WENATCHEE — Twenty years ago, cities like Tacoma and Portland stifled skateboarding.
They had downtown bans, restrictions for riding on certain streets, and even safeguards on city walls and benches to prevent skateboarders from grinding on them.
But you wouldn’t know that by visiting the cities today.
Both cities are considered to be among the most skateboard friendly in the nation, with plenty of parks to keep riders happy and even festivals to draw them in.
“They decided to try new things rather than investing in things that don’t work, like more enforcement,” said Peter Whitley, program director for the Tony Hawk Foundation, a national organization that promotes and funds skate parks.
“Now generations of people are using those cities in different ways,” he added.
But it didn’t come easy, said Whitley, a 1984 Eastmont High School graduate who was instrumental in getting Tacoma city officials to change their attitude about skateboarding.
According to Whitley and news accounts, here’s how Tacoma, in 2011, became the first city in the country to reverse a ban on downtown skateboarding:
In the early 1990s, the Tacoma City Council was mulling an expansion of its decades-long ban on skateboarding in certain areas of the city, in part because of complaints from business owners.
Whitley, who was living in Tacoma at the time, and other skateboarders decided not to fight the ordinance. But instead asked parks officials to make small improvements to two existing city-owned skateboard parks that were outdated and rundown.
They agreed to take down a broken fence around one skate park, Whitley said.
After that, as the city continued to move toward an expanded ban, skateboarding advocates asked the city to create defined corridors through the city where people who ride skateboards for transportation would be allowed. The city proposed some streets that were less traveled and had fewer businesses.
“We told them that they were looking at it all wrong,” Whitley said. “Skateboarders are looking for the streets that are the smoothest to ride. That means streets that are paved, not old rough roads.”
He said the advocates for skateboarding worked hard to convince city leaders that many students in the city — which has Evergreen State College and University of Washington campuses, community colleges, and numerous public schools — rode their skateboards for transportation.
Skateboarders then asked Metro Parks Tacoma to remove skate stoppers at a historic park along the Thea Foss Waterway that prevented skateboarders from riding on concrete walls and other features. A skateboarding pad was later built.
Later, a proposal to build a new skateboard park in the city’s Kandle Park was met with “pitch forks and torches” by neighbors, so a compromise was reached to build skating features throughout the park, Whitley said.
In 2011 — the same year the city council reversed its skateboarding ban — the city held its first Go Skate Tacoma! event, which drew crowds of riders and spectators to a downtown plaza for competitions, live music and workshops.
Whitley said Tacoma’s transformation didn’t happen overnight, but rather through a series of “incremental victories that built a greater story of youth inclusion in a community.”
Throughout the experience, youth and young adults spoke at city council meetings, attended park board meetings, met regularly with city officials and took part in business workshops.
Now city and parks leaders are seeking input from the skating community on the development of new parks and other urban features, asking what will be attractive to skateboarders and, therefore, needs to be built in such a way that they wouldn’t be damaged by them.
Whitley said embracing skateboarding has given cities like Portland, Seattle, San Antonio and Austin a reputation as youthful and great places to raise families. Portland now has 10 skateboard parks either build or planned, and Seattle has more than 10.
Other skateboard-friendly cities have added skate features along loop trails and skateable art in parks that can be enjoyed by everyone.
“These cities were able to see the potential in their youth rather than trying to stifle it,” Whitley said. “They’ve found ways to use skateboarding to their advantage and it pays off.”