Keep Off the Grass:
Parkour and Resistance in Public Space
As parkour becomes more and more accepted as a sport – and inherits all the competitive edge that comes with that classification – Christo Hall examines its revolutionary beginnings, and how attempting to subvert the intention of a public space shows us that cities aren't as flexible as we suspect them to be.
PHOTOS – Stuart Leech
In January this year, the UK government became the first government worldwide to officially recognise parkour as a sport, which is an achievement for a practice that for its thirty-year lifespan has been marginalised, even criminalised.
Parkour, when practised with energy and speed, is mesmerising. Traceurs – practitioners of parkour – glide over surfaces and land jumps with flawless precision. While a complete beginner could learn the basics within one session, progression requires strength, balance, coordination, creativity and, in many cases, fearlessness.
Parkour’s ‘sportification’ is part of a broader professionalisation of the practice, which for purist traceurs is a point of contention. Despite the growth the sport has seen, purists believe that the splintering of parkour into its exhibitionist cousin, freerunning, in the early 2000s, and the introduction of competitions that came with it have chipped away at its original values. By contrast, it was the freedom of play and learning that were central elements of parkour at its development in the 1980s from the streets of Lisses and Évry on Paris’s southern edges. A group of teenagers, notably David Belle and Sébastien Foucan, experimented with a military training technique that used natural objects, trees and rocks in spontaneous ways. They adapted this natural method to the surfaces, walls and rails that surrounded them in the largely mid-century modernist-designed architecture of their neighbourhoods.
Belle and Foucan’s desire to play was liberating, and it contrasted with the sense of exclusion that life in a Parisian banlieue entailed. Banlieue translates as ‘suburb’, but routinely in reference to areas like Évry it describes the socially-disenfranchised identity of its largely immigrant population, who have lived unintegrated on Paris’s edges. In Paris where zonal planning systems and much of the sterilised aesthetic of post-war design scream of geographical captivity, and in Évry in particular which was a ‘new town’ of the 1960s (you could call it the ideological twin of Milton Keynes), these original traceurs dreamt up a negotiation with urban space that emancipated them from its designed confines. Their movement sought to find a way out of the physical problem that lay in front of them. It was a metaphorical escape from the conventions, the politics and rules of a city.
Today, Lisses and Évry are sites of pilgrimage for traceurs from around the world, and I was inspired to visit a few weeks ago to understand better the environment parkour materialised from. I’ve practised parkour irregularly for the last few years as a training aid for rock climbing, and to understand London and cities from an alternative perspective. The act of doing parkour itself, while feeling unconventional, isn’t overtly rebellious. To do it recreationally is an act of desire and a will to be connected to oneself, other people and the environment – a feeling that I can only associate with playing as a child. Just like a child, I’ve split many a shin open, bruised knees, and shredded the skin on the palms of my hands – often happily because it was on the bush-hammered walls of Ernő Goldfinger’s Brutalist masterpiece, the Balfron Tower.
All that said, if we are to call parkour radical it isn’t because of its inherent risks or the potential of trespass, but because it subverts how people ought to experience the city. Cities can be designed with multiple actors involved, but rarely are they inclusive of all walks of life. So in scaling the outside of the walls rather than trudging the stairwells, a traceur may change not only their perception of the building, by viewing and touching elements that haven't been touched before, but he or she may change the object of the building itself – it no longer has a single function and can no longer be seen only from the perspective that was originally intended.
By engaging in how our environment can be viewed and navigated in different contexts we learn something new about it, perhaps something troubling. Traceurs view the environment as a playground, which is a perspective that pays little attention to the context originally laid down by its planners, or even whether objects and buildings are private or public. For a traceur the objects of the built environment are simply things in space to be traversed, vaulted and overcome, and this is the subtle politics of parkour – a vision of urban space subject to a continuous process of decontextualisation. It questions and is alert to the democratic uses of space. This has been excellently expressed by The Guardian in their investigation into pseudo-public space, which will hopefully encourage debate about the best way to protest that reality.
Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), the same protection orders that Will Self and comedian Mark Thomas protested through wilful trespassing of pseudo-public space outside London’s City Hall in 2016, have been used against parkour in the UK. In Horsham, West Sussex, the council set an order in motion to ban parkour from public space, identifying it as anti-social behaviour. It’s a motion that resonates with its detractors, who believe that parkour is dangerous, both for the traceur and to the public, risking damage to public and private property in the process. Trespassing on private space is also a problem. Many traceurs will trespass, knowingly or not, but it’s an act that the organised parkour community doesn’t encourage as it interferes with relationships with the police, which have been carefully cultivated through years of dialogue.
While views will always differ, the drafting of PSPOs to actualise opinions have enforced arbitrary responses on non-criminal behaviour, including bans that target play – whether it’s gathering in groups, or the misuse of skateboards and BMX bikes without the explicit articulation of what ‘misuse’ might mean. And arguably the publicisation of control measures such as PSPOs do as much to restrict public behaviour as the fines do themselves. They are in essence warnings that in a particular geographic location, a perceived threat from a specific behaviour is expected and will not be tolerated. Such specific geographic responses to behaviour remind me of the Zones Urbaines Sensibles (ZUS), Sensitive Urban Zones, that mark the areas of France that are considered by the authorities to be regions of concern – sensitive because of crime rates, unemployment and state-dependency. There are 750 such zones, many in banlieues, including two within Évry.
