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Gustav Eden is building skate utopia

What cities can learn from skate-friendly Malmö

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If you’re a dedicated skateboarder, you’re probably familiar with the name Gustav Eden. Hell, you probably know him. The eloquent 6 foot 5 tall Swede has lived and skated in several cities over the years, and appeared in various skate videos and magazines, most notably British company Blueprint’s seminal 2000 production Waiting For The World. He lived in Australia for an extended period; charming his way into every heart he crossed, and impressing us all with his skills on the board. Upon returning to his native country, Gustav ended up working with the Malmö council as a sort of full-time skate advisor—a position that seems mind-bogglingly utopian to anyone who has attempted the uphill battle in their own city of working with councils to develop skateparks or, god forbid, build legal skate spots.

Gustav describes Malmö as a ‘small city with cosmopolitan tendencies, embracing the benefits of skateboarding better than any other city out there.’ His official title is Secretary, but a title that describes his role more accurately is Skateboarding Coordinator for the City of Malmö or Project Manager for Skate Malmö. ‘I tend to use Skateboarding Coordinator’, he says. The role grew from a decade of successful international skate events staged in Malmö (the Quiksilver Bowlriders, which relocated from Marseille, France in 2006) and the fostering of a constructive relationship between skaters and the council. Day to day, Gustav’s role encompasses the organisation of this annual event as well as many others (The Vans Park Series held its inaugural international final in Malmö, at a permanent new skatepark designed and made specifically for the event), as well as coordinating skate classes and events with local skate-focussed high school Bryggeriet, and managing an online platform (skatemalmo.se) to promote all this activity. Perhaps the most interesting and inspiring part of Gustav’s job is developing new skate spots around the city. That’s right: skate spots, not skateparks. How does he do it? We asked him some questions to attempt to find out, with the hope of replicating his good work on the other side of the world.

MC: What is the difference between the role of a skatepark and a spot?

GE: This is a crucial question to ask when understanding skateboarding and in particular street skating. Street skating has as much to do with experiencing the city as it does doing tricks. Skaters are kind of modern ‘flaneurs’ (look it up), simultaneously producing and consuming urban life. More simply, skaters are kind of urban hikers. In this way, finding a new skate spot is like foraging for berries and mushrooms. Needless to say, this experience differs in character from that of going into a shop and buying them. In this sense, skateparks can only replace skate spots as much as a supermarket can replace a forest—but this is perhaps drawing the line too deep in the sand. The act of skating a spot can be much more similar to the act of skating a park than shopping and foraging. But the approach is crucially different.

If we focus on the social role of a skate spot in a public square, it is vastly different from that of a skatepark. First of all, it is always open, and is thereby a much more reliable social destination. For those without social resources to keep regular hours and those feeling a need to escape their home environment, this can provide a crucial sanctuary. Second, the rules of engagement are much less dictated in a public space. A skatepark is designed for a specific purpose, which essentially means you are following the rules by skating there. At a skate spot, the choice to skate is made by the individual. The psychological difference matters. The other benefit of the rules being open is that public spaces are subject to negotiation between users. Skaters have to learn how to get along with the rest of the public and vice versa. In a skatepark, skaters will only meet other skaters, which doesn’t make for a very diverse appreciation of their cities and the people who live in them. The skate- adaptations we have done of public squares in Malmö have not only resulted in more stuff for the skaters to ride, but also a better appreciation from the general public of what skating is. The skaters have learned that people have a right to sit on the granite benches as much as they have the right to skate them. In the best of worlds, the discussions that arise from talking about the benches mean all parties get better insight and can agree on how to use the space.

Skateparks are crucial facilities, as they can allow for types of obstacles not found anywhere else. In particular: transitions, banks and particularly adjusted street-obstacles that can help people progress. To be a hardliner about not having street obstacles in skateparks would be arrogant. We all want to learn and good facilities really do help. In smaller towns and villages, the skateparks can in fact become important social hubs. The drawback is when they are separated from interaction with the public and designed like concrete wastelands without attention to the experience of the space.

Why is activation of dormant space so important?

