Playing Out: The Importance of the City as a Playground for Skateboard and Parkour

Michael Jeffries, Sebastian Messer, Jon Swords

The city, its streets, and its buildings make an ideal playground for skateboarders and freerunners. At the same time, the mostly teenage, mostly male participants in those activities are regarded by civic authorities as a problem. That attitude is part of a general antipathy to young people out on the streets, who are often assumed to be causing a nuisance. We present insights from working with skateboarders and freerunners in Newcastle upon Tyne and Tyneside, an urban conurbation in North East England, that reveal the significance that playing outdoors has for these young people. We also show how they value the city and the autonomy, friendships, and feel-good experience they enjoy there. Playing outdoors is a vital, positive part of their lives that cities should embrace.

Introduction

Playing outdoors in the city is increasingly difficult for young people. Heavy-handed laws, private security guards, and media-inspired moral panic all conspire to get youngsters off the streets where they are considered an unruly nuisance at best. At the same time, young people are now subject to the infinite allure of the Internet, which they access largely indoors and often alone and which is full of virtual friends they may never meet. These pressures only intensify a growing concern that contemporary children and teenagers are more isolated and sedentary than those of previous generations (Play England, n.d.). Karsten and Vliet (2006), for example, document that urban streets are increasingly inhospitable for outdoor play. And while children respond positively to attractive, well-equipped playgrounds, they also chafe at the restrictions of limited space (Veitch, Salmon, & Ball, 2007).

The idyllic world where every child played outside all day long with their friends and came home just in time for supper is probably a nostalgic myth. Nonetheless, young people do still play outdoors, and for some—such as skateboarders and freerunners—being outside and exploring, reworking, and reinventing the city for their own purposes is at the core of their lives. For participants in those activities, the city can be one big playground. But while they are out playing there, such young people—mostly teenage boys tearing around in hoodies and T-shirts liberally decorated with skulls, zombies, or incomprehensible band logos—seem like the very worst kind of trouble to everyone else.