This summer, a brand new skate park quietly opened up on the northwest corner of Elliot Park, right next to the soccer field and the basketball court. I say “quietly” both because Elliot Park is off the beaten path for most Minneapolis visitors, but also because the new park is not nearly as loud as I expected. It turns a lot of the noise normally associated with a skate park comes from the run-of-the mill modular construction, which creates hollow spaces that reverberate with every trick.
This one is different. Unlike nearly every other Twin Cities skate park, its features aren’t bolted into the ground but were built there, custom concrete designs put together by the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board via the California Skateparks design firm. The new park, the brainchild of a skating advocacy group called City of Skate, drew on funding from the nearby Elliot Park neighborhood group, as well as grants from the Mississippi Watershed District and Hennepin Youth Sports.
An amazing public space
With an entire park made from custom cast concrete, the usual noises disappear. The resulting public space is actually mellow, with noise levels from the park certainly lower than the din of cars coming from the nearby freeway. As I watch, a young girl pulls a portable speaker out of her backpack and starts skating around the ramps and rails.
It hits me that this might just be an amazing public space! If so, it would not be an accident. A lot of thought went into how to make the place work so well.
“This corner feature serves three distinct purposes,” explained Paul Forsline, who helps run City of Skate, and was involved with facilitating the design process. “We’re trying to extend the skate park, to give it a little more space. We’re also making a public access into the park, [so that passers-by can] feel it, see it, be in it. And, it’s designed to be a hard feature to skate.”
Paul ran his hand over a steep curving concrete ledge that drops straight down for two feet and, at least to my untrained eye, seems like the most challenging thing in the 11,000 square foot park.
“It’s a little vertical,” Forsline admitted.
The detail about the entrance is a departure from most skate parks you’ll find in the metro, which are almost always composed from cheaper modular features and invariably surrounded by a chain link fence. As a public space aficionado, it’s this last detail that drives me crazy. Unless you really screw up, skateboards do not fly though the air like tennis balls. The chain link gives skate parks an undeserved air of vagrancy, and cuts them off from the rest of the people that use sidewalks in a real city.
In a breath of fresh air, the Elliot skate park also opens seamlessly to the sidewalk along the south edge, drawing people alongside the skaters. There’s even a rail running along the outside of the park that seems ideal for whatever that thing is that skaters love to do on metal rails.
Speaking of seamlessness, another one of the park’s key features is seamless concrete. At first glance, all concrete seems the same, but start staring intently at the ground, and a whole world opens up to you.
Most of the park’s floor is brushed concrete, forming the smoothest of outdoor surfaces, laid in sections with sawn expansion joints. But the “transition” features slope smoothly up and around the edges, poured without blemish on rebar to create the kind of curving enclosures that many skaters love.
The park boasts other subtle design features that might not jump out at people who don’t skate, but add a rich experience for those that do. For example, the shallow scoring around “bricks” recreates the feel of the nearby Hennepin County Government Center plaza, which has been the heart and soul of Minneapolis skating for 40 years at this point.
Even the colors of the concrete were intentionally mixed to try and accentuate the surrounding buildings: the red bit on the south end matches the nearby library of North Central University, a religious academic institution that dominates part of the Elliot Park neighborhood. The darker colors match the mid-century modern Parkside Professional Building, while the lighter grey fits with the palette of the 90-year-old Swedish Hospital that lines the north side of the park.
Skaters like it
But how does it skate, you wonder? I can’t personally tell you because I’ve only been on a skateboard for about four seconds, after which point I was on the ground. (On my visit, I did have a baby in a stroller, but declined to attempt any tricks.)
If you ask actual skaters, they like it. There’s almost always someone using the space, skating around, checking it out, engaged in the nonchalant, low-key action that skateboarders do.
“There’s been somebody here since the sun came up,” says Forsline. “[The Elliot Park neighbors] are happy to have this space activated and being used and I hope other cities other parts of the city realize this is a great space. It’s intergenerational, parents watching, grandparents watching, maybe even participating.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of parkland used more than this quarter-acre on 8th Street. Skaters are there all day, every day, anywhere from a solitary guy in a tee shirt and shorts to fifty people with their decks, at which point the skate park becomes a bit crowded.
I flagged down a skateboarder to get his take. His name was Aaron and, at age 46, he’d been rolling around downtown Minneapolis since 1985.
“I’m stoked to have the opportunity to wake up and come here and skate it,” he told me, while showing off the Familia Skate Shop logo on his skateboard.
As an older guy, he looks for different things in a skate park than the younger types. Ideally, he could do without all the curving ramps and would just like a long “slappy curb” to play with.
At the same time, Aaron appreciates the touches that make it more like the Hennepin County Government Center plazas.
“Even the curbs over there,” Aaron said, pointing to a part of the park “They’re higher than the government center curbs, but if you’re 18 years old and you’ve got fresh legs, that’s not high at all. It just depends where you’re at with skating.”
What’s on deck
If Paul Forsline gets his way, this is just the start. He hopes to expand the number of skate parks all through the city and the state. Five years ago, I wrote about how the City of Skate team was trying to get the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to invest in skate parks. At the time, the new Elliot Park was just a half-pipe dream.
Now that they have a showcase, it should be easier to convince funders to build more. So far, City of Skate has coaxed the Minneapolis Park Board to grant planning approval for twenty new skate parks throughout Minneapolis — Painter Park in the Lyndale neighborhood is the next one in the works. As with most things, getting money for the program remains the biggest challenge, both at the city and the state level.
“We’re still at the state capital looking for bonding money, lobbying for a matching grant for $10M,” Paul said. “We’re hoping to pass that next year.”
As for the skaters, they seem happy to have somewhere new to mess around. The result is a public place that, at all times of the day, boasts the most diverse set of people you’re likely to see in Minneapolis. Skaters range across geography, race, age, gender, and nearly every other metric you could think of — well, apart from the risk-averse.
“My favorite thing about skating is that its multi-generational,” admitted Aaron, the experienced skateboarder. “You see people anywhere from 6 years old to 60 years old, and that’s cool. You make your own rules. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. It’s just about having fun.”
It’s long past time for city parks departments to take skateboarding seriously. There are few investments that can equally catalyze a vibrant public space like a skate park. They build community, connect people, offers a spectacle for passers-by, and add Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” from dawn to dusk. If you’re in the area, check out what’s happening on the corner of Elliot Park, and imagine our park systems taking down the fences, opening up the concrete, and creating more unique public spaces through which to flow.