Surfing The City

Fancy a surf at lunchtime? No problem, take a trip to your local surf park

The human race can be pretty ingenious. Leaving aside putting a man on the moon, we’ve put an ice-skating rink in Abu Dhabi, an ice bar in Melbourne, and a five star hotel on what was once water in Singapore. But there are still some things that elude those seeking to re-engineer nature. One of them has been finding “the perfect” mechanical wave. But over recent years, it appears as though technology has finally reached the point where creating artificial surf is actually, really possible.

The commercial viability of artificial surf wave propulsion is less than a year old. The Kelly Slater Wave Company is one of the most prominent examples, having debuted to the world in 2017. Located about 300km from coastline in Lemoore, California, an artificial lake measuring 700m by 150m dubbed “Surf Ranch” is host to the technology. Central to the lake is a jetty, which houses the moorings for a hydrofoil blade running underneath the water to generate waves.

In 2018, this technology has the potential to go mainstream as a sizeable player in pro surfing with the World Surf League incorporating the Ranch into this year’s season. Not surprisingly it has purchased a majority stake in the technology late last year.

Meanwhile a Basque-based engineering firm Wavegarden is also promoting the proliferation of urban surf parks. Unlike the Slater Company’s hydrofoil-blade, the Wavegarden system uses a series of modular units running along a pier to pump energy along the length of a water body. The number of modules determines the length of the wave.

Wavegarden's technology is in operation in two public surf parks in the unlikely twin settings of Wales and Texas. But these look set to be joined by over 20 projects around the globe. Over the next few years Melbourne, Sydney and Perth will have them too, under the auspices of the Urbnsurf group designed by Perth-based architecture firm, MJA Studio.

“For us, park design will revolve around the site’s main focus, that being the creation of waves”, says Matt Middleton, associate at MJA Studio. “In these spaces, we want to design a space that caters for all users who don’t necessarily have to be surfing. That means providing a space where people can enjoy a drink or use the water if they want to, which reminds me of Bondi’s Icebergs pool.”

But the arrival of these parks haven’t come without controversy. In Perth, a local residents group said the site resembled “a sewage treatment plant”, while Melbourne’s park hasn’t been able to confirm a solid finish date due to funding shortfalls. However, the NSW Department of Planning and Environment recently gave the green-light to the Sydney park located in Sydney Olympic Park, citing its “design excellence standards”, such as “sustainable building materials, solar panels, rainwater harvesting, and a green roof”.

“We don’t want it to feel like some cheap theme park,” says Middleton. “For us we need to be thinking about materiality and intent, and how the park integrates itself into the existing parklands and how it will age over time.”

For the moment, approved proposals are simply proposals. However, Sydney surf park claims to be “about three to twelve months away”, as its proprietor solicits funding. Inevitably, MJA’s schematic design will change as the funding envelope itself shifts.

It should be noted however, that Urbnsurf weren’t the first group to propose a surf park for an Australian inner-city. In 2014 architect Damian Rogers, in collaboration with Arup, proposed a surf park (akin to a floating jetty) adjacent to Docklands Central Pier in Melbourne. Speaking around the launch of the proposal, Rogers said a surf park in Docklands could: “redress the imbalance between Melbourne’s famous parks and gardens of old and the newer style of dense urban developments”.

“What’s central to my proposal is that the park is not designed as a theme-park, but rather a place that Melbournians have a sense of ownership over, similar to Streets Beach in Brisbane” says Rogers. “Its central location in the city gives Docklands much-needed public open space, and only a portion of the park will have a cost to enter, for those wanting to use the waves”.

“Docklands has quite a critical mass of built form that can’t accommodate new parks, and with land prices the way they are now, creating public space over bodies of water could be a cost-effective way of delivering public space to citizens,” he says.

Given that inner-urban areas such as Melbourne are suffering from acute public space stresses coupled with unparalleled growth, perhaps the idea of a surf-park might not be that far fetched at all – especially when you consider the evident public health benefits of a sizeable new park in the inner-city.

“Surf parks aren’t some gimmick, and nor are they a theme park. For me, they’re new aquatic centres and parks that could form an essential part of a city’s health and well-being", concluded Rogers.

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