• Victory at Southbank for skaters 14 November 2014 | View comments

  • After a long year battle, LLSB celebrates skatepark staying put

    Visitors to London’s Southbank are probably familiar with its seamy underbelly, the destination for skateboarders and spectators. Amid the shiny gift shops and smart restaurants lies the last remnants of its brutalist undeveloped past. Underneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall is the undercroft, a space used by skateboarders since the 1970s. Part of the Southbank’s DNA, the space is visited by thousands of skaters every year, some even travelling across the globe to visit the famous location. 

    The Southbank Centre revealed plans in March 2013 to develop the area surrounding the Southbank, and with the regeneration, the area used and treasured by skateboarders was under threat to be changed into retail units. As if there aren't enough of those in London. Southbank Centre is Europe’s largest complex of art buildings, including the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward gallery. It’s a 21-acre space, the undercroft area in scale with the rest of the site is hardly anything. Also nearby are the National Theatre and the BFI Southbank, clearly it’s an area where creativity is celebrated. 

    The thriving area beneath the Southbank Centre with strong links to culture and art were disregarded in the plans. Dismissing the 35+ year history of an organic community that has created itself there and policed itself. Long Live Southbank was set up in response to the Southbank Centre's plans, I spoke to LLSB activist, screenwriter Jason Caines. He's been visiting the undercroft every week for the past 10 years, to develop his skating skills and swap tips with others. He says the campaign kicked off, “as a result of not being acknowledged in the [consultation] process and also in an effort to save the place.” 

    For Caines, the Southbank is all about community. “It’s a place where I can go anytime of the day, week or year and have a good time, catch up with friends, even if nobody I know is there, make some new ones.” In July 2013, Lambeth council allowed the undercroft to be listed as an asset of community value, in the same month the LLSB campaigners hand delivered 12,000 objection forms to Lambeth's town hall. There were campaign tables at the spot frequently to rally up enough supporters and in January 2014 27,000 objections were delivered to the council by Southbank lovers, skating the three-mile distance to the Town Hall. 

    With high press coverage of the ongoings even London's Mayor, Boris Johnson spoke out in support of the campaign saying the skaters adds to the vibrancy of the area and helps makes London the 'great city that it is'. In September 2014 the Southbank Centre agreed to keep the undercroft open for use without charge for skateboarding or BMX riding and the undercroft will remain the home for the skaters.

    Southbank is recognised as a hub for skateboarding, Topman released a style range in 2013 based on the location. Caines says although not everyone at Southbank would be particularly proud of that, “it’s become such an iconic place that a big institution would look to put out a line of clothing based on a thousand square metres space, not many small areas can say that can they." The Festival Wing even admitted the skaters contribute to the centre on their website: "They add vitality, spectacle and an extra cultural dimension to our waterfront. They also inspire young people to take up skateboarding and mentor them." The Southbank has plenty of visitors, located along the Thames – the skaters are a bit of a tourist attraction. ”On your average day, you’ll get over 5,000 people walking by and, at least, half of them will watch the skateboarding.”  

    There were plans to build a new skate area, some 120 metres away along the river at Hungerford Bridge. The Centre wanted skateboarders to get behind the new design schemes, but it went down like a lead balloon (check out the comments & number of dislikes on its video here). The SBC even admitted that they had failed in their consultation process. Final design plans for the skate space were released late November 2013, Caines wasn't in support of them either, "aesthetically they’re not good, theoretically and philosophically too." He went on to say, “The Southbank Centre needs to embrace what we’re doing, as the most dynamic thing that’s going on at their site and think about ways they can engage us. I don’t think the best way to engage the skate community is to move them on, to a new site you’ve built for them but to work more collaboratively on the space.” Skaters say the undercroft was never built for skating, which is its appeal. 

    The current undercroft site has shrunk during its existence. “It’s gone through several different stages of size development, up until the late 90s it was three or four times larger than it is now. ” In the early 2000s, a third of the original space was lost. According to Jason the site has been at the same size since around 2005 after another closure, “we were told that it would be returned and it would only be a temporary reduction”. Caines says that despite a smaller space this hasn’t decreased the use of the area, “it’s only increased. The skating, the art and the general spectatorship enjoyment of the place – it’s more popular than ever.”

    The undercroft has been a legal paint zone for a few years and the spirit of the place and people can be seen on the ever-changing walls. “People flock there because now it’s so bright and colourful. It’s so transitory, all this graffiti will not be the same the next week you’ll see it.” With its inexplicable links with street culture, clothing and graffiti, I questioned Caines as to what is it about skateboarding that breeds this sort of creativity in people. 

    “When you’re physically active your mind is working as well when you finish doing something you feel stimulated. You’re in an urban environment, there’s a lot of things around you. You’re going to start to think about creative things. A lot of skaters are artists, graphic designers, illustrators, actors, all kinds of people making films. There’s a different story to a lot of people, but I think most skateboarders, especially at Southbank have a similar story, what they do is very creative – outside of Southbank." 

    Deterring skaters from an area is not unheard of, there’s an increasing amount of skate-proofing measures in urban areas. In place to restrict spaces being used for skating with grind stoppers or capping ledges. Skateboarding and the lifestyle behind it can be misunderstood, it takes a lot of skill and practice, which people dedicate themselves to. A purpose-built skate park can’t replace that essence of street skating. Skateparks provide a safer area to practice tricks, they’ve popped up all over the place for kids to go and skate in. Street skating sees people communicate with their environment as they transition from place to place, as we know your environment influences you.

    Caines explains how this is true for skateboarding too. “The difference between the kid who was born in the area that didn’t have that facility and somebody who did – their type of skating will be totally different. It will construct a different type of skateboarding, a different type of person. One is looking at things in a constructed way, playing by the rules and keeping safe and one will be a little more edgy, creative and put their minds to something that would otherwise, not be applicable for somebody else. It makes them not just more enjoyable to watch but also will make them a more interesting person. Parks will create the same types of people, the streets are different everywhere so they will create different types of skateboarders everywhere.”

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