Interview: Richard White
Richard White is and has been a lot of things: scientist, art gallery curator, urbanist, Newspaper columnist, and blogger. He was actually the director of the Calgary Downtown Association in the late 1990s and played a significant role in developing Millennium Park.
His blog, Everyday Tourist, often mentions skateboarding and skateboarders. Richard has a unique perspective on skateboarding– he’s a smart guy that we can all learn from. We sat down and picked his brain about how skateboarding fits into Calgary’s urban landscape.
Are you originally from Calgary?
No. I was born in Hamilton, ON and came to Calgary in 1984.
What brought you here?
Well, what originally brought me to Alberta was my wife to be. She got a job in Valleyview, and later a job in Strathmore so eventually I got my dream job of being the executive director and curator of the Muttart Art Gallery, which is now Contemporary Calgary. The Muttart Art Gallery was on the second floor of Memorial Park Library.
Contemporary Calgary is an interesting connection– we actually submitted a proposal for the old World of Science building, hoping to develop an indoor skatepark in the warehouse area. However, Contemporary Calgary was selected to operate the space. An indoor skatepark next to Millennium would have been great!
That’s what I love about skateboarding– you guys are committed 12 months of the year. I mean, you’re OUT there. To me, the ones who use our parks and public spaces 12 months of the year are skateboarders and smokers. For downtown, I would accommodate the smokers because in -30, they’re the ones that are going to be out on the street. And instead of them throwing their butts on the street– they’re not criminals, just because they’re different– why not make it look good? Make it look more like an acceptable activity with a place to throw their cigarette butts.
It’s the same with skateboarders– I look at the park that they built on Macleod Trail (at 12th Avenue SW). To me it looks like a skateboard park. And they do skate there. And the one day I was there, there were only skateboarders there, but I’m sure it’s illegal to skateboard there. So that’s the thing I object to– they build these plazas and parks and they basically tease the skateboarders and then they tell them they can’t do it there. It’s like with Poppy Plaza.
I was actually going to mention Poppy Plaza. It was designed and built as a memorial for war veterans. However, it happens to be one of the best skate spots in the city. How do you feel about skaters using the plaza for something other than was intended ? And do you think the architects knew it would be so functional as a skate spot?
I’ve already written about that, as you know. I say absolutely they should use it. And I don’t see it as being disrespectful to the war veterans who fought for freedom. You know, that is freedom. To me, it’s silly not to design it for skateboarders because otherwise it’s not going to get a lot of use. Poppy Plaza isn’t getting a lot of use. But I think you need to design them in such a way that can take the wear and tear of the skateboard. Whether that’s an increased cost, I don’t know. Maybe it’s every second or third public space we create needs to consider skateboarding.
I was recently downtown and there was a bunch of guys skating downtown at McDougall Centre. They were from Edmonton and came to check out the spots here.
How do you feel about cities installing defensive architecture to keep people away, especially using “skate stoppers” to keep skateboarders away?
It’s a tough one for the property owner because their first commitment is to the tenants. I’m more concerned about public spaces. Either you build it so skateboarders can’t use it, or you incorporate skateboarding. And why wouldn’t you incorporate it in every public space?
There are architects who state that they are thrilled when they learn skateboarders are using their creations for something other than their intended purpose.
I think most planners and architects would be for skateboarders. In a public space, they want to see as many uses as possible. I would say that even an architect for an office building would love that it gets used for skateboarding. They’d never admit that to the building owner, but why not? Especially office buildings, which are devoid of any life on evenings and weekends. And one of the things that’s unique about Calgary is we have these long evenings in the summer, so that’s probably the best time for skateboarding. That’s where I’d like to see multi-purpose buildings.
What’s your professional background? Your website says you were a scientist, art gallery curator, and 3D animation guy.
