Ensuring Quality

The major challenge for skatepark advocates is to produce the best skatepark possible with your available resources and constraints.

Skatepark quality is a difficult thing to describe. Non-skaters frequently underestimate how particular skaters are about the quality of their terrain. Most people imagine skaters riding their boards on all kinds of things that weren’t designed to be skated on and conclude that skaters are going to be happy with just about anything. Skaters, on the other hand, know that the line between a perfect ledge and one that sucks is pretty thin.

A risk that all skatepark advocates are aware of is that an unqualified skatepark builder will produce a skatepark that is unusable. All of the years of advocacy and fundraising are wasted when an unqualified skatepark builder is hired. Hundreds of skateparks across the nation do not perform as well as they might due to flaws in the design or construction that are, by most accounts, easily avoided by experienced builders.

Common mistakes by inexperienced skatepark builders:

Bulges and slumps
Subtle undulations in the skating surface act as “tripping hazards” for skateboarders. Variances that are nearly invisible to the eye affect the moving skateboard as abrupt speed changes and can easily throw the rider off the board. Bulges and slumps are a problem wherever they occur; on flat ground or on banks and transition terrain.

Inaccurate Edging
Coping is the raised lip at the top of curving walls. It provides the skater with tactile feedback and tells him or her where the edge of the surface ends. A lot of tricks are based on the skateboard’s interaction with the coping. When the coping is set incorrectly—either too much coping is revealed or not enough—it changes the character and usability of the structure that it’s connected to. An experienced skatepark vendor knows instinctively how much coping reveal is appropriate for each area of the park.

Inexperienced builders and designers may fail to appreciate the precise tolerances desired where two pieces or planes come together. Even the top and bottom of banks have a slight amount of curved transition that can dramatically improve the usability of that structure. The placement of expansion seams is another place where inexperienced designers are frequently insensitive.

Ignorant Park Layout
The design and construction of the structures is as important as how those structures orient to each other. Inexperienced skatepark vendors frequently fail to position elements in a way that provides maximum usability and enjoyment from the structures. The quality of a park’s layout and design is difficult to measure but you can get a sense of a company’s design quality by looking at how proud they are of their parks. Experienced skateboarders will hold particular companies in high esteem for a good reason; these are the companies that have crafted reputations based on decades of experience. A inexperienced designer can easily create a skate space that results in a higher frequency of collisions and accidents.

Most of these poor decisions are not the result of intentional deceit but rather from inexperience and over-confidence. Everyone has a genuine desire to provide the best skatepark possible. It’s important that advocates understand that preventing unqualified companies from being involved in the skatepark is not an issue over skateboarders’ desire to work with a particular skatepark company but rather from a desire to rely on a company that consistently produces excellent results.

If a company is eager to excuse or apologize for their past work, (“We don’t do things that way anymore”), it’s a good sign that they are willing to have your community project be the thing that they apologize for in the future. You should aim for companies that are proud of all of their projects.

Allowing inexperienced skatepark vendors from designing or building the skatepark is a source of anxiety for most skatepark advocates. As the skatepark project moves into the public bidding process, as an advocate you may sense that your ability to prevent bad companies from getting involved is slipping away.

Understanding the vendor-hiring process is the first step in ensuring that your new park is designed and built by only qualified companies.

Methods for Ensuring Quality Vendors

There is no guarantee that the skatepark you’ve worked so hard for will turn out as good as or better than you expected. There are lots of things you can do as an advocate or an administrator that will improve the odds of an excellent skatepark. It’s important to understand that you cannot guarantee a flawless skatepark; you can only improve your chances that it will turn out better than expected.

1. Lead the Discussion

You cannot influence the project if you are not involved. You will need to know explicitly what the exact process is for procuring a design and, later, hiring a construction firm. These processes vary from state to state and from community to community. The size of your local government can be a factor in how complicated this process is, and there are also state and local laws to be aware of.

The best way to understand what process you will be using is to ask. This is the perfect kind of conversation for your steering committee. It’s appropriate to ask city staff what opportunities you, the skateboarders, will have to ensure that an acceptable designer and builder are involved.

Some skatepark projects are led by their city administrators and the skateboarding community is only involved for occasional public meetings and events. When the skating community does not have representation with personal experience visiting and using different skateparks, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the importance of the considerations around “quality.”

A better arrangement is a peer relationship with the City where the advocates help lead the way. The responsibility of achieving this kind of partnership lies with the advocates. As an advocate, you must continue to increase your knowledge of skatepark development, grow your lexicon around skatepark use, and have a critical eye to skatepark design.

When an advocacy group researches skatepark development and are able to approach their city leaders with a schedule, cost estimates, and strategy for gathering community support, the city leaders should respond positively.

