- Last Updated: Monday, 01 May 2017 09:11
- Published: Sunday, 03 May 2015 07:42
- Written by Janos Szakolczai
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Once the square was the vital organ of the City, its very essence and core for the harmony and interaction between citizens. However, in the modern city, the square has been taken over by the consumerist influence of the market, transforming its core into a place no longer dedicated to the exchange of ideas and ideals, but of consumer goods. Shops, entertainments, transports work tirelessly - bright, active, welcoming and un-resting - offering citizens and visitors the uninterrupted fulfilment of wishes and desires, with an overwhelming assault of surprises, shocks, sales, offers, emotions. Thus metropolitan reality, more progressive than ever, was morphed into a cold, hyper-individualistic, profoundly blasé attitude, where all social interactions and relationships are reduced to simple monetary exchanges. Urban spaces turn into simple areas of passage, resulting in a deep de-individuation and alienation from the surrounding privatized and highly-monitored environment, one that is filled with prohibitory signs and regulations, to which no-one relates to nor feels respect, and one that, without continuous monitoring, turns inevitably to decay and deterioration. Nonetheless there are alternatives: contexts where the energy and dynamism of the citizens is not wasted in consumption but creates instead an environment of interaction, frequency of the square, participative congregation, and an active, natural monitoring and care of common environmental spaces, beyond the commonplace of bivouac and degradation. One of these alternatives is represented by the practice of Parkour.
We created cities to celebrate what we have in common.
Now they are designed to keep us apart.
The discipline of movement
Born at the end of the 1990s in the districts of Paris, France, this ludic activity, Parkour, has developed not only as a sport, but also an actual philosophy and way of life, aimed at training the body but also the mind of its practitioners, known as traceurs. Parkour defines itself as an extreme yet perfectly controllable activity, halfway between dance and acrobatics that re-describes the structure of streets and squares, with an explicit desire of contesting the established urban order. With the simple use of bare hands and feet, the traceurs deny prospective structures to streets and squares, replacing linear trajectories to overlapping and intersecting directions, drawing almost inextricable tangles in the urban atmosphere.
Through these actual aerial “drawings”, constituted by runs, jumps and dangerous junctures, precarious and instant landings on railings, ramps and roofs, the rationality – often authoritarian and repetitive – of the modern architectural and urban space is transformed into an unpredictable playground where everything is an obstacle, every place a challenge.
Indeed, the practice of Parkour is mixture of various arts of movement and philosophies of the body that focus around a main point: the maximizing of the body’s capabilities in order to free and enhance the mind. These concepts were interpreted and developed at the end of the 1980s by two kids from the suburbs of Paris as the inspiring basis of a new, universal and revolutionary form of living the city and of enhancing one’s body-mind functions. The two kids, with quite problematic backgrounds, were David Belle and Yann Hnautra, who with other seven childhood friends formed a group known as the ‘Yamakasi’, that in Lingala language means ‘Strong man, strong spirit’.
It is with this outline, drawn from physicality and functionality, that the Yamakasi would develop their skills and, within two decades, become a global movement. Beginning with what they called ‘big jumps’, they defined and perfected a fundamental set of movements and techniques such as vaults, pirouettes, landings, climbs, and rolls; the principles of their art du déplacement, the art of movement.
During these years, Parkour literately leaped into the spotlight of mainstream media attention, generating – together with a subcultural enthusiasm – a great amount of misinformation and a negative connotation, up to the point of the very nature of the discipline being considered as deviant.
‘Criminal’ labelling and danger depiction
The perception of risk involved in the activity of Parkour derives from misinformation: instead, the art du déplacement promotes a slow-paced repetition of manoeuvrings, the need of gaining confidence and perfection with all movements and techniques. Parkour is firstly a new lifestyle and sporting activity that needs time to be understood, tolerated, even appreciated. Though ‘Parkour participants vociferously reject the extreme- or high-risk label’ (Gilchrist and Wheaton, 2011: 113), it is true that, seen from outside, especially by the elderly, the practice of Parkour may seem a transgressive interaction or use of urban space, a potential trespassing of private property, a challenge to authority and social norms, as well as a dangerous, unsafe and unmonitored activity.
