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In another instalment of In Her Place Stephanie Cottle looks back before skating into the future.

 

If I was asked as a kid to imagine what the year 2020 would look like, I can guarantee that I would have envisioned the fun, futuristic depictions from my favourite childhood films. I’m talking teenagers on hoverboards and self-lacing trainers the really important stuff. We all know the rather less exciting reality of 2020 was that instead of jetting off to have silver suit adventures in flying cars, we’ve faced extraordinarily tight restrictions on our movements. No planes, no trains, no automobiles.

Back in March last year when the rules were at their strictest, all we were legally entitled to was one hour outside our home for exercise purposes. We weren’t going far. Humans however, in their typically good natured but rebellious fashion, are excellent at figuring out workarounds. Within the summer weeks UK bike sales had soared. Like mischievous teenagers bending the rules, people gleefully freewheeled down deserted streets and our towns and cities adapted quickly. In a matter of weeks at least 40 individual councils created pop-up cycle lanes in response to our rekindled love of analogue transportation. It made a phenomenal difference to safe cycling and proved once and for all that urban environments work best when they are flexible enough to meet our changing needs.

In October 2020, another great example of flexible urban space opened in Sheffield. Proving that last year held some merit local companies began working in partnership with a different set of wheel loving individualsskateboarders.

The Marioland project in the centre of Sheffield is a series of blocks and rails installed on an existing smooth surface street,with shops and bars lining each side of the road. This ‘Shared Spaces’ concept has proven hugely successful in cities such as Malmo, Copenhagen, Denmark and has been replicated to a degree in Hull and Glasgow.

Love it or hate it, skateboarding has always been an urban activity. Often consigned to the margins of our spaces and society, skaters attempt to carve out small patches of land to call their own, making the most of our everyday landscapes by utilising car parks, schools, streets and bus stations. It’s remarkably inventive to look at the world and imagine what else it can offer. The bench you use to scoff down a quick sausage roll could be the first obstacle a skater managed to overcome, a place of momentous achievement. That well-worn staircase you aimlessly march up day after day may serve as a stinging reminder, to someone with grazed elbows and a chipped skateboard, that failure is the first stepping stone to success. 

Each town centre is certain to boast a skater’s hang out and these spaces are nearly always packed with imaginative, determined and resilient individuals. Despite this, skateboarding is often associated with antisocial activity. Blackpool, like other towns and cities, has a complex relationship with skateboarding.

Often consigned to the margins of our spaces and society, skaters attempt to carve out small patches of land to call their own, making the most of our everyday landscapes by utilising car parks, schools, streets and bus stations.
It’s remarkably inventive to look at the world and imagine what else it can offer.

I spoke with Jess Zerbato, a 20-year-old woman from Blackpool she discussed some of the issue’s skaters like her encounter when practicing in urban spaces. Alongside the instalment of round metallic ‘skate-stoppers’ that are placed on street furniture to deter skaters from performing tricks, verbal and physical abuse is a common occurrence.  

“The courthouse in Blackpool, formally the police station, is a known skate spot when it’s raining or there are too many tourists about. We don’t want to be annoying, so we go there and get creative! We usually find some old bits of wood and bricks and make a skate park which we clear at the end of the night. However, we always have people verbally abuse us. I once had my younger sister with me, who was 14 at the time, and skating on her own in a corner as she was just starting out. Two men walked into the car park past our group and straight to her, shouting and screaming in her face.”

Jess also described to me an encounter she had with a police officer during those intimidating initial weeks of the pandemic.  

I was living in the hotel that I was working at as because the money I received from furlough payments wasn’t enough to cover the rent on the house I had just moved into. I left the hotel on the promenade to go for an hour-long skate and then planned to get my weekly shopping.

As I stepped on my board a police van pulled up in front of me and the officer asked why I was outside. I told them my plans to get some exercise and then my groceries to which the police officer replied that skating is not a form of exercise nor is it a sport and proceeded to threaten me with a fine. I feel like I was targeted because of my skateboard, if I was jogging or riding a bike that would not have happened.”

 

This simple bit of wood and wheels can really change people’s lives… I’ve had times when all I did was work through the day and skate through the night. It kept me sane and warm when I had nowhere to go while saving for my first flat.”

Jess Zerbato

Despite the negative connotations skateboarding holds there have been various examples of skateboarding transforming urban areas. Due to the presence of online giants such as Amazon offering one-day delivery, we are facing a huge decline in high street retail. With less and less footfall in our town centres – what do we plan to do with all that space? The presence of enigmatic and resourceful individuals such as skateboarders has been effective in creating new ways of navigating towns and cities, giving spectacles for people to watch and areas that can be enjoyed by all users.

After the cancellation of the 2020 games, skateboarding is now set make its debut at the Olympic games in 2021 (providing the games go ahead). This huge milestone gives a mainstream international stage to a sport renowned for pulling together alternative young people. People who may be finding it difficult to find their place or people, perhaps within a small northern town in uncertain times.

This simple bit of wood and wheels can really change people’s lives,” said Jess, who’s no stranger to using skating as a coping mechanism.I’ve had times when all I did was work through the day and skate through the night. It kept me sane and warm when I had nowhere to go while saving for my first flat.”

As the rest of the year lies in wait it’s safe to say that I probably won’t be seeing the flying cars I’d imagined from Back to the Future in 2021. However, with the latest announcements paving a way to a ‘new normal’ it’s really important to recognise that we have a solid hand in shaping the future, especially when it comes to our public spaces. Just look how much changed during those months in lockdown. Over the 12 months I have learned to relish the freedoms I have been lucky enough to possess. In future I’ll remember how it has felt to be restricted and I hope to always consider the vast potential of the the resources available to us. I’ll be thinking like a skater – the world is our playground. 

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  • Stephanie Cottle is currently a research student at UCLan working alongside the curatorial partnership In Certain Places. Her practice investigates place & the everyday experiences of the North West of England.

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