunteers from local trade unions taught the teenagers the skills they needed, from tying rebar to finishing concrete.

The kids were committed to getting truly multicultural involvement. They set the goal of having a diverse cross-section of their population for the twelve-day build — across ethnicities and generations. In all, over 500 people volunteered for the project. A retired judge in his seventies was able to say, seeing the completed skatepark, that “this project touched, motivated, and brought together the citizens of Alameda in a way no other project has in the seventy years that I have been involved in the Alameda community.”

The kids built a lasting sense of what it means to make a connection to place, a sense of belonging to a larger community by contributing to it. Up to a hundred people use the park on a weekend day. They range in age from four to over sixty years. The park includes beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses. Today, about fifteen youth and adults, all people who helped to build the park, continue to run the Skate Park Task Force to resolve ongoing issues of safety and maintenance. HOME is now a 175-member organization working on a range of community projects, from child-care to youth-run businesses.

Fernando Marti is a planner with Urban Ecology, Inc. and a member of the Planners Network Steering Committee.

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