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Q&A with Kanten Russell, pro skateboarder turned action sport designer

A skate skateboarding legend who now creates legendary skateparks, Kanten Russell turned a teenage obsession into careers as both a professional athlete and world-class designer.

By Kanten Russell, Designer/Project Manager (San Diego, CA)

A skate skateboarding legend who now creates legendary skateparks.

Kanten Russell turned a teenage obsession into careers as both a professional athlete and world-class designer.

Q: What exactly are “action” sports?

A: They are athletic pursuits that are a slight departure from what people consider more organized, traditional team sports. They are definitely a more individual thing, and more extreme and thrill-seeking. These are the sports you see at the X Games, like skateboarding, BMX biking, and freestyle motocross (FMX).

Q: How did you get into this business?

A: I was a professional skateboarder for 13 years. When I was still skateboarding, I worked with Stantec landscape architect Mike McIntyre on the first public skatepark in San Diego at Ocean Beach. This was about 1999. I started advocating for the park as a kid and it took nine years to approve funding for it. Mike was an up-and-coming skatepark designer, and this was my first introduction to his design process. Ten years later when I decided to get out of professional skateboarding, I began taking college classes in design and engineering and then working at a civil engineering firm in San Diego. After I had this experience under my belt, Mike contacted me to put it all together to work with him on designing skateparks.

Q: What makes the design process different for these kinds of spaces vs. other athletic or park facilities?

A: What’s similar is that the site planning process is the same as that of any typical landscape architecture or civil engineering project. You still have to do all the site planning on the front end related to the topography, drainage issues, grading, etc. Where it differs is the process for determining how to lay everything out. The functionality of the terrain and the relationship of elements to each other is critical for a wheel-friendly park. The length of certain lanes or where you place organic sculptural elements like flow bowls are important in how the park all links together.

But the most important part of the process is getting community input. We’ve gone into some projects where the client says they don’t really need to go through the public participation process, but we insist on it. Every area is different so we need to know what the skateboarding community wants. Some want an urban plaza feel, some want something more colorful and artistic, or some want a more organic sculptural flow with an old-school kind of feel. The input we get from the community makes it that much better because they were a part of it, and it more less guarantees that they’ll use it.

Q: What’s a typical day like for an action sport designer?

A: Well, it’s difficult to say because a typical day is very untypical. If we’re doing something with the public, then we’re traveling and meeting people and doing presentations. If we’re doing design work, we’re in the studio collaborating with people in person, on the phone, on the computer, or design charretting in the office. We really believe in collaboration; we don’t ever want to sound like it’s our way or the highway. We get input from lots of different people—from the community to the pros—to make each park special. But a typical day, whether on the road or in the studio, is all about collaboration.

Q: What’s your favorite aspect of your work?

A: What I really love is that each project is different. We get a chance to work with the public and come up with something unique every time, and that never gets old. We’re going from city to city, town to town, and giving them a safe place to recreate in a sport that we love ourselves. We didn’t have these kinds of spaces when we were growing up skateboarding.

Q: What do you see as the next trends in Action Sport design?

A: There are several, and they all center on the idea of inclusiveness – of people, of uses, of seasons. More and more skateparks now want to accommodate all wheeled activities, not just skateboards. Our recent projects in Boston, Encinitas, and others were designed to be wheel-friendly.

We’re also designing for more generations – it’s not just young people who use these parks. We see kids as little as 5 or 6 years old riding, the usual teenagers and young adults, plus many of their parents who grew up riding. So that means skateparks need to offer a variety of terrain. When skateparks started they were all transition – bowls, snake runs, etc. – and they were fenced and very monitored. That shifted into a focus on street skating features around 10 years ago with almost no transitions. Now we’re seeing a blend of all that – barrier-free, open, and integrated facilities with plazas, transitions, street features – a little of everything. This gives all types of users and skill levels a place to ride.

We’re also now starting to look into the options for multi-seasonal skateparks. Stantec has a special niche in designing ice ribbons, so we’re looking at combining those with skateparks to create all-season facilities. 

Authored by Kanten Russell

Kanten Russell’s lifetime of skateboarding gives him unique insight into the needs of the skate community, and of his clients.

Transcript of the video follows
skip transcript
<p>The city respects us for our ability to relate to them.&nbsp; The users respect our ability to understand what they really want. And it doesn’t hurt that we still ride.</p> <p>I was a professional skateboarder for 13 years, and then transitioned into designing skate parks. To use all the knowledge and … and things I experienced through skateboarding, and how that world works kind of gives me a good sense of where skateboarding is now and understand kind of what people are really looking for when the hire us as a consultant.</p> <p>We’re hired to be the conduit from the city to, to the end user. They don’t understand the terminology. They don’t understand some of the way that things are laying out, or why would we do this as opposed to this.</p> <p>In skateboarding, I was known for doing the craziest jumps and you know, crazy daredevil kind of stuff, and I think that sort of drive and motivation and passion, they could see that through my skateboarding. Fast-forward to my design career, I feel like it’s a little bit the same thing. You know, the passion, drive, continually, pushing what we’re doing into areas we’ve never done before, being innovative and the formula we have works every time. So I think its building trust with a client, and having them understand that we are, you know, the best at what we do.</p> <p>Having that, you know, authentic background, the credibility to do what we do, in the sport and outside the sport, does help, and is a necessity, I think, at some level.</p>

What I really love is that each project is different. We get a chance to work with the public and come up with something unique every time, and that never gets old.

The input we get from the community makes it that much better because they were a part of it, and it more less guarantees that they’ll use it.

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