Skaters in Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by thecourtyard.

Dan Reed writes the popular blog Just Up the Pike, focusing on eastern Montgomery County. He’ll also be contributing articles to Greater Greater Washington to further grow our coverage of this important part of our region. Welcome Dan!

Wednesday’s Kensington Gazette discusses unrest over “K-town”, a makeshift skate spot in a park behind the Housing Opportunities Commission offices on Summit Avenue in Kensington. Four years ago, Kensington skaters made an agreement with neighbors to take care of the space themselves, but a rotating cast of kids has led to a drop in upkeep and unsafe conditions for both skaters and users of the adjacent playground.

This is a literal example of giving kids a stake in the public realm, something I’ve really taken an interest in over the past few months. (I’ve always wanted to be a skater, you see, but I am deathly afraid of putting my feet on anything that moves by itself.) The K-town skaters ‘own’ this space, much in the way that young people lay claim to any space. The former artificial green in Silver Spring lovingly called “the Turf” is the best example, but it was clear that Montgomery County was responsible for maintaining the Turf.

In the coming years, Montgomery County will face an increasing demand for these public or semi-public urban spaces that people of all ages can use to hang out, engage in recreational activities, and hold concerts, festivals and parties. This already happens with skaters, who make a hobby out of repurposing the rooms and furniture of the city. With today’s budget crisis, it’s feasible to imagine a whole network of these informal public-private partnerships on underutilized government properties throughout Montgomery County and the region as a whole.

But where K-town fails is through an unclear delineation of responsibility. The neighborhood and the County gave the space to the skaters to maintain, but didn’t install a framework to keep it maintained. Nobody was put in charge. It’s a tenant-landlord relationship: a tenant makes a contract with the landlord to take care of the space given to them. In this case, neither the tenant or the landlord was clear. No one was held accountable and there’s no one to be held accountable to.

Accountability has also been a major concern in Downtown Silver Spring since the redeveloped area opened a few years ago. As people flood the once-empty streets of our business district, local residents have asked if the patrons are held accountable for their own [bad] behavior. Was the County or developer The Peterson Companies accountable for maintaining the semi-public street Ellsworth Drive? Who should be held accountable for the fights and arrests that erupted after a “Stop the Violence” concert in Downtown two weeks ago?

Providing spaces for people to go is just the start. We also have to make clear who’s in charge and what the rules are. There’s no reason why a County office building, a skate spot and a neighborhood park can’t coexist — but the boundaries of use and responsibility need to be clear.

Crossposted at Just Up The Pike.