A dormant space is potential unrealised. It is also a dangerous space. People hesitate to venture through inactive spaces and perceive them as dangerous. This can be disastrous for an area and tends to be contagious. Quiet areas are attractive for antisocial behaviour, crime etc. A lot can happen where nothing happens, so to speak. By activating a dormant space, you lead by example and pave the way for others to be active. Given the right strategies, this can lead to social integration and the development of stronger local communities.
It is important to realise that merely co-inhabiting spaces is not enough to integrate people; you need to create opportunities to interact. This is where specific activities really come into play. To share an anecdote, I used to live by London Fields, where thousands of hipsters would congregate and mill alongside the residents of local council estates. Coinhabiting the park did not, however, mean that hipsters and locals would engage with each other, quite the opposite. If a kid from one of the local street gangs sat down on the wrong side of the invisible line between the French coffee joint and the chip shop, you could see the shockwaves of discomfort roll through the hipster crowd. The one place where the locals and hipsters would meet was the park ping-pong table. Here, social barriers were replaced by the rules of ping-pong. Essentially, I’m trying to say that for people to meet, they need to do something together, not just be in the same space.

Do any cultures do this as effectively as skateboarders?

Ping-pong? Chess is a good one. Skateboarders are uniquely invested in the urban fabric and don’t have to dominate a space to activate it. Give them some smooth ground, skate-friendly street furniture and they are stoked. They don’t need to fence off a court to play. They let people pass through while they’re skating. Skateboarding is also a strong subculture with a rich cultural capital, meaning that skaters don’t just like to skate, they are into filming, art, music, and graphic design. Also, skaters socialise across gender, age, and other demographics. It’s more the norm than the exception that people of different ages skate together. This means that a space activated by skating is also activated socially, linking new users to discover a new world of interest besides skating, and important role models to guide the way.

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How do you go about picking spots to activate?

On the one hand, landscape architects approach me with new areas they are developing and ask for advice. Here, the spaces are already set, but may need some reconfiguring. The question can be as much about where not to make skate-friendly architecture as where to do it. You would do more damage than good by placing the best ledge in town by the busiest footpath. Instead, you want to look at the existing design and try to find where skating would work and what would make it work even better. Hopefully sometime soon, we will have more landscape architects working for the city who are skaters who can do a better job than I can!

The other issue is where to activate existing spaces for skating. This is usually decided by three factors: need, surface, and budget. Malmö has a comparatively high amount of skateparks and skate spots centrally, so we are trying to reach new areas further out of the city centre. While this is true, we are also aware of the cluster-effect, meaning that people are much more likely to travel to an area with a string of spots and parks than an individual space. Given this dynamic, we are trying to find spaces that connect different existing spots with new areas that would have a good use for a skate spot. In this way, we meet the need for skating while helping motivate the skaters to move around the city.

Once we have an area in mind, we look for a space, preferably with a skateable surface. Building a smooth surface from scratch is much more expensive than blocks and skateable sculptures. People underestimate the amount of space needed for a single ledge to work with run-up and roll-out. They also underestimate what skaters mean when they say ‘smooth’ (they mean REALLY smooth, preferably in polished concrete or terrazzo or stone slabs with cracks between slabs phased less than 3mm). If we find a space with a suitable surface,
we look at what kind of skate-functionality is not met in Malmö or the area. Seeing as our funding is connected to events, we look to see how the space fits into next year’s plan for Skate Malmö: Street or any other projects we have going. If it’s a fit, we contact our colleagues within the town-planning department and ask if they have any plans for the space, and if they are open to a skate-installation. If it’s a go-ahead from them, we check our budget, design the obstacles in sustainable materials and get them made. The goal is always for the obstacles to blend into the streetscape and add skate- functionality without looking like we are.

Is putting street skating obstacles in public space a new concept?

The first example I know of is when the art- collective The Side Effects Of Urethane designed the original blocks at Southbank in London and had them placed there. That’s over fifteen years ago. I’m essentially copying them and adding some council-perspective.

Which other councils in the world have dabbled in this?

The original DC Plaza in Kettering, Ohio broke significant ground in this area and now I think many cities have dabbled in spaces fusing skateparks and public spaces. The Geelong Plaza in Australia is perhaps the fullest expression of the multifunctional plaza/skatepark with stages and an amphitheatre layout. Janne Saario’s parks and squares in Finland stand out to me here by prioritising the architecture of the space as well as the skate-functionality. An interesting example of skate-adaptation is from Vancouver where the quickest route from the train station and the new Skate Plaza was via the main shopping street. Another route was available where some previously popular ledges had been capped. By uncapping the ledges, the skaters started opting for the old route, thereby avoiding the confrontation between shoppers and skaters. Loads and loads of councils are adapting spaces to better meet the needs of—and sustain the wear from—skateboarding. We are by no means alone in this.

