Janne Saario’s life rarely veers from skateboarding. The breezy former pro-skateboarder from Helsinki, 33, has turned a passion for skating into a calling, becoming one of the few landscape architects in the world to have devoted his entire practice to designing skateparks for young people, breaking away from the brutalist stereotypes of harsh concrete slopes and pyramids to create site-specific parks drawing heavily from their natural surroundings.

All are in northern Europe; Micropolis in Helsinki is a more than half-an-acre plot that uses tiny corridors of grass and trees to blend geometric obstacles with the surrounding greenery. In Luleå, Sweden, Saario turned giant ball bearings into boulders, junked steel beams into benches and a 26.5 tonne ladle into the park’s centerpiece— a nod to the town’s steel industry.

It is not money that drove him to design 35 skateparks in the span of a decade, but rather a social desire to turn urban spaces into a place for teenagers to express themselves; especially outsiders who don’t identify with conventional sports. “Young people are our hope and future, and by offering beautiful and meaningful surroundings to grow, like wonderful skateparks, we can make a positive change on their picture of the world and future behavior,” he says.

Portrait of landscape architect, Janne Saario, with his skateboard in Helsinki, Finland. Sept. 2016. (Kimmo Metsaranta for TIME)
Portrait of landscape architect, Janne Saario, with his skateboard in Helsinki, Finland. Sept. 2016.
Kimmo Metsaranta for TIME

Saario learned to skate in two weeks at the age of six on a contraption consisting of plywood and four office wheels. Once his parents brought him a real board, his “mind was blown” by the surreal forms of a local skatepark he began to frequent that was shaped like a giant footprint. He soon gained a reputation for his freestyle tricks in the Finnish capital as a teen and was asked to join the European pro-skateboarding team of Element Skateboards.

While the U.S. company sent the then-18-year-old around the globe, it was the modernist plazas of Barcelona— known as ‘skateboard Mecca’ for their smooth surfaces and architectural details— that made Saario decide to attend a landscape design course in Finland. Around that time he became an apprentice for architects Sami Rintala and Marco Casagrande, famous for their work that blend architecture and environmental art.

With their guidance and the do-it-yourself philosophy of skateboarding culture, Saario opened his studio at the age of 23. He had his first child the same year and his second six years later. The experience of being a father has reinforced his philosophy around design, he says. “Being a parent opens up the eyes towards thinking about the next generations”


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