Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Parkour and urban planning

The state of lockdown is perhaps encouraging us to look a little deeper into what is available on video streaming services. About six weeks ago I came across a film on Prime called Roof Culture Asia. It followed the adventures of Brighton-based professional free-runners Storror. I write this as someone who's parents were once told by my primary school teacher that "I tried in gym class but tended to end up in a heap". I would have been ill-advised to turn my hand to parkour as a teenager and I certainly know my limitations as a 40 year old. Nonetheless, the spectacle of parkour and the merging of sport and artistry in an urban setting is captivating to watch from the comfort and safety of one's sofa. In the past, I'd watched a few YouTube clips, but never had I watched something so professionally produced. It really is a compelling film.

I am not turning this blog into a film review nor am I going to start critiquing parkour. Watching Roof Culture Asia led the Prime algorithm to suggest further parkour and adventure sport documentaries. I've watched a few since. I imagine a psychologist might equate my lockdown interest in such programming with a yearning for freedom. I've been watching a lot of travel-based shows too. Most of the parkour films have a similar premise: meticulous preparation, recording of some dramatic sequences and then an authority figure comes along and moves the athletes along. One documentary stood out as having a different approach. A 2009 Danish film by the name of My Playground, showed a different relationship with authority figures. In this documentary, free-runners were shown engaging with architects and urban planners. Parallels were drawn between the way a parkour athlete traverses the city and how good building design flows at a human-scale. Civic leaders in Copenhagen spoke positively about the way in which inanimate objects were being reinterpreted. One of the athletes featured, Signe HĂžjbjerre Larsen, is now an Associate Professor in Play and Urban Physical Cultures. From a policy perspective, it certainly is a new interpretation on the phrase 'active travel'.

I'm not suggesting that parkour is going to become an alternative means of commuting! If it did I imagine the outlaw element of the practice would have to reinvent itself. However, I do think there is something we can learn about how people interact with an urban space and in doing so offer a new perspective on urban flow which can feed into innovation in how we build our cities.