The high popularity and diffusion of online tutorials created the condition for immature and unprepared copycats of experts stunts, so called ‘thrill seekers’ and ‘exhibitionists’ that indeed are involved in activities that – though resembling the art of Parkour – are nonetheless quite different and even contrary to its original principles. There have indeed been episodes of deadly accidents while chancing jumps between rooftops (Murphy-BBC News 2006, Pravda 2012), of viral videos of teenagers stunting within graveyards (Gammel-Telegraph 2006), and of criminal damages while training (BBC News, 2008); just to mention a few.
These reports that make the news resonate with Keith Haywards’ concept of ‘pleasure of transgression’, where denizens of the consumer cities supposedly hunt for more forms of pleasure and the lack of stable values leads to an actual ‘search’ for transgression and deviance, to fulfil one’s desires and overcome socio-economical constraints to the point of 'breaking free from the constraints imposed by rationality and authority (Hayward 2002: 10). They also connect to the search for thrills and the status symbol of deviance. Nonetheless, these concepts drastically differ from Parkour’s original philosophy and its stress on safety and responsibility.
Beyond the incorrect use of its skills, Parkour is, for the time being, inevitably a centre of discussion and controversy due to the unrestrained and free nature of its undefined and universal training spaces. Indeed, because of its very nature, this practice is contrary to all forms of categorization or specific training parks. On the contrary, the very philosophy of the art du déplacement finds inspiration and even greater commitment with the thrill of overcoming structural and urban obstacles. In simple words, the less an environment is (apparently) designed for training and exercise, the more it is actually competitive and appealing for the traceurs. This inevitably creates tension within the un-notified and unprepared residents, who are not used to seeing traceurs, nor their training.
“There is this old man”, says Luca, a Florentine traceur of 17: “… that every time we trained he would shout from his windows stuff, like we were staining the walls and stuff. That we were breaking the benches and all. It creates tension you know, ‘cause he even pissed off other neighbours doing so. Once he even came down with a frying pan in his hand … And it’s us 'supposed' to be the 'criminals'! Now he has calmed down … but still!”
Prejudged reports of damage to property and antisocial behaviour, with the eventual intervention of the police force create the inevitable tension and stigma for and towards the traceurs, who often find their training interrupted, and even the occasional request to leave and ‘move on’: “Once we were training on the rooftop of that building there [part of a supermarket fabric], and after an hour, when we almost finished training, we were surrounded by four officers, two on each exit of the square”, says Marco, aged 22, who trains in the same square as Luca: “It was a Sunday, probably they had nothing to do, I don’t know. I guess they thought that when we’d see them we’d run away or something, instead we kept on training. So they came over and said: ‘Come on, admit it was you [training on the roof]’. And we: ‘Yep, that was us.’ This guy remained silent; they just stood there, saying nothing. So I said: ‘If you’re through, we have stuff to finish here.’ This guy stayed there for another while, we began to jump again and that was it.”
Finally, the practice of Parkour must face the contrast with the nature of the consumerist environment and the commercial connotation of the urban space. Indeed the art du déplacement reclaims a right to use and live the city beyond property limits and the private licensing of public places. One of the main hostility towards the practice is that possible customers may be “frightened away from businesses where the kids were practising nearby … with 14 to 18 year old kids jumping around become molesting and tend to lead people to avoid the area.” (Matthew Board, Step to interview, published on YouTube, 23 August 2012). While tension between the two is inevitable, this is true only as long as the use of public space, and the definition of their purpose, is not redesigned and re-qualified with regards to its true and necessary social potential.
