Q&A with Kanten Russell, pro skateboarder turned action sport designer

July 26, 2012 Kanten Russell

A skate skateboarding legend who now creates legendary skateparks


Kanten Russell turned a teenage obsession into careers as both a professional athlete and world-class designer. We caught up with Kanten to learn more about how he helped grow Stantec's action sports design practice.


Q: What exactly are “action” sports?

A: They are athletic pursuits that are a slight departure from what people consider more organized, traditional team sports. They are definitely a more individual thing, and more extreme and thrill-seeking. These are the sports you see at the X Games, like skateboarding, BMX biking, and freestyle motocross (FMX).

Q: How did you get into this business?

A: I was a professional skateboarder for 13 years. When I was still skateboarding, I worked with Stantec landscape architect Mike McIntyre on the first public skatepark in San Diego at Ocean Beach. This was about 1999. I started advocating for the park as a kid and it took nine years to approve funding for it. Mike was an up-and-coming skatepark designer, and this was my first introduction to his design process. Ten years later when I decided to get out of professional skateboarding, I began taking college classes in design and engineering and then working at a civil engineering firm in San Diego. After I had this experience under my belt, Mike contacted me to put it all together to work with him on designing skateparks.



Q: What makes the design process different for these kinds of spaces vs. other athletic or park facilities?

A: What’s similar is that the site planning process is the same as that of any typical landscape architecture or civil engineering project. You still have to do all the site planning on the front end related to the topography, drainage issues, grading, etc. Where it differs is the process for determining how to lay everything out. The functionality of the terrain and the relationship of elements to each other is critical for a wheel-friendly park. The length of certain lanes or where you place organic sculptural elements like flow bowls are important in how the park all links together.

But the most important part of the process is getting community input. We’ve gone into some projects where the client says they don’t really need to go through the public participation process, but we insist on it. Every area is different so we need to know what the skateboarding community wants. Some want an urban plaza feel, some want something more colorful and artistic, or some want a more organic sculptural flow with an old-school kind of feel. The input we get from the community makes it that much better because they were a part of it, and it more or less guarantees that they’ll use it.

Q: What’s a typical day like for an action sport designer?

A: Well, it’s difficult to say because a typical day is very untypical. If we’re doing something with the public, then we’re traveling and meeting people and doing presentations. If we’re doing design work, we’re in the studio collaborating with people in person, on the phone, on the computer, or design charretting in the office. We really believe in collaboration; we don’t ever want to sound like it’s our way or the highway. We get input from lots of different people—from the community to the pros—to make each park special. But a typical day, whether on the road or in the studio, is all about collaboration.



Q: What’s your favorite aspect of your work?

A: What I really love is that each project is different. We get a chance to work with the public and come up with something unique every time, and that never gets old. We’re going from city to city, town to town, and giving them a safe place to recreate in a sport that we love ourselves. We didn’t have these kinds of spaces when we were growing up skateboarding.

Q: What do you see as the next trends in Action Sport design?

A: There are several, and they all center on the idea of inclusiveness – of people, uses, seasons. More and more skateparks now want to accommodate all wheeled activities, not just skateboards. Our recent projects in Boston, Encinitas, and others were designed to be wheel-friendly.

We’re also designing for more generations – it’s not just young people who use these parks. We see kids as little as 5 or 6 years old riding, the usual teenagers and young adults, plus many of their parents who grew up riding. So that means skateparks need to offer a variety of terrain. When skateparks started they were all transition – bowls, snake runs, etc. – and they were fenced and very monitored. That shifted into a focus on street skating features around 10 years ago with almost no transitions. Now we’re seeing a blend of all that – barrier-free, open, and integrated facilities with plazas, transitions, street features – a little of everything. This gives all types of users and skill levels a place to ride.

We’re also now starting to look into the options for multi-seasonal skateparks. Stantec has a special niche in designing ice ribbons, so we’re looking at combining those with skateparks to create all-season facilities. 

About the Author

Kanten Russell

A long-time fixture in the professional skateboarding world, Kanten is a lead designer for our Action Sports Group. Growing up in Southern California—the birthplace of skateboarding—Kanten quickly became a leading figure in the region’s skateboarding scene and was a professional skateboarder for 13 years.

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