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“Take your skills to the streets”: Skateboarding and social and physical urban space

by Luiza Fonini Reis and Luisa Voss / Images: Ella Bowler

Anthropology is the study of intersections, of community and its inherent conflict between the self and the other, and of the real and the ideal. Urban space hosts and embodies such clashes. In cities like Amsterdam, the infrastructure is used and lived in multiple ways all at the same time. A simultaneity that is ongoing, ever-evolving and, ever-diversifying.

In the context of the second-year bachelor course Organizations and Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, we viewed the cityscape of Amsterdam through the lens of urban sports. Sports and fitness activities are an important way in which life in the cities can be improved. Evidence from a wide range of disciplines suggests that such activities can increase life expectancy, minimize the incidence of chronic diseases, mental health problems, and loneliness. For this reason, there is a demand for a valorization of urban infrastructure that allows physical activity.

In cooperation with the Gemeente Amsterdam and the Academie van de Stad, we had the opportunity – after months of “living-room-anthropology” during lock-down – to conduct ethnographic research and investigate the needs of the local urban sports communities in the city.

Urban sports are practiced in urban or natural areas and comprise a variety of activities, including street soccer, rollerblading, breakdancing, skateboarding, and much more. For our research project, we focused on the latter. Skateboarding is an urban sport with an extensive history and strong community spirit connected to fashion, music, arts, and identity formation. Regarding these aspects, it is a lifestyle sport rooted in urban infrastructure and embodied by the practitioner communities like no other. We have focused on the way the given space is conceived, perceived, and lived by the practitioners, exploring such perspectives guided by the theoretical framework of Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1991). Lefebvre was a French philosopher, who introduced space as an interpretative concept and linked it to political, sociological, historical, economic, and cultural analysis. He is seen as a forerunner to the shift in perspective of space as given and static, to a perspective of space as something that is (re)produced. In line with Lefebvre’s conceptualizations, there was frequent reiteration in our findings that skaters create their own space in existing material surroundings. They claim conventional conceptions of infrastructures such as benches, trash bins, and other surfaces by creatively reinterpreting their intended use. Besides the material aspects, we also see this transformation happening in social and mental space. Through the constant creation of community and the self, the idea that surrounds skaters evolved dynamically. Therefore, conceptions of the “proper” use of an urban space that is imposed by urban authorities are by no means all-imperative. The gaps existing between conceptualized use of space and lived space are open to exploration and reappropriation.

In our conversations with the skaters, we have noticed differences between skatepark skaters and street skaters. “Taking their skills to the streets”, the street skaters are generally seen as more daring, creative, and skilled, while the park skaters are associated with more safe and conventional practices. Park skaters claim they are not street skaters because they are not skilled enough. Street skaters on the other hand view park skating as less impressive and less true to the core skating mentality. Skate parks are legal: younger kids and parents are present while the thrill of being illegal is absent. Because of this, the skate park experience – as opposed to street skating – is a conformist one. To understand the difference between street and park skating is to understand the difference between a represented space and a representational space defined by Lefebvre. The distinction is that of a designated use of space versus transgressing the code of conduct and inventing a form of use according to one’s intentions. Street skating spots are founded through a history of community and accomplishment. There is an importance to the development of a spot. Skate parks might be ideal to conduct tricks while they do not encourage a strong sense of community through the risk of street skating and the search for potential skate spots. When conquering the streets, the skaters themselves become involved in the process of producing the space. As one of the skaters summarizes this idea: “Why does all that marble have to stay clean and shiny? Those things also have to be used. They’re not there for nothing. And after all, we don’t damage anything, we’re involved in a form of art.

Luiza Fonini Reis, Luisa Voss, and Ella Bowler are bachelor students in anthropology.

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