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For reasons that no one has ever fully explained, skateboarding made a comeback in the '90s, and with it came a return to the construction of skate parks--safer places that usually required helmets and elbow pads. Park "design" tended to be contracted out to sidewalk-concrete pourers, playground-equipment manufacturers and lowball bidders. Most had never set foot on a skateboard, much less done a 360 on one. The results were uninspiring. To an intrepid teenager, a mass-produced ramp is about as exciting as a documentary on the Federal Reserve System. Thrasher, a skating magazine, spotlights the worst parks in a feature it calls "Certified Piece of Suck."
But in those same years, a generation of skaters turned designers began to emerge. As skaters, they knew how to provide features interesting to other skaters at all levels of ability. They designed the parks and then crafted them like potters at a wheel. Tim Payne, 46, is the founder of Team Pain, based in Orlando, Fla. "Everything is placed, formed and troweled by hand," he says.
Wally Hollyday, 48, who designed the Sayreville park, helped conceive his first one in 1977, when he was an 18-year-old disillusioned by what he found when he moved to California from New Jersey. "For me, it's about getting really interesting, organic shapes that flow," he says. "Skating came out of surfing. Waves are curved and moving, and they change shape at all times. When you put up concrete, you need to put those curves and moves into it."
The essential element of most great skate parks is the bowls--rounded craters that can be as deep as 12 ft., which skaters can barrel down, building enough speed to coast along the walls and climb the rim. All bowls--round, oval and peanut-shaped--are descended from the ur-bowl of skateboarding, an empty swimming pool. But park design has moved far from the basic pool formations. "Now it's about taking those and intersecting them," says Hollyday. "I have to keep thinking of the next shape."
Like a lot of skate-park designers, Mark Hubbard, a former pro skater who is the founder of Grindline, got his start constructing swimming pools, a job that let him hang around those beautiful smooth surfaces. Now his 50-person outfit works on six parks at a time. And although Hubbard is 35, he still tries them out when they're done. "I'll skate until I can't anymore," he says. "And then I'll keep building. There are a lot of towns in America, and they could all use a skate park."
Go to time.com for a photo essay on the history and evolution of skateboarding