Respect of the Body-Environment
As I myself have noticed, during the three training sessions that I attended with Parkour Firenze in Piazza Alberti, the practice requires security and safety measures in even the slightest action: without a perfect mastery of a determinate technique one may not advance nor be thought new skills. This concern is crucial in the development and managing of risks and in testing one’s limits. Indeed, as Parkour consists in developing an ideal ‘track’ that from point A leads to B in the most “fluid, efficient way” (Gilchrist and Wheaton, 2011: 112), the discipline does not accept risk-taking. Injuries are, except for rare and unforeseeable cases, the results of being unprepared and/or careless. Bruises are the physical proof that you were doing something wrong.
As traceur Dan Jones states: “One of the most striking differences between Parkour and other extreme sports is that it’s not just about physical skills, but also the improvement of mental and spiritual well-being. Ensuring that physical progress is not at the expense of mental progress is one of the main aims of a good traceur” (cited in Edwards, 2010).
For this reason, Parkour promotes a quite different concept to risk, based on the element of challenge, or better self-challenged, that creates a condition of “personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and entrepreneurs[hip]” (Gilchrist & Wheaton, 2011: 125). The practice does not foster adrenaline-filled activities; instead, quite on the contrary, it promotes exercise as a mode to “overcome limitation and the restrains of fear and inhibition” (ibid).
“Before coming here,” said Silvia, 21 years old, “I had done a few … foolish things. Being a mess, like, you know … I was always out partying … I gave up studying, worked here and there … it was a mess with the family and all. Like, I used to party a lot. Go to raves and stuff … it just was not right. Then I started dating this guy who introduced me to Parkour. He told me to come train with him once, I said “why not!” And it was incredible … I mean … I didn’t miss a training session since … and I stopped fooling around. I did!” (she laughs).
In the same manner Tommaso, 17, admitted: “I used to smoke a lot before, cannette (colloquial for ‘joints’ ); nothing serious, but it did cause quite some trouble at home and at school … I mean with concentration and money, things like than, like it happens to everyone … but then with Parkour I just didn’t want to be high any more … I mean, I wanted to be concentrated, all the time. Parkour needs your mind to work, to be lucid, and I wanted my mind to work, be active … be awake. … It changed me, I stopped seeing those guys. We are simply thinking in a different way now … I became addicted to something else! (he laughs) The guys just spend time smoking and hanging around and doing nothing … but not me … I want to do. Do stuff!”
These testimonies are not extraordinary cases: the relationship between the improvement of behaviour, reduction of drug misuse and the increase of physical activity and the practice of Parkour has been a focal point of the UK sport-based project Positive Futures (2007), aimed at improving health, crime, employment and education performance in targeted British communities, where now the discipline is regularly taught.
In Parkour there is no competition: satisfaction is only a personal, individual and internal achievement. In my experience during training sessions no exercise was compulsory, yet everybody gave at least a try, and indeed completed all tasks and exercises with no-one left behind. Not for a sense of challenge, but of solidarity. Knowledge is taught to each other, without making comparisons: achievements are immediately noticed with the clapping of hands; failures are only blamed on lack of concentration.
“Though I was a woman and was not sure Parkour suited me … the first thing that I really loved and hit me was the way I was wonderfully welcomed by everyone”, says Laura, 25: “this spirit of team … I mean being part of a group, denying competition … if one is better than the other, we help each other to unlock yourself, gain confidence …”.
Respect of the body and the surrounding environment are indeed the priority of each training session. Confidence on what, who and where are stressed on at every moment by all practitioners: indeed, traceurs sense that the surrounding space is “like an extension of the body”, says Francesco, one of the founders of Parkour Firenze: “and just like the body, if we don’t take care of it, it will eventually hurt us”. Members of Parkour Firenze indeed found themselves in many occasion cleaning up squares after the presence of less respectful teenage groups, as in Piazza Alberti. Sometimes they even called the police to report anti-social actions.
