Placemaking by Shredding

Florida intergovernmental agency’s Skateable Art Park transforms unused space into skaters’ dream.

When skateboarders began using a war memorial along the 4.25-mile Capital Cascades Trail in downtown Tallahassee, Florida, it could have easily turned into a "get off my lawn" situation.

But staff at Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency saw it as an opportunity — one that turned tension into placemaking and previously unusable concrete utility space into an art-enhanced cultural destination.

'A Great Shape For Skating'

The Capital Cascades Trail — a project from Blueprint, a joint agency of the city and Leon County that funds infrastructure projects through a 1-cent local sales tax — features historical and cultural sections, a 25-acre park, a pond, and the Korean War memorial. But soon after its first segment opened in 2014, Blueprint Director Autumn Calder, AICP, said complaints started coming in as skateboarders began using the memorial site.

To learn more about the situation, she and Blueprint staff met with Orly Vasquez, founder of Phaze One Skate Shop and a renowned figure in the Tallahassee skater community. Calder said Vasquez's take was that people were skating at the memorial because of the shapes there.

"It's a great shape for skating," Calder said. "So, [he said] if we just built that shape someplace else, they'd stop skating on it."

It was a "light bulb moment" for the project, she said, as they went from thinking they would have to install signage or other preventative measures to reimagining the space.

"This is probably one of my favorite little moments — when something that was perceived as a negative turned into this amazing positive thing," she said.

Alongside that conversation, Calder and her team were thinking about how they could add artistic elements to the Capital Cascades Trail to help blend the recreation use with the character of the surrounding community.

They also quickly identified a piece of land along the trail that they could transform — a 540-foot section of previously unused space because of its proximity to overhead electric transmission lines and underground box culverts for utilities.

"The unique shape of the park not only fits the parameters of the land but also provides the skating community a destination with a plethora of skate features," she said. "[It] stands out because of its shape and size. The majority of skate parks are square or rectangular shaped, making the distance one can travel in a straight line minimal."

It also happened to be a stone's throw from the war memorial.

"We knew that the farther they were from each other, the less likely we could draw the skaters off the memorial to use the actual skate feature," Calder said.

Skaters of all ages and skill levels are able to enjoy the Skateable Art Park's amenities thanks to countless community engagement sessions designed to solicit feedback from the community.

Skaters of all ages and skill levels can enjoy the Skateable Art Park's amenities thanks to countless community engagement sessions designed to solicit feedback from the community. Photo courtesy of Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency.

Overcoming Challenges

At the start of the development process, Calder and her team held a public meeting to engage the skater community and find out what kind of features they wanted in an urban skate park. More than 70 skaters — ranging from kids to adults and experts to novices — gave their feedback. Blueprint staff also went to a nearby skate park in Tallahassee to hear from more skaters.

"The art could look cool, but if it is not skateable, then you don't meet your goal," Calder said. "We wanted them to come and just pour into us what the needed amenities were from a skating perspective."

Blueprint also posted flyers at local skate shops and the student unions of Florida State University and Florida A&M University (FAMU). It also created a citizens committee made up of community members, business owners, officials from the city and utility departments, and a representative from FAMU.

"The citizens group and the skaters were very positive [and] excited," Calder said. "The neighborhood was excited about the opportunity for their kids to be able to have something within walking distance that would be well lit, monitored, and welcoming."

Some of the suggestions Blueprint received included adding a water fountain with a bottle-filling station, a skateboard repair station, shading, and a spot for non-skateable seating.

During COVID-19, Blueprint also held online forums to receive comments about the park. Calder recalled a young elementary school student who was brave enough to speak up and participate in the chat.

"This is a memory that will last forever for me about this project, as I don't recall this ever happening before on any other project," she said.

While the community support was there from the start, Calder said the team did need to work with the utility departments to ensure the plans factored in safety and accessibility concerns.

The Skateable Art Park is nestled away by a two-lane roadway and high-voltage transmission lines. Beneath the park are two box culverts that divert water toward a regional stormwater pond.

"Because of its proximity to 115-kilovolt electric transmission lines and the limited space available at the site, any other type of development is untenable on the land," Calder noted. "Additionally, a key goal of the Skateable Art Park's design was to make certain that park users could not inadvertently enter the clearance zone of the transmission lines as defined in the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC). Coordination with the city electric department occurred throughout all phases of the project to ensure the project team met this goal. Moreover, all conductive materials and construction equipment were grounded and maintained proper setbacks during construction."

The finished park also has a few moveable features to allow for the maintenance of the overhead transmission lines.

"We made sure that we had designed it in a way that their trucks could easily pull in to maintain their lines and the poles, and that the concrete that was used was able to be dense enough to be able to withstand the weight of their trucks," Calder said.

The Blueprint team also had to work against the perception that the skating community would bring illegal activity with it. To combat that, Calder said they got community buy-in from Vasquez, who acted as an advocate on behalf of the project. His support — as well as that from other community members — helped quell any unease regarding the park.

"Just like any big infrastructure project, these take a long time to implement," Calder said. "You have got to stick to the vision. Big things don't come easy, so you just keep going."

Creating a Sense of Ownership

A few months after the park opened in June 2022, Blueprint – with support from the City of Tallahassee and Leon County – hosted a free skating event. In addition to free skating lessons, Boards for Bros — a nonprofit — joined with Team Pain Skate Parks (the company that designed the park), Necessary Skate Company, Phaze One Skate Shop, and others to distribute more than 50 free, refurbished skateboards.

A 10-foot snake sculpture was created for the skate park to recognize the mascot of nearby Florida A&M University.

A 10-foot snake sculpture was created for the skate park to recognize the mascot of nearby Florida A&M University. Photo courtesy of Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency.

"The event was incredibly rewarding as people who have never skated before were allowed to experience the sport and learn from seasoned and professional skaters," Calder said.

Now, more than a year later, Calder said the skater community has developed a feeling of ownership over the park by keeping it safe, clean, and welcoming. It also is drawing people from outside of Tallahassee because of its unique features — including the state's longest snake-run feature (spanning 225 feet), ledges, hips, quarter pipes, and a 10-foot snake sculpture that pays homage to the mascot of nearby Florida A&M University.

Overall, the park has been a success not only for Blueprint but also for the community — something that speaks to how Calder views the planner's role.

"I think it is a personal purpose for many planners to make the communities they live in better," she said. "And really to balance all of the different community needs to meet that goal."

Top image: Courtesy of Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency. When skateboarders began using a war memorial, an intergovernmental agency in Tallahassee, Florida, turned a potential problem into an opportunity — engaging local skateboarders to make it a vibrant new community resource.

Jonathan DePaolis is APA's senior communications editor.

December 20, 2023

By Jon DePaolis