by Julie le Sage
What was once a colourful playing ground and hangout for all kinds of people is now a faceless square marked off by steel fences. Together with Mike – resident of Rotterdam, skater, and urban activist – I stand at the edge of these fences. Our eyes focused on what lies behind them, a place that holds a special place in Mike’s memory. ‘Memory’, because the city of Rotterdam has other plans in store for this place. We are looking at the former skate square, located at Rotterdam’s Museumpark. A place that today has become a symbol of how the rights to the city of urban sporters such as Mike are slowly being eroded by a combination of ‘green’ urbanism, urban planning, capitalist accumulation, and defective policy.
Once a vibrant square, the place now felt dreary and lifeless. I must admit that the fact that it was raining may have dramatized the already sad state of affairs, but the story really is a regrettable one. Let me take you along.
For many years, the square in Museumpark, in front of the new Boijmans van Beuningen Depot, was an exclusive venue for people, sports, and cultures. The square consisted of a smooth concrete floor and was therefore a perfect skate spot. Due to the large, open space, there was room for everyone. A unique, inclusive sports community composed of skaters, BMX riders, and dancers gathered there: young and old, beginner and expert. Moreover, the square was accessible to any size wallet. In Mike’s words, the square was a “unique place”; one you “found nowhere else”. That is, until the park and square became part of the municipality’s ‘greening plan’.
Mike found out about the greening plan in a rather unsubtle way: “through the fences”, Mike thinks back, “all of a sudden, they were there, and within no time, we were presented a new development plan.” This plan made clear that the square would be resized, the surface changed, and filled with ‘skate stoppers’ – skate-deterrent or anti-skate devices placed on urban surfaces that are potentially skate-able.
This plan unfolded without consulting the passionate users of the square, like Mike. Officials from the municipality once came by the square to survey urban sporters, but, like today, it was raining and there were few sporters present. The municipality jumped to the conclusion that urban sporters were ‘difficult to reach’. With the founding of the activist group ‘Save Museumpark’, the sports community created a counter-voice: they collected thousands of signatures in a petition, showing the municipality the value of the place they intended to renew. However, it was in vain. The municipality tried to mitigate its harmful decision with some small concessions (e.g., agreeing to an alternative, smoother, but according to skaters still ‘unskateable’ surface’), but “it was too late; the municipal plan was already too far advanced”, Mike regrets.
But isn’t greening a good thing? And can’t Mike skate in other places?
As for the first question: yes! “We as urban sporters also want to live in a green city. I’ll be glad to”, Mike argues. But greening does not have to come at the expense of a sports venue. The sports community would have happily participated in the policymaking by thinking of other green solutions. Still, due to flawed policy and the distance between officials and local sporters, the potential for cooperation was hard to find. Besides, if anything is green, sustainable, and lively, it’s outdoor sports, right?
This brings us to the second question: ‘can’t Mike skate somewhere else?’. Yes, but no! As Mike made clear, you rarely find a place like this anywhere else. For example, at the designated skate park nearby (Westblaak, 750 meters from Museumpark), the threshold to go skating is comparably high because of its smaller size and more challenging composition that foremost attracts experienced skaters. Besides, urban sporters often face explicit exclusion from public space in general (for example, when being turned away by enforcers) or are implicitly prevented from accessing potential sports spots by hostile architecture that obstructs the practice of their sport. This is precisely why public places suitable for urban sports, such as the concerned square at Museumpark, are simply indispensable.
Aha, that sucks.
Yes, it does. However, the situation also exposes an underlying policy with flaws and paradoxes. Mike agrees. The city of Rotterdam has developed into a beloved city where many people want to live. The current policy, however, reflects an overemphasis on attempting to make it ‘liveable’ and ‘green’ by generating money through tourists and wealthy interest groups. To this end, the municipality has an ideal image of what public space and social behaviour in it should look like: tidy, clean, green, and well-ordered. Anything spontaneous that doesn’t fit within this image must be designed out. This is quite strange, when realising that a spot like the skate square organically became a tourist attraction itself and a lively venue for visitors as well as residents. This liveliness should be valued as an important aspect of urban life instead of being overshadowed by policymaking focused on urban planning and social control as is happening now.
The renewal of the square in Museumpark is therefore not only a problem that concerns the urban sporters who used to come here. It reflects a broader attitude within the municipality in which the things that make the street alive must make way for the things that make the street lucrative – for investment, for business, for tourism. It illustrates the destructive effects of a cocktail of modern ‘urbanism’ in which urban planning, capitalist accumulation, and defective policy that does not allow for unwanted citizen participation are the main ingredients. It is a cocktail served by wealthy interests and blind public officials, and one that urban sporters like Mike are powerless to refuse. For now, the servers get drunk, but as more city dwellers take action, there may be a hangover lurking around the corner.