Q&A with Wally Hollyday
For the Arts&Culture feature “Concrete achievement,” SN&R’s Don Button interviewed skate-park designer Wally Hollyday during the construction of Sacramento’s new Granite Regional Skate Park. Here is the full text of that interview.
What happened to the parks of the ’70s and ’80s?
People got into other things. A lot of people talk about the insurance, but basically it was users. If you don’t have users, you can’t pay your insurance. And a lot of people from that time like to blame it on the insurance, but, you know, a lot of people stopped skating. In those days, basically it was young guys that skated. Tony Alva, he’s my age, and he was like one of the older guys that was skating parks. A lot of these 16-year-old kids that were really the pros, I mean, they grew up, started getting girlfriends, going off to college and stuff, and they got out of skating. And they came back to skating, but there were no parks left when they came back.
The other thing is a lot of those parks really weren’t designed for younger skaters. The very early skate parks were very beginner and kind of allowed a lot of us to come and learn to ride parks, and then they progressed into more and more advanced, and then you ended up with all these advanced parks and no smaller parks to feed them, for younger kids. So, you had a really tight age group, and they just got into other things.
In the mid-’90s there was a skating resurgence. That’s when cities around the country started putting in municipal skate parks. What brought that on?
The main thing that brought it on, that brought it to their attention, was that kids were a nuisance. I mean, they’re out there; they’re downtown grinding ledges and goin’ off the stairs. Police were taking their boards away and, you know, basically labeling them criminals. Parents don’t like their kids being labeled criminals.
So, it created quite a backlash, and one of the great things that came out of that was these kids realized that politically, they could go to a council meeting and say, “Hey, you need to provide me with a place that I can ride, ’cause I am a skateboarder, and I’m gonna ride someplace, and you need to provide it.”And, you know, it got these young kids going and talking to their parents and their teachers—something that amazed their teachers and parents. So, they came out and really supported them. Many parents come up to me and say, “I never really had my kid ask me to help them with anything!” So, you get a lot of moms and dads and teachers who realize that this is a great civic lesson.
That was one of the beautiful things that came out of this. There were a lot of people that saw a very politically charged group of very young kids that really didn’t get that the system works for them. They looked at authority as someone who’s always telling them what to do. The idea that they can tell the authority what to do is a very mind-opening experience.
And how did you get back into it?
Someone just called me up and said, “They’re building parks again.” And I said, “Yeah, I know.” I was a professional freelance photographer at the time. So I worked so many weeks out of the month or days out of the week … so [to design a skate park] was something that was very easy for me to transition into without giving up my career. And it just got to the point where I was so busy.
I actually wasn’t making more money doing the skate parks than the photography; photography’s fairly lucrative. I was a good commercial photographer, but I never thought of myself as the best. And I realized, looking around and seeing what other people were doing at parks, that I could be the best at skate parks. So I just, at one point, took the leap. This is about what can I achieve and what is going to be more satisfying. And, you know, it’s paid off.Do you have any official architecture or engineering training, or are you self-taught?
As far as skate parks go, it’s pretty much self-taught. Interestingly, when the skate-park thing died [in the early ’80s], it put me in a situation where I thought I had a career. I basically got into building skate parks right out of high school, and it was something where I didn’t even think about going to college because I was building skate parks, and I was well-known.
When it died, it was almost like having built these skate parks didn’t mean anything. When a sport is dead, you’re not famous for something you did in the sport. It’s just, you know, you were a part of something that didn’t make it.
I ended up going back to school, and, because I designed skate parks, I got some jobs designing things, and it turned out I was very good at doing those things, which is a whole other story we won’t get into. What it made me realize was that I didn’t have a design background. I was doing everything intuitively, and it got me so far, but now I was starting to do commercial work, and I wanted to find out if what I was doing was following some rules. I went back to learn some basic stuff, and it led me into photography.
Yeah, skate parks dying got me going back to college, and a lot of things I’ve learned I’ve applied to skate parks. Certainly working on graphic stuff on computers, but the architectural stuff … the architects are the draftsmen for me. I do the sections; I do up the plans. There’s an aesthetic—a lot of what goes into skate parks is aesthetics. You know, if it looks good, it works well. There’s a lot of artistic interpretation and influence that goes on in a skate park, and architects help with that process, but for the main part I use them for engineering and do the drafting and create the construction documents.So, how many parks have you designed and built?
Huh. Forty. I don’t know.
Over the last five or six years?
Yeah, I know I’ve worked on over 80 skate parks. When we started California Skateparks, we were doing a lot of other people’s parks and doing design/builds whenever we got the chance. Back then, there weren’t that many design/builds. Now a lot of the parks are being design/built.
What are the best skate parks out there?
This one [Granite Regional].
This baby right here.
So, what makes this the best?
Variety. Size. Those two things work together. When you have the size, you can put the variety in. I’m not a big advocate of putting really advanced stuff in small parks because I think the park, first, has to be fun. So, if you’ve got the size, do the fun stuff and then bring in some other stuff. You know, one thing about this park is there’ll be many, many people whose favorite element in the park or favorite bowl in the park is something that gets used the least. But, yet, that’ll be what the park’s known for. Now in a park this size, that’s fine—you want the park to be known for something. You need an identity.
If it was a small park, I don’t care what people think, I’d want to put the stuff in it that gets used the most. But this is a large park, so there’s a lot to do here.
Is it the biggest you’ve done?
Other than the old ones, yeah. It’s the biggest one I’ve done since the ’70s.
