It's time for skateboarding's environmental reckoning

It's time for skateboarding's environmental reckoning

Skateboarding is heavily dependent on carbon-hungry concrete, but could a cement-free alternative and a focus on skate-friendly cities help reduce its impact?

At first glance, the DIY skate park looks like a stock photo of an urban wasteland. Weeds, long grass and litter crowd the perimeter, while unwieldy tree branches reach over the graffiti-covered ramps and ledges, on which skateboarders repeatedly practise their tricks. Yet this makeshift spot on an old factory site near Newcastle is actually a haven for biodiversity – a little oasis in the city, where moths, butterflies and other insects are as at home as the skaters. It’s also a testing ground for alternatives to concrete, as researchers look to reduce skateboarding’s reliance on carbon-intensive cement production.

Board sports have an established presence in the environmental movement, whether it’s Surfers Against Sewage advocating for improved water quality or Protect Our Winters campaigning for legislation on the climate crisis. Despite being a positive force on various social justice issues, as exemplified by the efforts of Skateistan – the non-profit that uses skateboarding to empower and educate children in countries including Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa – skateboarding has been largely absent from these conversations. 

This could simply be because skateboarding doesn’t take place directly in nature. “There’s something environmentally-grounding about being a surfer, snowboarder or even a hiker or trail runner. You’re out in these natural blue, green or white spaces,” says Dr Paul O’Connor, a veteran skater and sociologist of skateboarding, who works at the University of Exeter. “Whereas skateboarders often go to really disgusting locations – wasteland sites that are full of litter, where there might be oil slicks on the ground, and traffic noise and fumes. There’s a huge disconnect between nature-oriented lifestyle sports and skateboarders, who are kind of the trash of the lifestyle sports community.”

Unlike snowboarding, which relies on energy-intensive ski resort infrastructure and travel, or surfing, which also necessitates travel and the use of toxic neoprene wetsuits, skateboarding is not particularly environmentally damaging. Skateboarding as we know it was born of challenging climatic conditions – namely the California drought of 1976-77, when skateboarders broke into gardens to skate the empty swimming pools of rich local residents, transforming its future identity in the process. Skating smooth concrete bowls and parks inspired by those Californian pools is now the norm for both recreational and professional skateboarders; the activity has been an Olympic sport since 2020.

However, when a new skate park was being built in the north-east of England, the sheer scale of the concrete pour shocked Dr Clifton Evers – a cultural studies lecturer at Newcastle University and surfer. “I thought, holy crap, all this is for skateboarding? Is it necessary? It might be an emissions-free mode of transport, but it is so entangled with concrete,” he says.

Evers did some background research and discovered that around 7% of global carbon emissions can be attributed to concrete production and usage. “That’s a significant amount and it’s [fair to ask] if skateboarders are happy participating in that,” says Evers. “Most of the time they’re using what’s already poured, and normal urban infrastructure, which is great, but do we need these giant skate parks made from all this concrete?”

Evers gives the example of multimillion dollar events such as Street League, where organisers often build new skate parks and then demolish them right after or let them deteriorate. O’Connor says these big events often use “temporary concrete” – a term he finds oxymoronic. “The environmental cost of doing things like that go against so much of what skateboarding is orientated towards, like reusing public space,” he says. Street League did not respond to Huck’s request for comment.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have DIY parks, which skateboarders build themselves using minimal tiny scraps of concrete they’ve often begged or borrowed. They have weeds and wildlife flying around everywhere. “They’re much more environmentally friendly than a public skate park where you have big slabs of concrete but everything else is dead,” says Evers, “and they’re designed by skaters.”

Spending time at DIY spots around Newcastle and Gateshead led Evers and his colleagues to start wondering what “green” concrete might look like and whether skateboarders would be interested in it. He started working with the local skate community through Shred the North and the sculptor Russ Coleman, who played around with different mixes of cement-free concrete involving waste potash, waste plastics (that couldn’t be recycled) and crushed glass (the exact mixes of which they’d rather not disclose) and designs that skateboarders could then install at certain DIY spots.

“We haven’t quite cracked it yet as the [mix] is proving a little bit stickier and softer than traditional concrete,” he says. “Your trucks will grab a little bit more, so we’re trying to harden it up. But we’re making progress.”

I ask Evers how on board the skateboarders were with the trials. “The research suggests there isn’t a great deal of thought put into the environmental aspect of skateboarding, beyond fringe product designers making recycled decks and wheels from recycled plastics,” he says. “But when it came to the ‘concrete’, the skaters were totally open to it.”