How do you think Malmö would have dealt with Melbourne’s Lincoln Square saga?

I would expect us to have had a more broad understanding of who our constituents were. Seeing as we work with skating the way we do, we would certainly have been in a better position internally to argue for the benefits that a social platform of that significance bestows on the City. Malmö also has a good culture of not just considering a complaint, but who is complaining, why they are complaining, and putting that into perspective. Every complaint is worth considering, but it is the role of the council to pick out the valid arguments, not cater to the loudest objector.

I realise that my insight here is very limited and naturally tainted by the skate-perspective, but the demolition approach seems very counterintuitive. An extremely expensive strategy to not solve a situation by alienating motivated constituents with the self-delusional expectation that they would simply go away. Significantly, I think we have managed to establish a view in Malmö where skaters are perceived as assets for the City.

They are part of something the city is proud of; they are cool role models and add something to the urban life. Then again, we have less ‘street beers’ here. Skaters should take note that if they want the city to respect them, they need to respect the spaces they occupy. School the kids to pick up their shit, keep tags off the spot, and keep things in check. I think everyone should ask themselves who they are being subversive toward when acting up at the spot. From the council-perspective, they should ask themselves if these aren’t the very kids they have the toughest time reaching and engaging with. It’s a two-way street in the end.

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What materials have you been working with?

In terms of spots, we work with sustainable materials that blend with the streetscape, mainly granite and metal. We want our interventions to carry a level of aestheticism and the functionality should be integrated into the object, not added on like metal coping on a wooden bench. Problems with skating arise out of design, not purpose. If you use aesthetic materials that can endure the wear on surfaces that are smooth enough to be quiet while hard enough to pop and place them in quiet spaces that need activation, you have a good recipe for success.

Is a spot actually a spot once it has been enhanced for skating?

That depends on what you want to say with your video part. I think all the spaces we have adjusted still carry the vibe of being public spaces and not skateparks. That is a sign of cred-check for me. Some guys hold off on using footage from those spots, which I think is a choice showing dedication. The spots, in particular the ‘Mushroom’ spot, has its own identity altogether now, so using footage from there is more about being part of that scene than whether or not the benches were put there to skate. And there are still ways to skate those benches that no one has thought of, meaning there are still spots-within-the-spot to be found. The same is true for skateparks. I suppose you can always choose to skate a skatepark like a spot and not a park. And perhaps vice versa.

How does your city use skate stoppers?

There is one spot that has them. Ironically it is at the same square where we have now placed granite benches in. I wasn’t involved in the process and the stoppers are a result of a project separate from my department. It’s unfortunate as it sends a negative signal right at the heart of all we are trying to communicate about skating. One day, we’ll be a skate-stopper free city. Pick your battles.

Are there any other irritating council trends?

This is where I should make jokes about the square council culture, but in my experience, the people at the City of Malmö are pretty boss. People perhaps schedule a few too many meetings, but all in all it’s rad to have such a massive institution back what you do.

One thing: across the bridge from us, Copenhagen has broad bike paths with tarmac as smooth as a baby’s bottom. In Malmö we have coarse tarmac and rough slabs on the pavements. I asked a colleague why and it turns out we have better supply of gravel than Denmark. Because they don’t have gravel, they use sand, resulting in smoother tarmac that melts in the heat. Before leaving the City, I’d like to be able to leave the
bike at home and push from spot to spot.

Do you feel that tourism numbers are actually rising in Malmö due to your works?

Absolutely. Not only do thousands of people come to our events, but people travel here throughout the year to skate our parks and spots. Interestingly, we hear a lot of families decide to come to Malmö because one of their kids skate, and that tips the scales in our favour. And let’s not forget the exposure for Malmö around Sweden and the world. The value of the Swedish exposure alone for Vans Park Series nearly estimated at our budget for 2016. However, the greatest result is all the people that move to Malmö every year to be part of the skate scene. The high school has students who move here every year, we attract skaters to the university, and skaters deeper in the scene choose to move here to live and work. I dare say our budget is well invested.

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This feature originally appeared in the Versus issue, available here.

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