“In Piazza Alberti I repaired at the expense of the Association the glass bars, I took the screws out, applied the glue, put the screws back”, tells Paolo Serlupi, one of the leaders of Parkour Firenze: “It's what I've told in several occasions to the police as well. We don’t break the glasses: we repair them. We love this place. Until this place is in order I can train here, but if I break it I can’t train any more. If we’d come here, all this time, just to break stuff, it just wouldn’t make any sense. I need structures that are safe, that I can train in. Then, of course everything is worn down by consumption, this is inevitable. If you make a bar, this will sooner or later fall off, sooner of later it will rust. This is normal. And sometimes places that are most worn off are the better. They make a greater challenge.”
Paolo concludes: “Laurent [Piemontesi, an internationally acclaimed Parkour master: JS] once wrote on Facebook that often we transform a trash bin into a piece of art. This is absolutely true. A bin that has been bent or something for us can become inspiration for a series of movement, and thus it is often a revaluation of spaces, not the contrary.”
Training the city
In practising Parkour, one is not limited to one’s city of residence or favourite training spot: indeed, numerous training camps and workshops are organized all over the world, in which anyone can participate, sharing techniques and ideas. These camps may last up to entire weeks, and are usually organized with the original members of the Yamakasi, allowing the connection of new and traditional philosophies of the discipline to converse in a continuous flow of experience. Indeed, beyond the tearing down of the architectural barriers of urban structures (and at the same time taking care of them) Parkour is also free from all the economic barriers characterizing traditional sports. Indeed, while such activities are limited and distinguished by equipment costs, the luxuries of clubs, the social context of the activity itself, and even participation fees, in the practice of Parkour all expenses are unnecessary and limited to the minimum possible. The training takes place within the public, usually in the proximity of the participants’ home (thus there is no need of structures for taking showers or change, or even to use the bathroom); and there is no need of equipment, besides a pair of training shoes and shorts.
There is no cost of participation, except for certain sport insurances, required in certain associations, or exceptional non-profit training fees, such as in Parkour Firenze.
The Florentine association also exceptionally provides a specific, and fancy, t-shirt; compulsory during training session, but at the same time greatly appreciated by the members and element of pride:
“We use it to show that we are not some kind of vandals, we are part of an association, a respected and recognized one. It gives us a sense of professionalism and respect. By wearing it you can train anywhere in the city and prove that you have a right to be there. At least on paper.” states Luca: “I like wearing it. Some of the guys wear it even when they hang out … to distinguish themselves, show that they are ‘cool’ and stuff … but I like to keep only for trainings. I like to keep it like that. [...] Unique, you know. It feels like special.”
The elements of pride can be seen also by the specific ‘greeting’ that traceurs have with each other, that consists in jointly shaking each other’s right elbow. All these elements constitute a source of pride and a sense of being identified and recognized as part of a specific, positive group. “Traceurs need to ‘take back’ local city space for their own purposes and use their ‘natural environment’ to meet their own physical, emotional and psychological needs” (Atkinson and Young, 2008: 59). They indeed represent an active resistance to capitalistic pressures, perfecting the self by promoting self-discipline and physical awareness, and also cultivating confidence and self-assurance. There is no sense of deviance between them or for them, no liminal behaviour: the traceurs sense that they are doing the right thing and want to be respected for that. They want people to join, change, and evolve: together and fully. They want the city to change and become something that can reunite everyone in activity, game, an Opus of dynamism and gathering; relieving from lethargy, physical authority, hyper-individualism and consumption.
Laura concludes: “[with parkour] everything that surrounds me has become a route, a game. Everything becomes an obstacle that you can overcome and a fear to conquer … this is the beauty of it: you rediscover yourself in a way you’ve forgotten. You return in many ways into a child just having fun…”.
‘ If you can’t beat them, join them?’ questions Thomas Raymen in his recent article (October, 2014): indeed, the very practice of Parkour proves advantageous to the police force, the fire service, and most modes of crime prevention. After all, little more than a hundred years ago the culture of scouting began, which in many ways was a precursor of the Parkour ideals: the education of youngsters towards a civic awareness with the development of individual attitudes: physical, moral, social and spiritual. Its educative imperative is based on Learning by Doing, with outdoor activities and small groups (Dell’Oglio, 2010: 17). The ideals of this movement, that counts today approimately. 40 million members (based on International Scouting Association, 2010) were the one of creating ‘good citizens’, and its ideals have remained unchanged and still today deeply real. They have been re-proposed and redesigned in a new, faster, energetic and most of all urban movement. In a modern world where everything changes and is changed, only a few things are truly constant: the striving of humanity for finding harmony and stability, overcoming one’s fears and living one’s life in peace.