They were interested in whether it had the characteristics of concrete, how it sounded, how it behaved when you grinded it a lot, whether it chipped. Evers said other geoengineers have been speaking about using self-healing biomaterials like algae.

“Whatever [materials are used], there has to be ongoing testing with the skate community,” says Evers. “But if skaters, architects and those working with biomaterials got together, they could innovate some crazy shit. The skaters would put it through its paces a hundred thousand times. They just instantly get stuck in, which in turn generates interest for what we’re trying to do.”

Have any brands been involved and tried to help?

“To date, no. Skateboarding is so big but funding bodies still treat it like it’s a kids’ pastime or hobby, aside from Skateboard GB [the governing body for skateboarding in the UK], who have expressed interest,” Evers says, while acknowledging it’s tricky to fund something which is still very much at the experimental stage. “We’re trying to generate enough interest for a critical mass where people believe this could change the game.”

Along with developing alternative materials to cement, O’Connor believes an easy way to reduce skateboarding’s carbon footprint would be to stop building skateparks and instead welcome skateboarders back into city centres. Many cities install skate stoppers, which are usually metal brackets, to stop skateboarders from grinding steps, benches, handrails and other urban architecture.

“Give skateboarders the city back,” he says. “You’ll be bringing a community back, and a vibrancy and festivity to urban centres. And showing you’re committed to the fact that the city centre doesn’t have to just be about commerce. It’s also about conviviality and being civil to other people.”

For O’Connor, the move would have huge social value. You don’t have the environmental or financial costs of concrete, nor do you need to worry about policing the streets to the same level. It’s classic urban sociology, he says: “If you want cities to work you need eyes on the street.”

He points out that contrary to the popular stereotypes of skateboarders, they will want to care for their space. “If they’re using a particular site in the city, where there are ledges and steps, there will be an internal dialogue with skaters about cleaning up and self-policing it,” he says.

Yet O’Connor says city councils rarely afford skateboarders the same courtesy. “It’s offensive the way we’re asked to be sustainable, but there is very little accommodation from governments and local councils to make cities safe for skateboarders,” he says. “Skate stoppers are a remarkable blight on our city centres as they push skateboarders out.”

When it comes to skateboarders in the public eye, there aren’t many speaking up about environmental issues or the carbon cost of concrete. Though Dr Indigo Willing, a skater and sociologist at Griffith University in Australia, who works on community inclusive projects in skateboarding, tells me there are voices out there, many of whom come from underrepresented groups in skateboarding, such as Cecely Todacheenie from the Dine Navajo Nation in the US and Atita Verghese from Girl Skate India. Elsewhere, Hannah Bailey and Lyndsay McLaren chose to make their recent inclusivity-focused skate film A Land for Everyone deep in the Scottish Highlands to highlight the gap between nature, the environment and skateboarding – something Bailey believes exists in part due to the discipline’s resistance to change.

“Skateboarding is notoriously stubborn in its culture, which makes it unique but also difficult,” Bailey says, adding that she believes its slow progression in the environmental space is also a creative opportunity. “Skateboarders have the same passion to protect as environmental activists do, it’s just finding the right way to invite them in.”

Sustainability and caring for the environment requires fresh thinking about who we are, not just what we do, says Willing. “The traditional ‘core’ men-dominated skate culture was very much tied to the ‘skate and destroy’ or ‘skate and create’ lifestyles and outlooks. But what wasn’t permitted was to let skateboarders know it’s ok to acknowledge our vulnerabilities.”

Willing says none of us innately know how to solve ecological issues or live perfect, zero-waste-free lives, and change can seem scary, but skateboarders could adopt more awareness of their impact moving forwards.

“Minorities in skateboarding have tremendous knowledge about problem-solving and having to build bridges rather than burning them. It’s no surprise that a lot of the calls for change, collaborations, and actionable steps now have been championed by non-traditional skaters,” she says. “They more easily embrace a ‘skate and regenerate’ philosophy.”

There are some European cities that do go out of their way to welcome skateboarders, such as Malmo, which has skateable architecture everywhere, and Copenhagen, which has an open event where the whole city is reimagined as a skate park. The UK is a long way from that, though last December saw the opening of Tram Line Spot in Nottingham – a community-funded skate area close to the Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery, which has been designed to blend into the wider public space and welcome other groups like in-line skaters, street artists and local students. Instead of pushing skaters out of public space, it invites them and encourages them to share it holistically with others.

“I’m not a ramp skater,” says O’Connor, who loves the ethos of DIY sites but mostly wants his right to the city back. “I just want to be able to skate in places that are already built, and that is an environmental activity.”

Sam Haddad is a freelance writer who edits the newsletter Climate & Board Sports.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.