TRCH Priscilla

Skate Nottingham on the Innovative Development of Disused Spaces and How Skateboarding Enriches the Community

13 November 19 words: Chris Lawton

Since last year, more than 1,300 people have engaged in local skate-related activities. Nottingham held the UK’s first city-based festival of skateboarding – combining exhibitions, public talks and film screenings with skate comps and parties – Flo Skatepark was taken into public ownership, and we’ve been featured in international conferences and publications. Nottingham’s skate scene already offers solutions to unloved urban spaces and acute social challenges, yet there’s still so much left to do. Chris Lawton of Skate Nottingham gives us an update on recent events, and looks to the future of skateboarding in the city…

When I talk to students or policy makers about innovation, they usually think of futuristic laboratories, registered patents, money invested in R&D, or numbers employed in high-tech manufacturing industries. But when I talk about social innovation – new ways to improve the wellbeing, education and lifestyles of people in our city – eyes drift to phone screens and ears tune out.

As Nottingham’s £9 billion economy continues to perform poorly on a range of social justice measures, innovative social action is more pressing than ever. Nottingham has the lowest level of household income in the UK and is ranked bottom on the Youth Opportunity Index. It has the third lowest level of productivity (only a little higher than Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly), rising levels of anxiety, and falling levels of personal wellbeing.

The city of Preston has reversed its fortunes through the relatively simple strategies of leasing vacant shops and civic buildings to cooperatives and social enterprises, alongside major employers’ commitment to procure and employ locally, and has been celebrated by the New York Times as a model of municipal and community innovation.

In Nottingham’s case, it’s the skateboarders – those toe-rags legislated out of public spaces since the by-law in 2000, with ‘no skateboarding’ signs still stubbornly in situ – who have been doing much of the innovating necessary to put our city in the international spotlight as an exemplar of inclusive, DIY urbanism.

Would you believe that more than £500,000 has been levered in by skatepark user groups over the last twelve months? Nottingham’s skaters are chairing international planning symposiums; writing articles on how skateboarding benefits our city for American, Asian and European titles; appearing in BBC features and National Lottery 25-year celebration TV ads; representing Team GB in Rio de Janeiro; and making some of the city’s unloved, neglected spaces active and lively.

To understand why, you need only look to the city’s unique ecosystem of organisations. Forty Two Shop is a bricks ‘n’ mortar independent that bucks the trend of a declining high street because it’s so much more than a retailer. It’s a first and last sponsor, unofficial youth club, event organiser and advocate for Nottingham’s skaters. Skaters don’t just visit to replace a broken board or pair of trainers, but to print up a CV, get advice on housing or employment, or to talk to someone who cares when life seems overwhelming. With the loss of youth services like Connexions, Forty Two is not just the best, but the only place for many young people to spend a lunch hour when things get tough.

Forty Two Shop is a bricks ‘n’ mortar independent that bucks the trend of a declining high street because it’s so much more than a retailer

Flo Indoor Skatepark temporarily closed its doors last September, having been run as a purely for-profit facility. Skaters, parents and teachers moved fast to take it into charitable ownership, securing a £5,000 start-up capital from VF Corp, whose portfolio includes Vans, one of the highest valued shoe brands with deep skateboarding roots. They quickly established an ambitious programme: a free, twice-monthly women and girls’ night, weekly beginners’ sessions, ‘skate and create’ arts sessions and school holiday provisions. The number of registered members (c.4,000) is now several times greater than under its previous commercial guise, putting well-funded, traditional club sports, like tennis, to shame.

Skate Nottingham act as a catalyst, fundraiser and joiner-upper. We advise local councils on new skateparks, ensuring that thought goes into what happens once the concrete dries. Skate Nottingham won the 2017 East Midlands Celebrating Construction ‘value’ award for King Edward Park in Sneinton and was a finalist in two categories for the 2019 awards for Lady Bay Skatepark. With two years of support from the National Lottery Community Fund, almost thirty people have completed a specialist skate photography course with The Photo Parlour, and more than 600 people of all ages have engaged in beginners’ sessions in local skateparks. 

In our ‘unloved spaces’ campaign, we teamed up with Long Live Southbank – the record-breaking campaign that saved the London Southbank undercroft from being turned into a Pret. Skaters sat down with architects and landscape designers to imagine how they might breathe life into neglected urban spaces. We put this into practice, working with the Creative Quarter to briefly turn the terribly scented, deeply unsightly space at the foot of Maid Marian Way into a lively, welcoming space for skaters and spectators of all ages. All this culminated in the Lottery-funded Skateboarding in the City festival, where more than 630 people skated, enjoyed photography exhibitions, and made their own short films. Winners of a filming competition were funded to represent Nottingham in Southern Sweden later in the summer, and we welcomed a group of skaters from Tampere, recently featured by The Guardian as exemplars of skater-led regeneration.

We advise local councils on new skateparks, ensuring that thought goes into what happens once the concrete dries.

We have a lot to learn from the Tampere crew. Kaarikoirat (the ‘ramp dogs’), lost patience with municipal disinterest and built their own DIY park in the shell of a former matchstick factory. In doing so, they learned construction skills, self-organisation and political engagement that, within a few years, enabled them to secure DIY spaces in the city’s Hiedanranta regeneration area and a lead role in Tampere’s wider regeneration activities. Kaarikoirat provide a work experience programme for local unemployed people with their city council, who now work closely with the skaters to put Tampere on the map. The Guardian even noted that “the success of Kaarikoirat suggests that, rather than expensive, large-scale developments like casinos and skyscrapers, it is micro-initiatives that offer smaller cities the best chance of catalysing a vibrant urban fabric.” 

As well as returning the favour and visiting Tampere, 2020 offers several opportunities to build on our successes, grassroots assets and unlikely partnerships. It’s very possible that hometown hero Alex Hallford will fly the flag at the Tokyo Olympics next summer, but closer to home, recent partnerships with BioCity, the Renewal Trust, Skateboard GB, the Creative Quarter and others means that we can really start implementing a city-wide strategy that puts skateboarding at the centre of an active, creative city.

There’s everything to play for. Sussex Street, which links the train station to the steps up to the Contemporary, is due for major redevelopment prior to the opening of the new Nottingham College in September 2020. A mixed-use, active space – co-designed by young people – is being seriously considered. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to call back to the area’s rich skate heritage – it covers the remains of the legendary Broadmarsh banks, bulldozed in 2008 but retained forever on magazine covers and in the memories of several generations.

If this goes ahead, local skaters can learn and implement design, project management, consultation and construction skills. And they can make an impact on the city’s built environment that will long outlast the occasional wheel or truck scrape that so annoys the squares. 

Skate Nottingham website