Recognizing the popularity of skateboarding, an increasing number of city and county governments around the country have accommodated skateboarding enthusiasts with skate facilities as part of their parks and recreation programs.
City planners have come to realize that simply banning skating in public areas does not address the needs of the entire community. In order to best serve both the general public and the skaters themselves, many municipalities have elected to provide a safe skating environment for all to enjoy.
Diligent planning will result in a facility that not only meets the recreational needs of the community but also limits a municipality's liability for injuries. To gather information resulting in the best possible skate park design for all concerned, civic leaders should solicit input from a variety of interested parties at the beginning of the planning process.
The parties should include municipal parks and recreation staff, local politicians, skating enthusiasts, parents, law enforcement officials, and the municipality's insurance provider and risk control consultant. A city or county should determine early on whether its general liability policy covers skate parks, as many insurance carriers exclude them.
If that's the case, the city or county should consider purchasing additional coverage. Input from law enforcement on the location of the park is critical so that the area can be easily monitored by police, especially after dusk. Once the needs of all affected members of the community are assessed, a licensed architect with experience in the design of skate parks should be brought in to draw up the plans. Regular parks and recreation personnel should not attempt to construct a skate park without the expertise of a trained architect.
As ramps are installed, they should be tested for the degree of difficulty by professional skaters or safety experts and marked as beginner, intermediate and expert. Spectator accommodations and walkways should be located a safe distance from the skating park and should be clearly marked. The use of bleachers is a good way to keep spectators in one area. Care should be taken so that the park is not built near an irrigation system as water seepage can cause unsafe conditions. Adequate drainage is necessary to prevent rainwater from collecting in recessed areas. Telephones, drinking water and restroom facilities should be made available, and emergency vehicles should have easy access to the site should an injury occur. If a public telephone is not readily accessible, an emergency call box linked to local police dispatch will increase timely access to emergency services.
The materials used in the construction of the skate park must be appropriate for the setting. Concrete and synthetics are best for outdoor parks because they withstand the elements well. Wood should not be used for outdoor parks but would be appropriate for those built indoors. Consideration must also be given to the placement of ramps and other equipment throughout the park. The ramps must not be placed too close to the park's exterior boundaries because skaters could travel past the boundary and injure themselves. The appropriate placement of park ramps also could prevent injuries sustained through a collision between skaters.
This may seem counterintuitive, but to increase personal responsibility and decrease injuries, sometimes no supervision of a municipal skate park is more desirable than assigning an employee to monitor activities. Without a supervising authority in place, participants are forced to take responsibility for their own actions. If supervision is desired, however, it should be in place full-time during the facility's normal operating hours. Part-time supervision, or sporadic enforcement, is worse than no supervision at all. If an injury occurs, there may be questions as to why supervisory staff was not present at the time, and there may be no acceptable answer. Signs warning visitors that by using the facility they agree to "skate at their own risk" should eliminate municipal liability for most injuries. The signs should be clearly posted to inform visitors about park rules and restrictions. Recommended rules may include the closure of the park in the event of wet or icy conditions, prohibiting bicycles in the skating area, prohibiting spectators from entering the skating area and requiring children under the age of 10 to be supervised by an adult.
In small to midsize parks, BMX stunt or "trick" bicycles and skateboards do not mix well and, in fact, often collide. In larger parks, however, bicycles and skateboards may coexist without serious problems. Skaters should be urged to wear protective headgear and pads, and the hours of the park should be limited to "from dawn until dusk" or a reasonable hour if the park is illuminated. Law enforcement should be consulted about the best time to close a lighted park because this is a location where young people would be expected to congregate after dark.
Signage does not, however, relieve the city or county from its responsibility to maintain safe conditions at the park. Documented monitoring of the structure's condition is equally important. Physical inspections of the ramps, walkways, parking and spectator areas should be conducted on a frequent and ongoing basis. The ramps should be free of gaps, ridges, cracks and any foreign matter that could cause an accident. When a repair is warranted, qualified technicians should be contacted and all paperwork regarding the repair should be retained.
Contrary to popular belief, skateboarding and inline skating are no more dangerous than many traditional sports and hobbies. Because skateboarding is prohibited in many public places to protect the rights of pedestrians and prevent damage to public property, many city and county planners believe that providing a safe and accessible space for the sport's enthusiasts is the fairest solution. By following prudent risk-control guidelines, municipal risk managers can be as confident about building a public skate park as they are about building a basketball court or a baseball diamond.
is a regional director of risk control for the Public Sector Services business unit of Travelers.
October 1, 2006
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