Rolling to resilience: how did skateboarding help make cities more flood resilient?

Contributor: Alastair Baglee

Skateboarding and climate change resilience; what on earth can these two activities have in common? The story of skateboarding is more closely linked to climate extremes than you might think… here’s how.

Going back to the roots of modern skateboarding takes you to many places, but one (in)famous spot is the pier at Ocean Pacific Park, nicknamed “Dogtown”, on the Santa Monica beachfront in California. Roll back to the 1970s and you’d see a motley band of boys, and a few girls, dramatically changing the skateboard scene of the 1960s, from flatland tricks and slalom races to vertical tricks in the deep bowls of drained swimming pools.

Why drained? Well, a major drought and water restrictions in southern California spanning from late 1975 until 1977 left many backyard pools empty and an amazing, if illicit, opportunity for skateboarders to take over quiet backyards and vacant pools whilst their wealthy owners were left unaware. The explosion of new tricks and surfing-inspired riding styles, taking full advantage of the pools’ sculpted shapes, fuelled a skateboarding phenomenon that would spread across the world from Berlin to Barcelona, Sydney to Stockholm and London to Lisbon.

Rolling forwards from the 1970s to today, and passing through the resurgence in skateboarding in the 1980s and 90s where the street and its benches, steps, handrails and curbs become the natural habitat for many modern skateboarders, a new twist is taking hold in skateboarding that has benefits way beyond skateboarding itself. And yes, it stems from those 1970s swimming pools, but this time the pools are allowed to flood.

Climate change is likely to increase the intensity and/ or frequency of “cloudburst” rainfall events in many parts of the world. Pluvial, or surface water, flooding is the result, often occurring in areas far from rivers and coastlines. One country where pluvial flooding is a major problem is Denmark. However, they are taking steps to manage this issue in a way that brings a wealth of other benefits. To understand this further, we caught up with Søren Nordal Enevoldsen, architect and founder of SNE Architects, based in Copenhagen. Oh yes, and he’s a skateboarder.

Image: Søren Nordal Enevoldsen doing what he loves: CC SNE Architects

Q: Could you tell us a little about yourself, your background and company, and your skateboarding past?

I’ve been skateboarding pretty much my whole life. My neighbour’s sons brought skateboards back from a USA trip back in the early 80’s, so their little brother and I would roll around on our butts all day. When I was 12 years old I finally got my own skateboard, and I was hooked from day one, and have skated ever since.

Through skating all over the city, I grew a passion for the city and its potential. As a skater, you don’t have a normal view of aesthetics. You look at materials, topography, dimensions only in relation to yourself and your skateboard. You develop a sort of mind map of the city – back alleys, parking lots and loading docks become your playground, and certain areas become interesting because of smooth new asphalt. Even the most smashed up ugly loading dock can be a hidden treasure if it fits your needs. And you are constantly aware of where new stuff gets built and carefully follow the development. Even a construction site can become a temporary playground. So in a sense, you have a different mindset and a different approach to aesthetics and potentials.

During the 90’s, there were no good skate parks where I lived. So during the winter we would find these abandoned industrial buildings and build our own little indoor skate parks. I think we had around three different ones during my teen years. In one of them, we even got the electricity to work! That passion is definitely the reason I became an architect.

During my school years, I got to design my local skate park that was located in a schoolyard. And from then on I began to design the small-scale skate parks around the country. After university, I only had about 1 year in a conventional architectural firm before quitting and looking for something closer to my passion. In 2007, I was lucky enough to redesign a local skate park in Copenhagen. The project grew and became, at the time, the biggest skate park in Europe. Based on that, I started my own company.

Today, skating is embraced by many municipalities as something positive. So with skateboarding a speciality of SNE Architects, we are now working with sustainable and active city spaces in Denmark, and internationally.

Q: What is it like to be able to mix your passion for skateboarding with your work as an architect?

It’s definitely a dream coming true in many ways. I mean I get to create all these abstract surreal landscapes that I’d normally never get to do in most conventional firms. When I was a kid and teenager, I had the naive dream of becoming a pro skater and travel all over the world. However, from early on, I knew that I wasn’t good enough to get paid. Looking back, I’m actually glad that I can now work with skateboarding without having to be part of the so-called skate industry. Saying that, sometimes I’d love to be out skateboarding instead of sitting in front of the screen, writing emails and sketching designs. It’s a bit ironic to tell your friends that you can’t skate because you have to design a skate park!

Q: Could you tell us about your amazing project at Roskilde, and what benefits it set out to achieve? 

Due to climate change, Denmark has in recent years experienced a series of heavy rainfall events, causing flash floods. In order to prevent the damage caused by these, the Danish government initiated a series of drainage projects.

In the city of Roskilde, a large centrally located area was, until recently, the site of a concrete factory. The site is now undergoing a dramatic transformation as part of a new urban redevelopment scheme. In the future, the site will contain a mix of housing, offices, educational facilities, artists’ studios and museum. SNE Architects was involved in the “Rabalder Parken”, a recreational park development that is part of the overall redevelopment scheme.

“Rabalder Parken” is essentially a large-scale park with integrated drainage canals and water reservoirs collecting rainwater from the adjacent areas. The water canals stretch through a series of hills, sloping towards a manufactured lake that will collect the rainwater. However, what is unique about this park is how it manages to combine the drainage canals and reservoirs with recreational activities and facilities normally associated with a park. But most importantly, it contains a continuous drainage system that doubles as a skate park. The skate park is fully integrated into the water canals and one of the empty reservoirs. In other words, the skate park is the actual water canal and reservoir.

Image: Skatepark in Denmark: CC SNE Architects

Water canals/reservoirs for drainage and skateboarding co-exist in intriguing ways. Skaters do not skate when it rains, and water canals are, by definition, not utilised when it is dry. By combining these two usages into one, you get a much cheaper project than you would if you made a conventional drainage system and a conventional skate park. As a bonus, you also create an awareness of our climate and a social synergy in a place that would otherwise be hidden away, empty and unused most of the year.

Q: How was Roskilde funded?

The project is initially a part of the long-term city redevelopment of the area. It is funded by the Sewage Department and Department for Recreation of Roskilde City; Lokale-Anlægsfonden (an organisation that supports Sports and Culture); and Unicon Beton (the concrete company that used to own the area). It is still fairly new to see the municipal departments working together. It is very important that the funding from the different departments is defined very clearly so the taxpayers’ money is channelled into the right place.

Q: Looking to the future, do you see opportunities to repeat Roskilde in other cities around the world to help increase climate resilience?

It could definitely be repeated in other cities, and I think it should. A lot of cities have to adapt to a changing climate within the foreseeable future. Many sites, even in oddly shaped locations, could integrate this sort of project, bringing together the multiple benefits of flood control and recreation, responding closely to the local community’s needs; turning a banal, drainage scheme, into a wonderland of movement and skateboarding enjoyment. So any city that is interested in these sort of multipurpose areas are more than welcome to contact our company 🙂

Thank you, Søren for your time to do this interview. We wish you all the best for your future architectural and skate park projects.


To find out more about Søren and SNE Architects, and to follow their work, you can find them on Facebook or check out their website.

Photography and illustrations: Copyright SNE Architects

Interview & Text: Alastair Baglee, Acclimatise

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