Concrete jungle gym

Ben Kirwin on parkour’s transformation of urban spaces

Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is generally considered a disaster of urban planning. Since construction started in 1973, the stadium has cost taxpayers over a billion dollars, the roof has never worked correctly, and it hasn’t even been used regularly as a stadium since 2004. Most of the time the grounds sit virtually abandoned. On Saturday mornings, however, people start to appear – people climbing walls, jumping railings, and sprinting across concrete. The stadium has become a home for the fledgling sport of parkour.

I imagine most people have been introduced to parkour in one way or another, whether it’s from watching Sebastien Foucan barrel through a construction site in the recent James Bond film Casino Royale or Dwight donkey-kicking the door of the ladies washroom on The Office. Some of these representations qualify as parkour and some do not, but the sport is obviously more complicated than it appears on television. For readers unfamiliar with the sport, parkour is the art of moving from one place to another as quickly and efficiently as possible, while using no equipment (besides maybe a good pair of shoes). For many people, parkour is more than just a spectacle or a sport – it’s a way of interpreting and reacting to the world and particularly the urban forms that surround them. This unique perspective can be traced back more than a hundred years.

The story of parkour starts with the development of the “Natural Method” by Georges Hébert. While serving as a French naval officer in Africa, Hébert was struck by the athleticism of the people there. He began to develop a system of physical training based around “natural” movements: running, climbing, jumping, swimming, wrestling. Hebert’s novel method of physical education quickly gained in popularity. The method even became the standard physical training for the French military.

Decades later, teenagers in a Paris suburb, inspired by Hébert’s method, began to further experiment with his ideas of movement. They stripped Hébert’s theory of movement down to a single concept – the foundations of modern parkour – and started developing the techniques that give the sport its unique visual style. As in martial arts, however, these techniques were not designed for visual appeal. Rather, they were designed as fast and practical ways of getting from one place to another. Practitioners of parkour (traceurs) are measured not by what they can do, but by where they can go and how directly they can get there. This process is limited and shaped by the environment in which they live and train, just as running in a forest requires an entirely different style of motion than running in a city. In adapting the way they move to every situation, traceurs get a deeper and more intimate understanding of the urban environments in which they live.

At some point fairly early in my parkour career, I remember sitting next to one of those velvet-roped labyrinths used for queues, watching someone painstakingly work their way through to the front. There was no line, and nobody would have objected if they walked around the side. This person went through simply because that’s what those velvet ropes are meant for. These sorts of social rules – driving on the right, walking on the sidewalk, and countless more – are coded into our understanding of the constructed urban environment. Parkour teaches you to bend these rules and stop thinking just in terms of what’s normal, and start looking at what’s possible.

As a traceur’s skills develop, their options increase, and the city begins to flatten out – their movements becoming less and less restricted. While we might not always need this extra freedom (walking on the sidewalk is still usually a good idea), the fact that these options are available is a fundamentally liberating condition.

This is the attitude that draws traceurs to the Olympic Stadium on Saturday mornings. Parkour offers the chance to push boundaries and to experiment with movement in the urban space. The community of the Olympic Stadium traceurs provides a forum to do this free of preventative or critical influence. The jagged expanse of concrete is not simply an obstacle, but a challenge – and a challenge the traceurs relish.