What skateboarder Margielyn Didal’s win reveals about urban planning

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Skateboarding culture in the Philippines is huge; yet it remains mostly invisible, with skaters ousted from open public spaces during the day.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — We owe a lot to Margielyn Didal. Primarily, she has been a source of pride, winning a gold medal for skateboarding at the Asian Games. More importantly, she has pushed back and challenged the boundaries of what an inclusive space should be.

Skateboarding culture in the Philippines is huge. We hear about it a lot, yet it remains mostly invisible, only as apparitions at night, kickflipping in parking spaces. In places like the UK, the appearance of skaters in some areas have caused building managers to put up defensive architecture called “skate stoppers,” usually metal prongs on ledges, studs and spikes, and roughened pavement. Predominantly, skaters are ousted from open public spaces during the day, prevented from entering shopping malls with their boards, and pushed to the cloisters of gated subdivisions.

“Dati illegal ‘yung skateboarding sa Philippines eh. May hawak kang skateboard, tinatry mong mag-skate sa daan, hinuhuli ka. Especially kapag pumupunta kang mall. Kapag may skateboard kang dala, bawal kang pumasok,” said Margielyn Didal in a video feature.

Stigma attached to the sport

Skateboarding carries a stigma — with the skaters as rebels, a threat to the false notion of safety and security we have in our cities. In “Skateboarding, Space and the City,” Iain Borden points out that these skaters offer a performative critique of how we plan our cities. They provide another definition for spaces in the city, not just as a place for employment and residence. Cities are also places of pleasure and enjoyment, where passion can be expressed.

The city is inherently present in the heart and soul of skateboarding. The sport is enabled with the infrastructure. How skateboarders utilize the space is affected by the interaction of their body’s movement and the setup of their board. The pavements’ bends and curves determine the variability and shape of the deck and the wheels. Even the tricks that can be done depends on the inclination of the concrete.

A pedestrian would see a park bench as a place to sit, but skateboarders see this as an obstacle to launch tricks off of. Skateboarders see parks and the infrastructure for its utilitarian purpose. In the very few parks we have, they are designed to be admired for pristine pastoral perfection with lots of “no walking on the grass” signs.

When the basic infrastructure of pedestrian lanes and useable public spaces have not been afforded to us, should we even get our hopes up about integrating skate parks?

The counterculture

Along with the sport comes a subculture that visualizes its aesthetic through graphic T-shirts, skate deck designs, shoes, etc. It is a resource of contemporary ‘cool,’ so much so that the aesthetic itself is appropriated by capitalistic endeavors. This expands the scope of skate culture from primarily a commentary on space, to include perspectives of the urban life of the individual, especially with regard to class.

More importantly, it touches on gender. It is a male-dominated sport, with a lot of the merchandise such as helmets heavily targeted for male buyers. The current practice of skateboarding relegated as a night time activity held in areas of periphery poses a risk to the many women skaters who try to excel in it.

Far from the prejudiced view of the sport being just disruptive, the sport has been a representation of community cohesion and community building in other parts of the world. Skate Aid in Nairobi, for instance, teaches the youth about the mental and physical challenge, but also the social skills to bring people together.

In cities like Johannesburg and Phnom Penh, Skateistan teaches young girls about female empowerment, reminding that that the phrase “you are good as a girl” is derogatory and that it should just be “you are good.” Other initiatives tackle issues with alcohol, drug abuse, and violence directly.

Skateboarding has been a representation of community cohesion and community building in other parts of the world.

Making space for skateboarding

In Finland, landscape architect Janne Saario has been actively designing skate parks to serve the need of the youth to figure themselves out. Skateboarding ignited his passion for architecture. He toured various skate parks and saw that there can be better ways to build the park. He designs the parks as playgrounds, an integral part of a neighborhood that fosters a sense of place with his audiences being the pre-teens and teenagers.

Space is a social construct, born out of the dialectic that we make space and space makes us. It is constantly produced and dynamic — it adapts itself to how it is used. The exclusion of skateboarders in the city is reflective of the issues on the lack of public spaces and the increasing socio-spatial inequalities of our cities. 

Skateboarders have as much right to roam the city, to use the public spaces as much as any other urban citizen. Public spaces can and should allow skateboarding. Skateboarding should not only be relegated to confined areas such as skateparks. Skateboarding should be elevated to the level of all other ‘respectable’ modes of transportation that has wheels.

But maybe this is too much to ask. When the basic infrastructure of pedestrian lanes and useable public spaces have not been afforded to us, should we even get our hopes up about integrating skate parks?