Kickflips & Cityscapes

University of Oregon professor Ocean Howell transitions from Southern California skateboarding culture to architecture and academia.


Jay Bramhall

The only way to get really good at skateboarding is to first be really bad at it. The people who roll in with bloody knees and scabbed elbows are the same ones who care enough to take the hit time and time again. Pain as a requirement of skill induced a strong group mentality amongst skateboarders, athletes whose sport was well cultivated in Southern California.

California acts as a mixing pot of cultures, something that was no less true in the 70’s and 90’s than it is now, and this fusion of identities gave skateboarding its start. With its initial roots in surfing, skateboarding harbors alternative and anarchist elements such as those found in punk, graffiti, and hip-hop. An entire genre of music was referred to as “skate-punk” in the 80’s, involving bands such as Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers before they ventured into the mainstream. These factors all came together to bring about skateboarding as an identity, while also incubating the diversity and fluidity of skating culture. A culture that retired professional skateboarder and current University of Oregon associate professor of history and architectural history Ocean Howell explains as “taking an urban and suburban environment that people feel alienated from, and repurposing it.”

Howell began skateboarding at the age of 9 in Southern California, and picked up his first shop sponsor when he was only 15. A year later, he got his first true sponsor through H-Street, at which point he used up much of his time filming videos and going out with photographers. For the next couple of years, he remained an amateur skater, a designation he quickly outgrew. 

Much of the skating culture was based in California. Native to California, Howell partially attributes the speed of his growth in skating to the sport’s convenient location. “It was lucky in a sense. A lot of the industry was based in San Diego and LA, so I got noticed pretty quickly. There were people keeping an eye on me, then they just started taking photos of me and it kind of went on from there,” he says. 

At 18, Howell officially made it as a professional skateboarder, spending the next couple of years living every middleschooler’s dream—getting paid to skate and create promotional content. Eventually, Howell grew bored of waking up hours after the sun to roll out of bed and simply go film skateboarding videos with his friends. As a result, he enrolled in an undergraduate program. His education was largely funded by his skating career, a career that he ultimately decided to retire from after completing his undergrad. “I knew that if I didn’t [retire], then I would stay in skateboarding forever,” says Howell. “I love [skating]. I still do it now as much as my 48-year old knees will permit me, but it was always the skateboarding I loved. I was never that excited about the industry surrounding it.” 

Having a deep connection to a counterculture from such a young age, coupled with a profusely intellectual mind, skateboarding gave Howell more than good taste in music. It also opened his mind to the importance of architecture, and how each intricate detail has a predetermined purpose. “If you’re a street skater you have to understand the way things are designed; you really become a connoisseur of the way certain spaces flow,” says Howell. 

The quality of construction materials and their placement dictates a skateboarder’s experience and the way they go about skating. Aluminum handrails handle differently than steel ones, old heavy concrete with aggregate in it holds up much better against cracking than the more powdery constitution of newer cement, and a skatestopper does exactly what it says on the tin​​—prohibits the act of skateboarding in designated environments. 

Skatestoppers are a common example of what is known as defensive, or hostile, architecture. The purpose of defensive architecture is to “defend” buildings and businesses from the undesirables of the world in all their forms. Many systems of defensive architecture are vocal in their hostility, the aforementioned skatestoppers studding every low wall and raised curb, spikes viciously protruding from the pavement underneath bridges and business fronts, boulders dropped onto the sidewalk in a half-hearted attempt at claiming aesthetics. Others are less obvious: flower boxes pushing foot traffic into the only sheltered sections of the street, awkwardly designed benches preventing comfortable sleep, even public-space advocate Cara Chellew’s dubbed “ghost amenities”—public spaces noticeably void of any structures or conveniences such as bathrooms and park benches. Each and every decision made concerning architecture is infused with intention, a statement of who is allowed in a space and how they will be directed through it. Howell stresses the importance of recognizing the intended purposes behind public environments. “When we design public spaces, we are making a statement about who’s a legitimate member of the public and who’s not,” says Howell.

There are several reasons as to why a city would want to build a skatepark. Firstly, doing so acts as an accommodation of community demand. As skateboarding becomes more mainstream, so too does the desire for more resources aimed towards skating. Similarly, if skaters are busted skating somewhere they shouldn’t be and skateboarders have a place they can legally occupy, they have less ground to argue with law enforcement. The final, and likely the driving point for many city planners, is that skateboarders can be used to push those even lower on the socioeconomic scale out of public spaces. Fundamentally, skateparks act as containment facilities.

Skateparks are rarely placed next to white picket fences and cherry-red minivans. More often, they’re built next to crime-ridden districts under bridges. The undersides are commonly used for shelter, a function that cannot easily coexist in a shared space with skateboarders. If people are skating and grinding and flipping, there’s no room for people who need somewhere to sleep. Using skateboarders to push homeless people out of sheltered areas is a perverse scheme in which two groups both struggling for representation are pitted against one another in a gross subversion of solidarity.

Of course not all aspects of defensive architecture are nefarious. Howell uses a hospital as an example: if there is a bench on the premises that would be enticing to skaters, designing it in such a way as to discourage skating ensures the area remains a place of practicality. Some public restrooms have begun implementing blue lighting in bathrooms, consequently impairing addicts’ ability to locate their veins thereby preventing further drug usage. However, these examples further hammer the point that intentionality is key in the realm of architecture.

The function of architecture also differs regionally. Having spent time in countries like Spain and England, Howell explains that even the landscape of urban European cities differs greatly from those of the United States. It was the practicality of the old Southern Califonian schoolyards and the redeveloped downtown areas that made the development of skateboarding possible. From this initial introduction, people were able to see how to manipulate their own cities to fit their skating needs. In Spain and Southern France, hardscapes are common applications in cities, supplementing cement banks and bump-over-bar spots for the United States’ haphazardly placed green spaces. The differences in land created different forms of skating that eventually came together with the introduction of digital video. 

“In the case of skateboarding there are all these little variations in the tricks people would do, the way they would hold their body, what kind of style in terms of body gestures, the names of tricks, that are completely homogenized across the entire developed world,” Howell says. 

Video permitted people all over the world to observe skating and come to a singular consensus on its mechanics. Even the names of the tricks themselves became distinct and anglicized. Howell explains, “if you don’t speak the language, you’ll still know the names of the tricks.”

A fascination with the strong societal influence of skating, as well as the impact of urban architecture, enticed Howell to pursue a PhD at Berkeley, which led to a career in higher education. He authored the book Making the Mission: Planning and Ethnicity in San Francisco, in which he explored the ethnic radicalization that occurred in the Mission District after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Howell then published articles on the influence of modern urban architecture, later earning a position as an associate professor at the University of Oregon. Defying the stoner-skateboarder stereotype, Howell now had an avenue to channel his passion for skateboarding into the academic sphere. He says, “I always found skating a thrilling and interesting way to experience the world.” 

Employing tactics learned via skateboarding and the academic world, Howell advocates for an ethnology often scorned for its anti-authoritarian nature. Using a currently mainstream culture, like skating, to pave people’s path to education ensures that youth will continue to engage critically with the world around them. Understanding an individual’s right to bodily autonomy and their capacity to inhabit space, while remaining aware of how space is designed and who it is designed both for and against, allows for change. A change that focuses on accommodation, not condemnation.