Book review - Skateboarding and the City: A Complete History

by Iain Borden and reviewed by Jack Layton

23 Jul 2019, 2:46 p.m.
Jack Layton

Skateboarding and the City book cover

Book review: Skateboarding and the City: A Complete History

by Iain Borden and reviewed by Jack Layton

London: Bloomsbury, 2019; 369 pp.: 9781472583451, £25 (pbk).


Iain Borden’s Skateboarding and the City (SATC) is an amazing piece of scholarship, and a natural evolution of his earlier Skateboarding, Space and the City (Borden, 2001). However, it is not a simple evolution in the way a branch continues to grow outwards. It feels much more like a branch has forked, and all of a sudden there are lines heading out in multiple directions – there is a breadth and diversity to this tree of skateboarding knowledge. This diversity reflects the growth of skateboarding as a practice – it is no longer as singularly defined by its 1990s ‘Skate and Destroy’ sub-cultural status. To talk about skateboarding in 2019 is also to talk about a global economic industry, NGOs and social movements, DIY architecture, planning, commuting, art and film-making and of course the Olympics. This diversity also reflects the flourishing of academic research that has focused on skateboarding in the 18 years since Skateboarding, Space and the City was published. There has been research that has pushed understandings of skateboarding and its racial and gender dynamics (Atencio et al., 2013), the role it plays in gentrification (Howell, 2005), its existence as a professional industry (Snyder, 2017), as a way to examine public space (Chiu, 2009) or the planning system (Carr, 2010) and on and on and on. All of this work – and SATC in particular – shows the value of engaging seriously with a practice like skateboarding.

The subtitle of the book, ‘A Complete History’, is well earned. The book is divided into three sections covering the full history of the practice. Section 1, ‘Skateboard Scenes’, explores the different cultures of skateboarding. My favourite chapter of this section is ‘Media Worlds’, which skilfully discusses how the production and consumption of skateboarding media affect how the practice gets done on the ground. More than most practices, skateboarding is shaped by its cultural representations. Section 2, ‘Skateboarding’, is an extensive documentation of the spaces and places where skateboarding gets done. The reader is taken from the original sloping found spaces of LA, all the way through to the design and production of purpose-built skate parks in all their multifarious forms. Section 3, ‘Skate and Create’, is a careful documentation of the times and places where skateboarding pro-actively intervenes in the world. Here we find skateboarding as a mature, reflective and creative cultural practice that channels its energies into art and design, as well as creating spaces and institutions that support the skate community and beyond. All of this is brought together in a charismatically illustrated coffee-table-esque book. A lot of space is given over to images in SATC – which feels appropriate given the culture of skateboarding and its relationship to visual media – and they really make the text pop: ‘THAT’s what skating in a pool is like!’

One aspect of the book I want to draw out is the way it can be read as a text on the urban environment. SATC is a book about the dynamic relationship between skateboarding and the environments that facilitate skateboarding. Throughout Section 2, the reader is shown how the assemblage of materials that makes up cities has been – in countless ways – re-imagined by the skateboarder to create acceleration, rotation, friction and flow. The surfaces of the urban environment are shown to facilitate play. This is an aspect of cities often overlooked. It is easy to forget that along with facilitating commerce, transport and habitation, cities can be spaces that facilitate play, exhilaration and pleasure (Hitchings and Latham, 2017Latham and Layton, 2019). What I like about the book is how by documenting the spread of spaces used for skateboarding, SATC tells a story about the increased accessibility of skateboarding. The backyard pools of LA in the 1960s and 1970s may have been a playground for those daring enough to discover and ride them, but the invention and proliferation of spaces designed explicitly for skateboarding has enabled many manymore people to pick up a board and experience the kick of adrenaline from riding down a ramp at their local skate park. As skateboarding has moved from poaching upon discovered spaces, towards designing and providing specific spaces, it has become an ordinary part of the urban landscape. For some this may mean it has lost a part of its counter-cultural allure, but through its very popularity skateboarding has been successful in making cities more invigorating places to live for more people. And what is more, there is a story to be told here about the way in which ordinary people come to participate in and shape the cities in which they live – not only through a fleeting reimagining of a curb – but through the widespread provision of local skate parks.

SATC is full of variations on this theme – of how skateboarding has grown from poaching upon, to actively shaping cities. Similar lines of argument could be pulled together from the book on the economy, sociality, and political attitude of skateboarding. The reader is shown how the economy of skateboarding has grown and evolved into global brands and innovative companies, how skateboarding as a social scene is radically growing and diversifying, and how skateboarders are just as likely to be involved with the town planning process as to be ushered out of a space by security guards. This careful mix of arguments can be found because SATC sticks closely to the empirical details of skateboarding. This is a book that did not start with a question of how ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘gentrification’ or ‘globalisation’ has affected skateboarding. Instead, we are presented with skateboarding’s relationship to the city in its full diversity: the good, the bad, the criminal, the exclusionary, the progressive, and the creative. By starting with the practice, and following it along all of its forking branches – the reader can find an impression of the urban environment that is not defined by any singular quality or process. SATC demonstrates how people’s enthusiasms can come to shape the places that we live in, and how those enthusiasms are in turn shaped by the environments in which they take place.

As I am sure is clear by now, I really like the book and think that there is a huge amount to be gained by a generous engagement with it. It is not only an encyclopaedic book on skateboarding; it is a book about the urban environments in which skateboarding takes place. SATC is a book that reflects the maturing and diversifying of a counter-culture. If Borden’s (2001) Skateboarding, Space and the City was often taken as shorthand for demonstrating critique of the built environment through creative practice, then I hope that Borden’s (2019) Skateboarding and the City comes to be used as shorthand for how a practice comes to pro-actively shape the urban environment.



  Atencio, M, Beal, B, Yochim, EC (2013) ‘It ain’t just black kids and white kids’: The representation and reproduction of authentic ‘skurban’ masculinities. Sociology of Sport Journal 30(2): 153–172. 
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  Borden, I (2001) Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body. Oxford: Berg. 
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  Carr, J (2010) Legal geographies: Skating around the edges of the law: Urban skateboarding and the role of law in determining young people’s place in the city. Urban Geography 31(7): 988–1003. 
Google Scholar | Crossref | ISI
  Chiu, C (2009) Contestation and conformity: Street and park skateboarding in New York City public space. Space and Culture 12(1): 25–42. 
Google Scholar | SAGE Journals | ISI
  Hitchings, R, Latham, A (2017) Exercise and environment: New qualitative work to link popular practice and public health. Health & Place 46: 300–306. 
Google Scholar | Crossref | Medline
  Howell, O (2005) The ‘creative class’ and the gentrifying city: Skateboarding in Philadelphia’s Love Park. Journal of Architectural Education 59(2): 32–42. 
Google Scholar | Crossref
  Latham, A, Layton, J (2019) Kinaesthetic cities: Studying worlds of amateur sports and fitness in contemporary urban environments. Progress in Human Geography. Epub ahead of print 5 July 2019. DOI: 10.1177/0309132519859442
Google Scholar | SAGE Journals
  Snyder, GJ (2017) Skateboarding LA: Inside Professional Skateboarding. New York: New York University Press. 
Google Scholar | Crossref


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