I wandered around Les Pyramides, one of the two ZUSs within Évry, when I visited the area a few weeks ago. The signs of deprivation revealed themselves in the piecemeal demolition and redevelopment of tower blocks – an attempt to destroy the stigma of HLM (Habitations à Loyer Modéré, or social housing) by having less of them. Its neighbouring Lisses, across the motorway, has suffered less but it too hasn’t escaped behaviour-shaping policies. Here is where the Dame du Lac defiantly stands, a 17-metre magnificently abstract concrete climbing structure that represents hope and joy: not as a solution to an unsettled neighbourhood, but as something illicit. David Belle and Sébastien Foucan began using the structure for parkour in the 80s, but climbing and parkour has since been prohibited following the deaths of two climbers in the early 2000s. While the risks are obvious, the ‘no climbing’ signs subject experienced traceurs, with knowledge of themselves and their limits, to a blanket ban.
Societies’ responses to parkour in public space all differ. A traceur I spoke with recently told me that the UK and the US were practically tame in comparison to when he visited Japan, where he was aggressively removed from the site by police – an encounter that can end in detainment. Traceurs will regularly cooperate with police to create a positive relationship, but these forms of obstruction and discipline, like PSPOs, restrict what is non-criminal behaviour. The types of control we see administered are approximate to what Michel Foucault describes in his essay, Panopticism. In it he advances the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea for a prison design that situates a single observation tower encircled by cells, all visible to a prison officer. Bentham suggested that as long as the officer is invisible to the prisoners the officer need not be present – the mere possibility of the officer’s presence is adequate to enact control.
The enforcement of PSPOs, non-negotiable designs such as anti-homeless spikes and pig ears to prevent skateboarding, and putting up no parkour signs build on this legacy, that state observation and the control of bodies in space make us predictable. For Foucault, “discipline fixes; it arrests or regulates movements; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways; it establishes calculated distributions.” Considering the city’s zonal and exclusive planning, its non-negotiable designs and its watchful eyes of CCTV, we are left with a bleak picture of a citizen, prevented from freely roaming the city by its explicit and implicit rules and conventions. This strikes me as a Ballardian view of the city, one that has a hierarchical order replete with architectures of control. In novels such as Concrete Island and High Rise, and to its greatest extent in Super-Cannes, Ballard explicitly describes the city and its architecture as a sovereign force over its citizens, that “moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems.”
It’s not just fictional societies that give this anti-nomadic impression either. Many iconic buildings and neighbourhoods are designed as if having everything a person needs under one roof is an attainable utopia. Buildings like The Shard with its 13 residential floors, offices, restaurants, gyms, health clinic and, aptly, its observation deck. The choice of urban explorer, Bradley Garrett, to scale and ‘place hack’ The Shard in 2012 before its completion was an effort to explore the city from an alternative viewpoint, but also to gain access to a space that was and still is considered off-limits unless privilege or authority allows it. These are radical examples, but we see others that point towards a city as an anti-nomadic conception of place. Cities strive to be places that satisfy all, so much so that you’ll never want to leave. Its manifestation is the shopping mall, or the mixed-use development which proclaims an ‘eat, shop, live and work’ itinerary suggesting no reason to go elsewhere.
Solutions to an inherent anti-nomadism in cities are in short supply. The Japanese Metabolist movement intriguingly offered their vision of capsule living where architecture such as Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower is structured in such a way that the owner of a capsule had the freedom to detach it from the building and attach it somewhere else. It continued the ritual of traveller communities and envisaged a city that was constantly in flux, changing to the practical needs of individuals. But in reality the radicalism of the idea outweighed its practicality and it struggled to catch on, with many of the capsules now abandoned and decaying.
In practising parkour a similar state of flux exists, a state that continually redefines the meaning of the space used. It’s a type of nomadism that breaks free of top-down constitutions of space and design, and is closely related to the nomadism proposed by the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze, in the shadow of the 1968 riots and protests in France, conceptualised an anarchic society that would be plural, divergent and somewhat chaotic. His nomad citizen was stateless with no fixed place or fixed identity, and his version of urban space was non-hierarchical. The metaphor that Deleuze uses to explain the dichotomy of state practices and nomadic practices was to relate the board games of chess and Go. The pieces of chess and their legal moves are highly structured with formalised hierarchical identities, whereas in Go the movement is unpredictable and non-hierarchical. Deleuze was keen to see an adoption of Go techniques of resistance, to question the territories imposed upon us, an idea that we saw explicitly utilised in the Occupy movement.
While parkour has the potential to reassess our relationship with public space, it’s clear that parkour, both as a sport and as an organised entity, has distanced itself from its most radical participants. Instead, it emphasises structured training and self-improvement: a shift that has proven to have mass appeal. Now, few take on the practice with an intention to reform public space or imagine a stateless society. And neither should we expect them too. All activities must move on, and while parkour’s multiple identities create internal friction, the coexistence of mind-body practice with competition isn’t unreasonable.
That said, there is something inherent in the unmapped and unpredictable manner of parkour that can at least teach us to be aware of the pervasive surveillance and cultural control in our cities, helping us break from passivity in our use of public space. Conforming to the movements that others dictate is a mindlessness that renounces your freedom to adapt the city to your desires. Each building and space offers an instruction in how to act, but the lesson from parkour is that their futures are not yet written.
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