Maybe Parkour, with its criminal depiction in opposition to its true values can teach us so. Maybe it already did so for me. Maybe we need only more time to collect and assimilate this giant bubble of information and changes that the world has become. As Paolo Serlupi stated:
“With time people will learn what Parkour really is … it’s like my grandfather ten years ago did not get at all ‘jogging’, he was like: ‘What the hell are these guy doing running on the roads?! These are nuts!’, and now ten years later jogging and running is one of the most normal things to do. But he truly did not get it. Ten years ago there were not all these people running around … they called it ‘footing’ (same in Italian) ‘cause it came from the US … the same way we [traceurs] need time … let time take its time.”
A city must not produce endless leisure: it must create a community. It must not only produce goods; it must create, inspire, offer. A non-frequented street is a dangerous one; in the same way a street dedicated solely for the consumption role is a street without identity. We need a new form of interaction in our cities, to fully embrace its novelties and its members, thus creating truly an integration and common respect, both of its spaces and its residents.
We need time to see, learn, change... create new spaces and dynamic interpretations of our surrounding streets, squares, buildings, parking and create a context of inclusion and participation, create dynamism between the surrounding urban area and the new and traditional residents. Build relationships within the old and the new, experiment with the modern choices of the city life, of cultural representation. Allow the urban landscape to be fully lived, fully enjoyed, together with friends and kins, together with memories and passion, in the perfect harmony of social integration, the sharing of ideas and cohabitation that is the basis of the city's very existence.
[Note. The interviews, carried out in Firenze during 2014, are entirely anonymous, with exception of Paolo Serlupi who willingly accepted to be named.]
Atkinson, Y., (2008) Deviance and Social Control in Sport, Human Kinetics.
Dell’Oglio, G., Flammam A., (2010) Breve storia dello scautismo in Italia, Milan, Lampi di stampa (collana TuttiAutori), p. 17.
Gilchrist, P. & Wheaton, B., (March 2011) Lifestyle sport, public policy and youth engagement: examining the emergence of Parkour, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, Vol. 3, No. 1, 109-31.
Hayward, K., (2004) City Limits: Crime Consumerism and Urban Experience, London: Taylor & Francis.
Hayward, K., (2002) 'The vilification and pleasures of youthful transgression', In: Youth Justice: Critical Readings, ed. Muncie, J. Hughes, G., and McLaughlin, E., Sage, London.
Rogers, R., (1997) Cities for a Small Planet. London: Faber and Faber.
- BBC News, 31.01.2008 Rooftop-jumping youths arrested: http://goo.gl/Muo00P
- Edwardes, Dan, 15.11.2010 Parkour History: http://goo.gl/cJTbkz
- Gammel, Caroline. The Telegraph, 05.06.2008 Gravestone vaulting teenagers condemned over YouTube stunt: http://goo.gl/lXwrsC
- Murphy, Zoe. BBC News 22.06. 2006 Parkour craze reaches new heights:http://goo.gl/ZC5sML
- YouTube: “Step To” Dispute Resolution in Action, loaded 2012: http://goo.gl/RvHTRp
- Pravda.ru, Fan of parkour tragically dies during first lesson 30.05.2012: http://goo.gl/01Zv2K
- Raymen, T. If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ‘em? Parkour as Situational Crime Prevention. 20.10. 2014 http://goo.gl/mLt7kl
Janos Mark Szakolczai is a UCC MA Criminology and BA in Sociology and Philosophy. He is currently living in Mexico City preparing the field work for his PhD. His research interests concentrate on cultural criminology, in particular deviance and urban decay within youth culture, the emergence of new forms of social gathering and identity building.