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The urban politics of parkour: how traceurs use sport to rediscover the city

The urban politics of parkour: how traceurs use sport to rediscover the city

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. Charlie Scott, CC BY-NC-ND

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. AgenciaAndes, CC BY-SA

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.