Rolling With The Punches
A collision of skate culture & design.
With 20 years of skating experience, 58 USA skate parks visited and documented in 2005, and 44 skate parks designed and delivered, the rap sheet reads like a gentleman nudging retirement. Richard Smith is far from that. At 34 he is dominating the skate design field and has many plans in the pipeline.
Richard is the owner of RICH Landscapes, an award-winning landscape architecture business offering design and consultancy of skate parks and play environments, along with residential, commercial, educational and public landscapes.
Early skating days began in South Auckland. A youngster of the late 90s, Richard and his mates created a rudimentary skate park behind a building in Otahuhu. Tricks were limited and ollies were the buzz of the day. They fed off one another for progression and enjoyed the comradery; there were no clues back then of an emerging entrepreneur.
The next skate haunt was Hayman Park which opened around the time Richard finished his degree in landscape architecture in 2002. Considering his next move, a friend and fellow landscape architect invited him to a community workshop for a new skate park development in Clendon. There was no denying Richard’s knowledge and appetite for design – he made a lasting impression at this meeting and his name was put forward for further projects.
This would be an opportunity for him to cut his teeth on the original Randwick Skatepark, near Manurewa, Auckland. He delivered but loathed the process. Feeling cut out, like his ideas had been swindled and tweaked into a product that didn’t match the concept – Richard used his disillusionment as motivation. Skating at Hayman Park over a three-year period had also given him a blueprint for how parks could be designed. It was by no means perfect at Hayman, but the vision felt right. From the planning to the final product, he believed skate parks should collide with society, not hide away.
In effect, Richard was his own target audience. When you are captivated by a culture and wear it daily, you understand all sides of it. He saw first-hand how parks were dirty little secrets, pulled away from society in the back corners. “In a sense, the locations created the vibe – when you label something problematic and take it out of social context, it will probably live up to the label.” He says. Suddenly the brief became a whole lot bigger. Richard wasn’t embarking on skate park design – community acceptance and buy-in now rested on his conscience. To shift thinking, a strong case for the benefits of skate parks was required, and ultimately, he needed to deliver on the promises. “Putting a skate park in a town’s face requires a special kind of design – passive surveillance and social interaction is vital, it can integrate with other facilities.
Listening to a community and designing something for everyone is important. A design must be fun. Even though it’s cool to have gnarly stuff, a lot of people want enjoyment too, not broken bones. If you just focus on one end of the spectrum, a park won’t get used enough, so the investment doesn’t stack up. Getting the balance right means involving local user groups. They’re almost designing it and I’m facilitating – adding to it with my knowledge and experience.”
While Richard steps back a little once a design has been approved, he can’t resist staying close to the construction. Mangawhai is a good example.
The initial phases of Mangawhai’s skate park came off the back of an emerging collaboration, designing parks around the country. But it also marked an ugly phase. By now Richard was in a business partnership, it became an awkward time for him and a smack-in-the-face learning curve. While the public responded favourably to the pair’s work, a clash was unfolding internally. Richard wasn’t the face of their business, he was a background guy – quietly ticking off the design requirements. He cut free from the partnership and eventually buried the grief. Next up were the glory years. In 2015 and 2016 he precariously balanced a project list of 32 skate designs and 25 skate park audits.
Once the dust settled, Mangawhai called again and Richard grabbed the chance to reconnect with the project, enjoying sole ownership of a redesign.
Why a redesign? Join the dots with the earlier story, there were some ghouls in the closet including a copyright issue to conclude. Free to progress in 2015, Richard breathed new life into the original concepts, “The difficulty at this time was also finding a construction crew. Concrete placement is everything, it’s a science. One little bump will have you crucified – especially among the older skate community whose opinions have a strong impact. There’s definitely a couple from that build phase that I’d like to see repaired one day.”
The Mangawhai project is etched into Richard’s portfolio, he’s connected to it for the long term. He’s stamped heritage into the design so far, including a swirling path to represent early Maori portage between Mangawhai and Kaipara Harbours.
But does he want it to be an Olympic venue? “It’s not part of the skating ethos to be conformists, skating is a movement, a culture – it’s more than a sporting event alone.” But we’re morphing into two schools of thought now.
It’s a new year, what’s happening? Richard’s keyword is still integration, particularly of skate elements into more public environments using specialist skate designers. A ‘sense of place’ is key and design cues will be sought from the environment and history of each area. Community will stay at the heart of it all. Sustainability and the planet will be his ongoing fears, and he’ll try to stay injury free.