Conversely, when an advocacy group approaches the city with a list of desires and needs, and no plan for achieving those things, the city leaders see the skatepark project as a burden.

Try to project the following qualities:
• Your group understands skateparks
• Your group needs guidance navigating local processes
• Your group is willing to do as much as possible with enthusiasm

2. Warn of Approaching Obstacles

No skatepark was intentionally created to fail, yet skateparks fail from time to time. They fail when advocates and planners fail to recognize critical developmental decisions. Skateparks fail when expediency is put in front of quality. Skateparks fail when community fears are more important than the needs of local youth. Skateparks fail when skateboarder’s voices are not heard.

Recognizing and anticipating the risks in skatepark development provides an enormous value. Most advocates soon realize that city administrators do not have the time to investigate the pitfalls in skatepark development and, as a result, may blindly walk into them. The advocate can help by warning of approaching risks to the park’s quality and prioritize the local skateboarding community’s interests accordingly.

Some common risks include (in order of frequency):
• Enlisting a skatepark designer to “donate” services
• Tasking critical developmental decisions to individuals that are not sensitive to the importance of quality standards.
• Making critical development decisions based on unsubstantiated community fears
• Prioritizing size over quality
• Proposing specific locations prematurely
• Failing to establish positive relationships with other community organizations
• Neglecting to create and implement a comprehensive fundraising strategy

3. Be Engaged in Selection Process

At some point in the process, skatepark advocates and city administrators must have a conversation that establishes methods for ensuring that only qualified designers and builders are hired for the project. That conversation may even occur several times. It will come up a lot.

There are several ways to reduce the risk of unqualified skatepark vendors from bidding on your project. Advocates will need to work directly with their city administrators — particularly liaisons in the planning department — to ensure that all priorities are agreed upon and aligned.

There are a few places where specific criteria can limit the number of companies from getting involved with the project. The process for hiring a design is generally less regulated than the process for hiring the builder. An experienced builder can sometimes improve on a flawed design, but an experienced designer cannot fix poor construction. It’s important that both the designer and builder are both qualified, but mediocre construction is much worse than mediocre design on the facility’s long-term success.

4. Do Not Compromise Quality for Speed or Cost

Commit to a standard of quality as your first priority. It’s better to have a good skatepark that is small than a large one that sucks. Similarly, it’s better to continue to work on the skatepark for another year if it means that you get the skatepark that your community needs rather than settling for a lesser skatepark that can be built sooner.

Request for Qualifications
There are several technical methods for restricting unqualified bidders. One way is to establish a requirement for certain qualifications from all bidders. This is the best way to prevent unqualified companies from bidding on your project while still allowing qualified companies to be competitive.

The qualifications that determine who is eligible to apply are generated by the city’s planning department in accordance to the project’s process and local laws. The city is creating a “request for qualifications (RFQ)” from companies that might be interested later in bidding on the project. Before those companies can bid, the city (and its local skateboarders) need to see if they’re interested in even talking to a particular company about their new skatepark. The RFQ is prepared and generally asks the company to answer a few questions.

Those qualifications usually include:

  • References from the company’s previous three skatepark projects
  • Evaluation of the bidder’s proposal will take into account project approach, vendor experience, and quality of previous projects

These two items allow the review board to assess the company proposals based NOT just on the proposed price but also on qualities that are critical to skateboarders’ interests.

Experienced skatepark companies usually respond to RFQs with a printed portfolio of their work, a cover letter, and documents to answer specific questions required by the RFP that their brochures may not cover. In other words, skatepark companies respond to RFQs all the time and they may not give them very much individual attention, particularly if the project is smaller, (e.g., less than $350,000 or so).

Your city may be prepared to hire a design from the batch of RFQ respondents without further investigation. The designer is often hired by the city based solely on the brochures and supplementary documents. If the project is larger, they may conduct personal interviews with the firms. In these interviews, the designers will talk about their approach to design, samples (photos) of their work, and often some quick concepts of the project as a means of demonstrating their enthusiasm and initiative. (These early concepts are seldom informed by any interactions with the local skateboarding community; they are simply visual examples to get the attention of the hiring committee.)

There will likely be other methods that provide greater control over whom is hired to design and build your skatepark. Finding those opportunities is the result of open communication with your city leaders about the risks inherent in skatepark development.

All three of these strategies for ensuring quality work require that the skatepark advocates are a trusted, respected presence at all discussions pertaining to the skatepark. For advocates, this should be one of the central goals of their engagement with the city. Almost all problems that emerge in skatepark development are ultimately the result of the skateboarding community not being involved in the decision-making process.