“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.



CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.