A lot of talk right now with this park is about how to operate it—as far as fencing, hours, supervision and all of that stuff. What do you think the best operational model for a skate park is?
It depends on the community and the design of the skate park itself. There’s not one design that works for every community. The size of the community is important—probably more than anything. … Some communities supervise membership parks really well because it reflects, you know, the kind of gated community that you have in Orange County and stuff.
I like unsupervised, low fence, keep the spectators out. They’re going to put up a larger fence here, and I’m not opposed to that, but the reason why we were going to put the lower fence in was to keep the spectators out. You could walk up to the fence [and watch]. But if you’ve got a high fence, no one wants to look through it.
Now, one of the reasons I don’t mind the high fence here is that the park’s so large that spectators are going to come in the park, and it’s designed for spectators to come into the park. There’s a lot of green space in it. It takes you a while just to walk around the park, so people will want to come in. They’ll be curious and want to walk around it.
Do you know if there are plans for low safety fences around the larger, deeper bowls?
No, because there’s grass and berms. There is landscaping. But while you basically accept the fact that you will have spectators in here hanging around, that doesn’t mean you let young kids run free in here. You know, there are a lot of verticals and elevation changes.
A skate park is a dangerous place; everybody knows that. When people come and see a skate park, their first reaction is “Kids are going to get hurt!” And, you know, that is the right reaction. Kids get hurt in skate parks. Skaters know it, and the parents better know it. You’d better not buy your kid a skateboard and then come out here and cut him loose. You’d better make sure they know how to skate before they come to any skate park, not just this one.
You come to a skate park, and you look at it, and you go, “This looks dangerous.” Well, skating’s dangerous—just like other extreme sports. Football is dangerous, too, and baseball. Skateboarding’s obviously dangerous, and we make no claims that it’s not.
How do you feel about the concerns about BMX bikes in the skate park?You know, I think the biggest issue with BMX is overcrowding. I mean, that’s really what it all comes down to. The skaters are in control of the skate parks because they got them [built], and they don’t want to share. If the BMX guys have BMX parks, they don’t want to share either. It’s really about overcrowding.
There are arguments that you’re going to have crashes between bikes and skaters, and I know there are some issues with that going on right now. There’s a suit about a BMX guy running over a small kid on a skateboard. But, that’s not to say it wouldn’t happen between two skaters, but maybe it brings up the point that he got hurt more because it was a bike.
I don’t like to get into really dictating what you do with a skate park or how you ride it. Obviously, I wouldn’t be real crazy about people being out here on scooters or motorized anything. You know, that I have an issue with because that’s not what it’s designed for. But basically when you design for BMX or you design for skateboarding, you’re designing a very similar facility with minor changes.
So, it’s not the design of the park, or even the damage in most cases, it’s how they interact with each other?
Yeah, I think that’s the issue. And I don’t think that’s a big issue. I think you can have just as big a problem with little kids that don’t understand how to use a skate park riding in an inappropriate manner. In most cases, skate parks create quite a community. And when you design a skate park that’s for 5-year-old kids through 40-year-olds, you know, you have the benefits of a community. You have older skaters looking out and teaching younger skaters, and everybody kind of keeps everybody else in line. Everybody behaves better. Adults behave better when they’re around kids, and kids behave better when they’re around adults. A well-designed skate park brings everybody together, including spectators.
You’re also working on the second Sacramento skate park at Tanzanite in Natomas. What’s that going to be like in comparison?
It’s a smaller park. It’s about a third the skating size, and it doesn’t have the large green space, so it’s not spread out as much. It’s more of a community park. It was designed before this one, and I wish it had been the other way around. I wish it had been designed afterward, but they do compliment each other. I think I would have made them both a little different if they had been designed in a different order. I didn’t really want to compromise this one because of what I was doing over there as a community park. But that one’s got, percentage-wise, a little more street … a little more beginner. But it has an advanced bowl. It’s a pretty fun park.
What has Sacramento done well as part of this process?
I think Sacramento’s done its part, No. 1, in the scale in which they’ve addressed this. I mean, they looked at this area as an area that needed development and realized that a skate park would be a good way to address that development.
And [the city recognized] the fact that an area like this needs a park this size. There are very few large cities out there that are doing large parks. It’s the small cities that are doing the large parks because they’re in better touch with their kids. You get into the big cities—there’s total detachment from their youth. You go into a city of a couple hundred thousand people, and they know what their kids want to do—and it’s skateboarding.
I think it’s to the credit of Sacramento that they’re not just doing one park, but they’re doing Tanzanite, and I’ve even heard there’s another one, and we’re doing it right. We’re doing a regional [size] park in the regional park, and then we’re doing residential [size] parks in the residential parks. With this regional one, it will also take pressure off the residential ones.
Do you go back and visit your parks after they’ve been open a while? Skate them? See how they’re operating?
Yeah. I usually like to skate them before they’re even opened. But they’re not always finished. It just depends. I like to skate them because it gives me some kind of closure with it. It allows me to move on.
What I do like to do is come back a year later, because I try and make my skate parks very unique and different to skate. So, I want to see how the skaters have adapted to what I’ve given them. Skating’s all about adapting. I mean, learning how to skate backyard pools is adapting to a backyard pool. Learning to skate stairs and ledges is adapting to those kinds of shapes. And that’s basically what a skate park is. It’s just a variety of different forms and shapes and kids learning to ride them.
So, I think one of things you try to do as a designer is present other shapes, other terrain they haven’t got. Or improve, you know, a spinoff of some terrain we know they like.