Playful urban politics: the city as playground

03 August 2016
 

Parkour is a training discipline using movement that developed from military obstacle course training. Practitioners aim to get from one point to another in a complex environment, and is usually, but not exclusively, carried out in urban spaces. Parkour involves seeing one's environment in a new way, and imagining the potential for navigating it by movement around, across, through, over and under its features.

Writing for The Conversation, Oli Mould, Lecturer in Human Geography, Royal Holloway, says that 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.

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.

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…

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