The Business Of Building: Spohn Ranch

Aaron Spohn started skating the streets of Los Angeles at age 12. The year was 1972, and Spohn and friends began to push the limits, creating their own skate ramps and getting their fair share of bruises and broken bones, the young skater realized the city could benefit from an actual skate park.

“A group of friends and I lobbied the City for a skatepark in Venice,” says Spohn, who now owns Spohn Ranch skateparks, a company that has now built a name for itself by completing a myriad of high profile projects, including LA’s first concrete skate plaza and  working with skate legend Chris Miller to create the world’s first portable concrete bowl for the Mountain Dew Tour.  ”We attended countless meetings, built models and made speeches, but our park was never built.”

Spohn decided to take matters into his own hands, building a giant half-pipe in his backyard, and as that one half-pipe began to multiply, things began to escalate quickly, he says.

“It became impossible to keep our little skate spot a secret and before long, ‘Spohn Ranch’ was a destination for skaters from around the world,” says the skate park builder. “In 1995, I caught a big break when ESPN came looking for help with this new contest series called the “X-Games.”

Through work with the X-Games, Spohn Ranch has grown itself by branching out into a wide array of special event work, and at the same time experiencing a natural transition into building permanent parks for municipalities and government agencies. Today, the company is proudly celebrating twenty years of business, having designed and built over 600 skateparks, in nearly all fifty states and  10 countries, which include the first skateable sculpture garden in South Jordan, Utah, a concrete skatepark for the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, and  a 4,000-square- foot, 12’ deep bowl on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, only to transport it to Portland, Oregon the following week where it was re-installed.

My obsession with skating began on the streets of Los Angeles in 1972, when I got my first skateboard at the age of twelve.

Recently, Spohn and his crew are working on building a second office headquartered in Culver City, but we were able to track him down to learn more about the history of the company, his take on skate park building, and get his insight into the future of the business.

In what specific ways have you seen the skatepark landscape evolve and change over the years?

When I first started building parks, many cities thought skateboarding was a problem and that skateparks were the quick solution to that problem. They viewed skateboarding as a fad and a nuisance, rather than the art form that it truly is. It was a challenge convincing them that skateparks could be more than just a solution to a problem, but a way to create a vibrant and architecturally-intriguing community space.

Over the years, we’ve gotten much smarter and more in-tune with the municipal world. I am frequently invited to speak about skateparks at national and state parks/rec conferences. With 150+ lectures under my belt, we have become very effective with educating cities on how to correctly navigate the skatepark development process so that the end result is an enduring success for both the city and its skaters. Rather than being content with dropping some ramps on an abandoned tennis court, we are presenting skateparks as beautiful, aesthetically-engaging works of art

Rather than building one park and calling it good, we are also educating cities on skatepark master planning – creating a strategic network of neighborhood parks, skate spots and skate dots that better accommodate the skateboarding population while providing a diverse experience.

We are also helping ensure that parks are being utilized to their full potential beyond the grand opening. In 2001, I founded a company that operates skateparks called the Action Park Alliance. When a city built a large skatepark and decided they were going to staff it, we realized we would much rather see it staffed by people that live and breathe skateboarding and who are respected in the local skate community. Rather than creating an antagonistic relationship focused merely on rule enforcement, our staff focuses on programming and events that transform the skatepark into a tight-knit community space.

Where do you think the future of skate parks is headed? What types of strategies has your company been working on to keep up with what’s happening in the skate market?

Skateboarders are constantly progressing and we strive to create parks that serve as the platform for continued creativity and innovation. While progressive terrain is a core principal in our design philosophy, the overarching focus is fun. “How fun is it?” is hands down the most important question you can ask to assess the quality of a skatepark. At the heart of every skateboarder’s reason for stepping on a board each day is the desire to have fun. And since many skateboarders first step each day is towards their local skatepark, we have a very important duty as a skatepark design/build firm to make each park as fun for its local users as possible.

While fun skateboarding can mean something different to every skateboarder, there are qualities of a fun experience that are consistent across the board and thus should be reflected in a good skatepark.

Just as the balance of the terrain styles allows riders to evolve their skills, the difficulty level of the features themselves is also very important in creating a fun way to progress. A good skatepark isn’t designed solely for the 1% of skateboarders who are aiming to turn pro. At the same time, however, the park shouldn’t cater to someone who has never stepped on a skateboard. There is a perfect middle ground that Spohn Ranch has been aiming to perfect since our first parks in the early ‘90s.

Every skateboarder at some point in their lives has rode at a park where all of the features are huge and very challenging to skate. It’s not a fun experience and it’s incredibly discouraging. A good skatepark provides features of varying difficulty level to accommodate the full spectrum of experiences – from the kinds of days where you want a mellow session to the days where you wake up feeling hungry and aren’t worried about taking a slam or two on a big obstacle.

In addition, the skateparks of the future shouldn’t feel like a place where you sentenced to ride, but more like a naturally-occurring environment that just so happens to allow skateboarding. This is when the freedom, artistic expression and most importantly fun can occur most easily. If a skatepark feels too intentional or like a cage, it diminishes the experience.

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