My educational background is a Masters in plant science. I was doing a Ph.D at McMaster University in cell cycle kinetics. I quit that to become a painter– a visual artist. So I was an artist from 1980-1985. I was curator from 1985-1995, then I became executive director of the Downtown Association. That’s where I became interested in urban development and urban planning. I went from there to working for Ridell Kurczaba Architects, managing their 3D animation studio. We did the West LRT station, East Village, Currie Barracks, Quarry Park. It was interesting, hanging around with young people. None of them were skateboarders though. I’ve never skateboarded myself. I do visit skateboard parks in any city I travel to.
You had a clear perspective on the Edgemont skatepark situation in 2015. What do you think motivated the NIMBY set in this case? Fear of property values dropping? Fear of the unknown?
I think it is fear of the unknown. If there are things they don’t understand– I’ve just made this connection with art– but when I was a curator people wouldn’t like artwork. I’d ask them why and it was often because they didn’t understand it. If you don’t understand something as an adult, you don’t like it. That’s probably the key in a lot of NIMBYism. They don’t understand the development. In some cases, they just don’t agree with it but in other cases they don’t understand why it’s being done.
In the case of skateboarding, I think a lot of people don’t understand the independence of it. We don’t want it to be formalized like hockey or soccer, or most other sports where you have a coach and the parents have control. It’s a true street culture activity. That probably scares people– they don’t understand that because that’s not the way most people think. It’s easy on the outside, thinking, “It doesn’t impact me,” but when it happens in their backyard, they get more vocal. There are a lot of people who are pro-development, pro-infill, and pro-density, until it arrives in their community. I think it’s just human nature, to always look for the negative.
It’s almost always the case with NIMBYs– a vocal minority who has time on their hands; mostly seniors. They’re probably concerned with property values, because if there happens to be a short term dip, they’re the ones most affected. But in the long term once it becomes part of the community, a skatepark is either neutral or increases the value of that area. Especially if the area is going to be family friendly. But a place like Edgemont went from being family friendly, to being mostly seniors.
It’s ironic that Edgemont residents were worried about property values dropping– we now regularly see real estate listings mentioning their proximity to skateparks. Do you think amenities like skateparks are beneficial to communities?
I think it just depends. It’s like any amenity. If you’re going to use it, it’s an amenity. If you’re not going to use it, it’s neutral. Like a coffee shop, for example. If it’s going to increase parking issues, one person might say, “Now I can’t park in front of my house,” but another will say “it’s an amenity”.
We live in a culture that’s very diverse– that’s what we say about politicians. There’s either too much for some and not enough for others– there’s no in between. There probably is a small sliver in the middle, but it’s a very broad circle where you hit the sweet spot for very few people.
“Calgary: City Of Parks & Pathways” mentions many amenities that make Calgary unique (and sweet): we have the most extensive urban pathway system in North America, largest elevated walkway system (+15), and two of the largest city parks in the world (Fish Creek and Nose Hill), to name a few. We also have Millennium Park, which is one of the largest skateparks in the world. Do you think Millennium is “safe”? There is a lot of development planned around Millennium so we’re wondering if Millennium will be taken out to free up the prime real estate on which it sits. This question is especially top of mind with the skatepark network plan that sees skateparks being developed in suburban areas.
There are two sides to Millennium Park. If the West Village gets developed, they’re going to want to develop the green space in the park. The City doesn’t have a track record of selling park space, so they would have to determine if there was a bigger, better use for the space. I would think that, as more people move into the area, there would be more reason to use the skatepark. I could see a playground going there too but I can see the skatepark as an attraction. The beach volleyball courts too. I don’t know for sure but I would think that the entire park becomes part of the West Village.
If I were in your shoes, I would start to look at what could be done to revitalize Millennium Park. I would certainly look at a signature event for it. Any major space has a significant event: Prince’s Island has the Folk Festival, Fort Calgary has music concerts. Millennium Park has the Blues Festival and a few others, but I do think that a skateboard festival of some sort coming together there would help to cement its sense of place. 2019 would be its 20th anniversary so you might want to think about how you could celebrate that.
Good public spaces have somebody that gives them ownership.