I had the pleasure of participating in the first Parkour Research and Development Forum in Gerlev, Denmark, hosted by ParkourOne and Street Movement. Rather than a conclusive summary I want to offer some reflections and preliminary thoughts. The topics covered were wide ranging and complex. There are few research congresses where you see talks on radical inclusivity, rhizomatic subcultures, biomechanical analysis of vaults, interrupted urban flows, systems thinking in game design, and sports science relevance and biases (and get to deadlift in the evenings). One thing that became clear is that “Parkour Studies” is a truly trans-disciplinary field.
As I travelled back to Berlin I saw this video by Dom of Team Farang, in which he talks of pushing the boundaries of Parkour with back full and front flip precisions on some iconic London spots.
But is this how the ‘sport’ gets pushed forward? It is admittingly impressive and I don’t want to take away anything from their crazy achievements. But this is pushing the sport in one of many possible directions and all the different directions might yield different futures for this still young discipline. There is the sport aspect of Parkour, which is developing towards performance and spectacle. With this will probably come more media interest, more sponsorships, more money, growing commercial interest. There might even be an elite able to sustain a life through Parkour.
However the visual culture that this direction of Parkour is developing is inspiring only a small fraction of people. White, teenage, middle class boys will follow this path as they did with commercial skateboarding. What I consider the cutting edge of Parkour is not the sportification but the radical inclusivity Andy Day talked about in his lecture. The central question here is how do we get people to benefit from Parkour that are not already predisposed to it. How can we bring the empowering quality of the practice to a wider and more diverse range of people?
This is a relevant question because Parkour is a micro cosmos of society. And just like in the society as a whole there a lines of exclusion that need to be marked and challenged. Parkour is not only a sport, it is not purely about performance optimization, as we witness in the most celebrated videos in our culture. Parkour is, as Marcello Palozzo of Parkour Wave pointed out in his talk, a culture of effort not one of spectacle. It is art just as much as it is a physical discipline. Through Parkour you can find new ways to relate to the city and to yourself, which can be a truly transformative experience. At a time where cities can lead to alienation and isolation, where more and more people suffer from depression of anxiety disorders, where our body is nothing more than an object that needs to be optimized Parkour has the potential to be a disruptive force.
So who is pushing the boundaries of Parkour on that frontier?
It’s the initiatives like Silver Parkour from PK Move that try to involve woman and elderly in the practice. Similar work is being done by the Parkour Dance Company from the UK (watch the fantastic documentary To Be and To Last: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTzgrMbKTgU). Of course it is JulieAngel’s See & Do that sets out to change the visual culture around bravery and physicality and to inspire women of all ages and abilities.
I had a great discussion with the Movement Creative’s Jesse Danger who has great ideas on how to make New Yorks public places more accessible and open for play. Street Movement and Caitlin Pontrella are forging similar paths by designing new ways to think about play and movement in public spaces. Prof. Bill Marshall from the University of Sterling, who held a talk about Parkour, visual culture and its disruptive potential, shared his desire to connect Parkour and Mental Health NGOs. Esprit concrete and free your instinct are two organizations that already explore links between Parkour and mental health. Researching those connections and through what mechanisms Parkour improves peoples mental health seems an especially fruitful direction to take in the future. ParkourOne is putting so much effort into promoting the non-competitive nature of the discipline and to make events like the R&D forum happen. They also recently collaborated with Caritas to give workshops in the war torn Gaza strip, opening up new possibilities to establish Parkour within developmental and aid work. I also want to give a shout out to ParkourUK for fighting the bureaucratic fight against the FIG. I already mentioned him but Andy Day deserves another mention, for informing a lot of my thinking, and for being outspoken about problematic tendencies within Parkour
These are only the organisations and people I could come up from the top of my head. They push the societal status quo in new and exiting ways and create new understandings and possibilities what sport and public space can be. The time is ripe for collaborations and finding ways how we can work together to fulfil our common interests. Parkour can not only be a transformational experience for the individual but together we can transform our communities and society as a whole. Let’s make it happen! Together!