How Britannia Courts became the heart of Vancouver skate culture

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      The tennis courts at Britannia Community Centre haven’t held nets for a long time. Instead, the rectangular space is home to a collection of ramps, rails, and obstacles—and, on dry days, the skateboarders who love them.

      “The Courts is a lot of things to a lot of people,” says Oliver Tennant, co-chair of the Britannia Skateboard Committee. “The maneuverability of it all is very unique. The fact it has lights is unique. And the overarching theme of the Courts is it’s a community-built space, so people feel ownership of the space.”

      Britannia Courts—or simply the Courts—is a DIY skate park that’s created and maintained by the skateboarders who use it. All the obstacles are made of wood and must be temporary. While it means core features need to be repaired or replaced regularly, the modularity allows for new objects and configurations.

      It holds a unique spot in the skate scene, both in Vancouver and even North America as a whole, thanks to the community that’s been fostered there.

      Dakota Cootes, another committee member, says the Courts is integral to her participation in the sport.

      “I had quit skating for 10 years, because skateboarding was very homophobic and non-inclusive at that time,” she recalls. When she finally came to the Courts, the number of other women and LGBTQ2S+ people really made an impact: “I ended up crying…I was like, ‘Holy shit, there actually is a space for me.’ ”

      Vancouver officially recognized the importance of skating last year, when the Park Board adopted the CitySkate program to identify ways to expand and support wheeled sports in urban places. No new skate parks have yet been approved for the city, and there are no permanent covered spaces in Vancouver—a problem for a place that sees rain half the year.

      In addition, the current Master Plan for Britannia Community Centre would see the tennis courts renovated to create a new ice rink and skate features distributed around the site—with no replacement park.

      So local skaters have spent the past couple of years formalizing their community. Tennant and other skateboarders banded together to create the committee. The group was approved by the community centre’s board of directors and planning committee, which means skateboarding is now recognized as one of the centre’s core activities.

      “Britannia Community Centre has all sorts of committees to represent their many uses: the pool committee, the fitness committee. And now they have the skateboard committee,” Tennant explains. “Because this is a recognized space now, the community centre assists us in all of our needs.”

      That means everything from a portable toilet and an onsite storage container for wood and tools, to funds for catering and applying for city permits for holding larger events. The committee is working with the community centre to get skateboard spaces within the larger Britannia Renewal plan, with Britannia even funding a September report from VDZ+A landscape architects that lays out visions for how to best integrate skateboarding into the upgrades.

      The Britannia Renewal plan is tricky, in part because the land is owned by the City and the School Board, with the community centre and Parks Board stewarding it. An upgrade has been planned since at least the ’90s, but is currently on hold to focus on urgent repairs.

      That gives the skaters more time to advocate for what they want: a covered, permanent place to skate, explicitly included in the development plan. Thus far, it’s been slow going, with various suggestions being rejected for violating different bylaws.

      “It’s been a laundry list of excuses,” Cootes says. “If we lose this space, there is no other space that is safe and warm and inviting, for queer and trans people in particular, to skate.”

      "As a queer, Indigenous trans woman, [being a builder] means ensuring there’s a safe and inclusive space for people to exist within the skate community,” says Dakota Cootes.
      V. S. Wells

      As one of the Courts’ main builders, Cootes not only creates physical skate features, but also fosters a safe and welcoming environment. She’s concerned that the current plan would displace the largely marginalized community who’ve created a home there.

      “For me personally, as a queer, Indigenous trans woman, [being a builder] means ensuring there’s a safe and inclusive space for people to exist within the skate community,” she says. “Queer people building and maintaining this space gives permission for people who wouldn’t feel safe at a regular skate park to experience skateboarding and community in a way that you can’t anywhere else in the world.”

      According to Cynthia Low, executive director of Britannia Community Services Centre, the Courts have been a skate spot since the ’90s, when students from nearby Streetfront Alternative Program would head out during breaks to skate or play bike polo.

      The Courts’ current iteration is more recent, dating back to around 2017 (and the committee is even more recent than that). Embracing the skateboarders’ creative use of the facilities came naturally to the community centre, though.

      “The mandate for any community centre is to provide recreation services and programs to residents,” Low says. “For us, it was important to support activities [that appeal to] young people from diverse experiences, diverse identities.”

      Annie Danilko, president of the Britannia Community Services Centre board of management, adds that formalizing the skating group helps both the skaters access help, and helps the community centre better understand how to support the sport.

      “One of the things that I thought was really important was to have the skateboard committee, just so we could keep them there and they would be under the Britannia umbrella, and we can have partnership with them,” she says. “I think it really makes a difference, knowing that they are part of the community, rather than just being pushed away as ‘the skateboarders over there.’ ”

      Britannia takes input from all its committees, and from there liaises with the City and Park Board to discuss and implement priorities. Skating is just one of a variety of sports vying for funds; the existing renewal master plan includes a new pool and a new rink. Low notes it’s still an uphill battle to get institutions to understand the importance of skating.

      “People with zero knowledge about what it means to actually skateboard just have this [preconceived] impression,” Low says. “Part of our institutional gap is that skateboarding isn’t well accepted. They don’t teach skateboarding in schools.”

      As winter looms, the Courts become less usable. A permanent, covered space would let skateboarding continue year round; but for now, the end of the season is coming.

      “This space is only usable four to five months of the year,” Tennant says. “You’ll see people coming here, because there’s so much love for this place, with squeegees and brooms and blow-torches to dry it by hand.”