“Parkour offers a way to actively engage in the city physically, emotionally and socially”

Mohamed Eid Abed al-Hawwari, a Libyan man from Benghazi, practices his Parkour in May 2015, at the archaeological site of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene. Image: Getty.

Parkour, as we know it today, stems from the activities of nine young Parisian men. The Yamakasi group, as they were known, trained together in what they called “l'art du placement”: a spectacular, regimented and controlled way of moving.

But that was at the turn of the 21st century. Now, parkour is a global phenomenon, with traceurs – those who practice parkour – running, jumping, climbing and rolling their way through cities around the world, and in places such as Gaza.

Appearances in Hollywood films and TV documentaries have boosted the profile of parkour, impressed millions with its grace and dynamism and given rise to a global movement of like-minded people, all wanting to learn how to move in these incredible ways.

Awesome. Image: Charlie Scott/creative commons.

Today, parkour is a recognised sport, with many institutions offering training camps and regular courses – some have even built specially-designed parkour “parks”. In just over a decade, it has gone from a niche activity – which many city officials regarded as anti-social – to an internationally recognised (not to mention, highly lucrative) sport.

Playful politics

Of course, parkour has always contained a political element. Like other “anti-social” urban activities which have been widely adopted across the globe, such as skateboarding and graffiti, parkour can still offer traceurs a sense of rebellion against “the establishment”. Indeed, some city authorities still seek to prosecute traceurs, while action-packed blockbuster films play up parkour’s more subversive side.

But in fact, the people who practice parkour are engaging in urban politics in a very playful way. This sport actively encourages people to see the city as a playground. Traceurs will often talk of having “parkour eyes”, which allow them to see the city as a child would: as a playground to explore rather than a system of containment.

Jumping over bollards, climbing up walls or rolling over concrete roofs; these spectacular movements show what the human body is capable of – but they also highlight how the city can be navigated in very different ways. In early films and videos, traceurs' spectacular physical movements are deliberately contrasted with parts of the city which are static, fixed and enclosed.

The freedom to move that parkour enables was, and still is, a fundamental part of its philosophy. It’s also what makes parkour inherently political. Moving across the city in ways that it wasn’t designed for is a liberating experience.

Parkour is very much a reaction to the increased restriction of movement in modern cities: it allows traceurs to rediscover their cities in an entirely new way, while also traversing architectural restrictions such as walls, fences and stair wells.

The politics of parkour are perhaps “softer” than other subcultures, such as skateboarding or graffiti, which have more subversive histories. In fact, there are plenty of comparisons to be drawn between parkour and martial art philosophies; particularly when it comes to practitioners' dedication to training the body and the mind.

But for all this, parkour is no less politically potent: it offers a way to highlight the city’s systems of control, by creatively navigating the urban environment.

A social network

What’s more, parkour is an inherently social activity. While most of the videos and images of parkour focus on individuals, traceurs actually train and practice together in groups. This social aspect is an important check on the temptation for self-promotion. They may gather in sanctioned parks (which often charge an entry fee), or more regularly in “hot spots”: urban spaces which inadvertently provide the perfect architecture.

Team sport. Image: AgenciaAndes/creative commons.

One such place was the Vauxhall Walls in London, which was a concrete garden for a nearby tower block. Despite residents continually asking traceurs to leave, the spot became one of London’s prime parkour locations. But in 2016, the site was “beautified” with landscape gardens and water features, and it is no longer suitable for practising parkour. This process feeds into other urban issues, such as gentrification – something London’s Southbank skateboarders have also had to contend with.

The social aspect of parkour extends beyond training, too. As well as scoping out sites and developing new moves, traceurs often film videos of each other that are posted online. The virtual community of parkour is hugely important. It enables the sport to spread to new locations, by allowing people to watch videos of traceurs from the other side of the world, connect with them and adopt or adapt their moves.

Freedom from oppression

Parkour gives people the chance to express a freedom of movement that pays little attention to the instructions of the city. It’s a highly social activity, which brings like-minded traceurs together and gives them a chance to be physically, but also politically active in their cities.

This is perhaps why it is flourishing in areas of the world that are under extreme social or political pressure. For example, there is a thriving parkour group among the disenfranchised youth of Gaza. And in Iran, where women’s rights are often oppressed, parkour is gaining huge popularity among female participants.

Parkour offers a way to actively engage in the city physically, emotionally and socially. It requires nothing more than a pair of hands, an able body (which of course, makes it inaccessible to some) and a willingness to explore the city beyond the one your told to behave in. Parkour is an inherently political practice.The Conversation

Oli Mould is a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.