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London Skaters Fought Gentrification, and Won

A coalition of skateboard enthusiasts just saved the birthplace of British skate culture from a future as a shopping center.

Southbank undercroft. Photo via Flickr user Trecca

Yesterday, London’s skater community claimed victory over developers who wanted to transform the scene’s vibrant home, located in the undercroft of London’s Southbank Center, into a generic shopping center. In a joint press release, the skater activists and the Southbank Center announced that plans to develop the undercroft into a “Festival Wing” featuring cafes, restaurants, and retail units have been dropped. Long Live Southbank, the non-profit organization of skaters and allies that was formed to protect the space from commercial development, tweeted out the announcement this morning.

“After 17 months we can announce Southbank is finally saved—a massive thank you to all who stood with us,” they wrote.

The Southbank Center is a major arts and entertainment complex based in central London. The undercroft, located beneath a music hall, has been the home of the local skater community since the 70s, and is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of British skating. Skaters have utilized the undercroft’s wide expanse, concrete slopes, and stair sets as an urban practice course. It’s always remained free to anyone who wanted to access it.

Over the years, the undercroft has become a major urban arts and activities center, attracting not just skaters but BMX bikers, graffiti artists, and performance artists from around the world. Graffiti art covers the walls, livening up the Brutalist cement architecture. The space has not only been a platform for skaters, bikers, artists, and street performers, it’s also become a major tourist attraction listed in multiple brochures and guides.

Image via Flickr user Rev Stern

Plans to develop the site were revealed in March 2013, inspiring a furious storm of objections. The issue became a lightening rod for a number of grievances—discussions about public space, accessibility, and gentrification infiltrated the debate.

In an effort to appease the undercroft crowd, the Southbank Center enlisted the help of local architects and skaters to design a new skateboarding center about 130 yards away from the original site, near the Hungerford Bridge suspended above the River Thames. (The area is colloquially referred to as Bird Shit Banks.) Long Live Southbank opposed the plans.

“The whole point of the skate space is that it is a naturally-evolved environment, a found space used in response to accidents of architecture,” they write on their site. “The community at the Undercroft has evolved around this type of use over four decades and the natural progression of the environment cannot be replicated.”

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, lent his support to Long Live Southbank earlier this year, at a city planning meeting where he referred to the undercroft as the “epicenter of U.K. skateboarding.”

“This much-loved community space has been used by thousands of young people over the years,” said Johnson. “It attracts tourists from across the world and undoubtedly adds to the vibrancy of the area—it helps to make London the great city it is."

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