An unprecedented amount of money is being poured into skate parks in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. Both councils are spending millions of dollars investing in facilities – and they are not alone.
Whether it’s a board, bike or scooter, one could argue as many kids now participate in action sports as traditional. An easy summation would suggest demand has pushed governments to supply.
But what value do skate parks have to the community? Why are councils – and private investors – building more of them than ever before?
Former professional surfer Rhys Smith knows the multi-faceted value of skate parks and skating’s associated subculture.
A skate version of his existing surf store at The Junction, Grindhouse is an indoor skate park, cafe, and skate and clothing store. It will employ local skaters and also offer after-school care and professional lessons.
“I’ve probably been thinking about it for about five years,” Smith says.
“But then it was a matter of finding a space. We found lots of locations but basically this one at Marketown was the ideal location.
“A lot of the places that you find [indoor] trampoline parks and skate parks, you need to be able to get there, and a lot of them are out in warehouse areas. So we wanted somewhere that was really accessible, and the fact it is in a good spot for people to go shopping.
“Parents can come in and drop the kids off for two hours for a session or with an instructor, and they can do the shopping.”
Smith says it was when he was in South Africa for a surfing event in his early 20s that the concept dropped into his mind.
“I went to this shopping centre that had a flowrider in it, an indoor skate park, a climbing wall, a go-kart track and I was in there going, ‘Why aren’t these places in Australia?’
“It’s this amazing place where you can go with the family; the parents go one way, the kids go another and you can all meet back at the end of the day.
“Rather than just walking into a skate shop and they sell skateboards and skate clothing, I wanted somewhere that you could actually skate. That kind of shopping experience.
“If you’re a skater, or into coffee, or into food … we wanted somewhere that everyone could go, not just skaters.”
A skater in his teenage years, Smith says the value of skate parks in Newcastle became evident after a couple of old ramps were replaced with Bar Beach skate park.
Opened in 2011, the park is one of the most popular in the Hunter and regularly hosts major skate competitions.
It also the home of some of Newcastle’s best skating talent, who are emerging as potential professionals after learning their craft at the park.
“For me, the proof is in the talent,” Smith says, reflecting on growing up nearby.
“The minute that Bar Beach bowl went into Empire Park and replaced those two ramps, the talent in Newcastle just exploded.”
Such talent includes the likes of Poppy Starr Olsen and Jedd McKenzie.
The pair are not far apart in age, and both grew up – or are growing up – skating at Empire Park on a near daily basis.
They are an example of the level of elite performance and achievement that can be reached when councils invest in skate parks.
Olsen, from the The Junction, says she skates for fun and to spend time with friends.
But she describes her hobby of 10 years as more than a social endeavour, more than something like kicking or throwing a ball around.
Skating is an outlet, she says.
To be free, clear the mind, be creative, to escape, to focus, to be sharp, to be persistent, to try harder, to achieve goals, to develop an identity, to grow.
“I like that skating is so different from any other sport,” Olsen says.
“It’s kind of like an art form, it’s like a lifestyle.
“Everyone has their own style, it’s so individual and there’s an endless amount of tricks you can learn.
“If you’re stressed out, it gets your mind off things.
“It’s a really good outlet for me and other skateboarders.”
At 18, Olsen has reached the upper echelons of the sport.
Having recently finished school, she is considering deferring university studies to target qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Likewise, McKenzie, 17, has spent years developing his skills at Empire Park.
He lives a few football kicks away from the park, but from age 10 he left football behind for airs and grinds.
The pair of skaters attended an Australian Sports Commission event earlier this year which sought advice on how to assist skaters to progress to Tokyo, where the sport will make its Olympic debut.
It is that professionalisation that has helped evolve the view of all levels of government in Australia.
Lake Macquarie City Council is developing three new skate parks for Croudace Bay, Morisset and Windale worth a combined $2 million.
Community consultation for the parks is underway only a few months after the council opened similarly priced parks at Cameron Park and Charlestown.
Once the new parks are built, it will take the council’s estimated investment in skate parks to $7 million since it first funded basic facilities in the 1980s.
For the council, investing in skate parks is about more than simply giving kids something to do. It forms part of a broader approach to civic management.
Project delivery officer Simon Collins says skate parks are “additions to traditional recreational opportunities” that have the ability to “attract people to the region” to live and play.
“The community has told us a number of times they value Lake Macquarie for having active and vibrant lifestyles,” he says.
“They like being a connected community, they like art and artworks and being involved in that space, and essentially skate parks provide a great intersection for all those things.
“It’s a great intersection of community values that we see as being quite important.
“We really want to provide that opportunity, for young families in particular, to come in and know that they’ve got opportunities to become involved in the community and meet new people.”
Lake Macquarie has 11 existing skate parks varying in size and technicality. The spread of parks ensures most residents are catered for in some capacity.
But with an ever-growing population and urban expansion, development contribution plans are the main way parks are added to communities.
“We’re recognising that if we do get the community involved and build that community pride over what has been provided, it’s like a hub of community activity and you don’t get those negative social aspects associated with it,” Collins says.
“Of course there’s a lot of work that’s got to be done to try and build those communities around the skate parks and pride in the skate park.”
The council recently installed security cameras at Charlestown, after a request from police. It followed anti-social activity at the park, which the council says was from a minority who weren’t there to skate.
But it does add to the view that skate parks are hubs for anti-social activity.
However, Olsen says that view is a misconception.
“It’s definitely overblown,” she says.
“When I first started skateboarding, that’s all my parents thought about skate parks.
“They never wanted to take me because they had this idea of what they thought a skate park was about.
“But 99 per cent of the time skateboarders are there to skate and have fun, and it’s usually the others that come in and stir things up.”
Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes says skate parks are an integral part of the city's broader commitment to provide vibrant and activated public spaces.
The council unveiled its plans for South Newcastle beach skate park earlier this year, receiving $5 million from the state government to build the park and rejuvenate that section of Bathers Way.
It also last week commenced construction on South Stockton Active Hub, which features a street-style skate park.
“Our Parkland and Recreation Strategy (PRS) recommends we continue to plan the provision of skate parks for population increase while renewing out-of-date facilities,” Cr Nelmes says.
“Provision of facilities is guided by the recreational needs of a growing population.
“Our strategy recommends a simple skate facility with beginner-to-intermediate skate elements for local neighbourhoods; a district-level facility comprising complex skate elements with supporting infrastructure, such as shelters; and a regional facility ranging in skill from beginners to advanced.
“The latter typically have challenging elements, such as a deep bowl like that at Bar Beach, which qualifies them to host elite events.”
The council has a working party of skaters, youth workers, police, council officers and councillors to identify future demand, plans and locations for skate parks.
Cr Nelmes believes skating “promotes individuality and creativity, much like surfing or learning an instrument”.
“Not only is skateboarding inclusive and social, it has considerable health benefits,” she says.
“Skating is a physical and mental activity that requires a level of athleticism, fitness and skill with positive health results.
“Skate parks fulfil an important social function in bringing groups of adolescents together to share spaces.
“Participating in skating can improve self-esteem and confidence, provide opportunities for peer support and role models, and help young adults feel more included.”