From Obstacles to Opportunities
Parkour and the City
By Caitlin Pontrella & Jesse Danger
We all have our own map of the city in our head. For most it remembers where our favorite places are to eat are, where our friends live, where to get coffee, where to hang out, and so on.
Our map, however, remembers where the best places are in the city for an adult to play; Little dots light up across the mental landscape pinpointing locations of sturdy scaffolding and rough concrete barriers, with play-friendly public spaces, and large oak trees with branches that hang low enough for jumping on. It records every physical challenge we’ve completed and all the ones yet to be. It knows the difference between public spaces that tolerate and ignore play and those that embrace and encourage movement.
This map is a unique map of textures and temperatures and human activity, of tested and untested public and private relationships, of enjoyment, tolerance, and rejection–and it is a map that could only come to be through Parkour.
What is Parkour you ask?
Parkour is a discipline of movement and self-improvement that teaches one how to overcome any obstacle both efficiently and creatively, using nothing more than the human body. This playful platform of movement encourages interaction between yourself, others, and your environment.
Traceurs, or individuals who practice Parkour, thus know the city like no other. We study textures, we grip, we feel how sturdy our obstacles are. As we walk through the city we are compelled to interact with it; running, jumping, climbing, crawling, swinging, and balancing. The mere act of walking around becomes an adventure, leading us to look for new challenges, new ways to improve ourselves. Can I jump from this curb to that one in a single bound? Can I slip through this scaffolding without touching the bars? Can I balance along this rail without falling once?
And it is this type of interaction with the city that there needs to be more of–this engaged awareness, this parkour mentality. It brings new life to both popular public spaces and those leftover and overlooked. Things that once slowed movement–benches, tables rails, walls–now become elements that enable . Obstacles become opportunity for growth, imagination, and play. And suddenly there is no mission impossible, there is no challenge too great.
This playful view of the world, this parkour mindset and approach to life, is something we all once had. At one point, when we were at our youngest, we didn’t understand the word ‘impossible.’ We believed in ourselves, we took risks, we wrestled for hours with how to get across the playground without touching the ground (it was lava, remember?). We tested ideas and learned of our limitations. We became the ultimate problem solvers.
As we grew older, however, we lost that unwavering resolution, that uncapped potential. We scraped our knees, we broke a bone, our parents panicked at the sight of blood. We were told that some problems were too hard or impossible and that either we weren’t strong enough or smart enough or old enough. …That we never would be.
But this isn’t the truth. This is just the world trying to tell you to grow up, to color inside of the lines, to fit the mold, to play it safe.
So I want to demand an answer: Why is this considered the right thing to do! Why have we allowed safety to be emphasized to the point of instilling fear, insecurity, and inability in both children and adults? Not only does this obsession with safety decrease the number of real opportunities to create and engage with your environment, it also severely limits self-exploration of personal (physical+mental) abilities and limitations.
And if we continue to place emphasis on being overly safe we’ll end up only creating the unsafe–a world where people don’t know how to confront complicated challenges or to cope with uncertainty.
As famous playground designer Paul Friedberg explains, “[Our problem is that] We want the child to be living in a padded box. [But] A child has to have the real world, fraught with challenges to overcome.”
So, there needs to be a return to play. True, fulfilling, authentic play, where children and adults alike can seek out real challenges, navigate real risks, and begin to honestly understand their physical and mental capabilities. …Play through which they can really grow.
And Parkour is one of those few disciplines that can provide this holistic platform of play while acknowledging this already pervading atmosphere of fear.
Through the medium of games and challenges, Parkour encourages curiosity and experimentation, builds strength and self-confidence, and of course teaches the value of risk and the importance of facing your fears.
Furthermore, Parkour teaches creative problem solving. A simple game of hopscotch can be transformed in an exercise in problem-solving when squares start to appear on the sides of walls, under railings, on low ledges. In practice we learn that techniques that work in one situation may not work in another. We are forced to explore alternative solutions, other ways over/under/through the obstacles we face, to find a way that we may not even have seen or tried. And through this process, Parkour teaches us how to adapt to every situation, to think outside the box.
As to those safety concerns, through its practice Parkour ingrains safety. You learn how to run properly, to jump and land without impact, to move without hurting yourself. It teaches you not only how to assess the risks associated with any challenge you face, but how to judge it to be within or outside of your abilities.
So, forget buying expensive equipment or building one of those sterile play-structures in your backyard. Teach your children Parkour, learn it for yourself. With only a pair of shoes and their imagination, one can learn how to seek out challenges and games alone.
Especially, we would like to emphasize how crucial it is to teach children Parkour as they enter their teenage years. You see, as children get older they outgrow the playgrounds they know so well. Most of those constructed around the country are designed for children under 12 and restrict children older. Even if there aren’t any signs forbidding play, the dirty looks of adults say enough. ‘You don’t belong here, you’re too old to be playing here.’ Teenagers and adults alike are cast away from the only spaces their communities provide for play.
And, at a time so crucial for defining who they are, society shepherds teenagers and adults away from the playgrounds and into other public spaces, where play is no longer the apparent intention. Rather, these public spaces and parks offer benches to watch some tourists and enjoy a vendor hot dog, a patch of lawn for a nap or cloud gazing, windy paths that lead to no where and offer nothing but a view. (And we wonder why obesity is an issue, hm).
Now, we’re not saying that we’re against benches and ice cream and napping on a nice sunny day, but these provisions alone clearly offer very little in return in terms of human growth.
Adults and teenagers should have as much of a place to play as children. They need to play too! The same gains we make as children through play will only increase in complexity and magnitude as we age and mature. Our abilities to assess risk, to problem solve, to cope with uncertainty, can continue to increase and refine themselves ad infinitum. There is so much growth that can still be gained as we slip in to adulthood.
So Parkour provides that playground, for teens and adults alike. It provides a world that will never run out of challenges, that has no age limitations and no skill requirements. And if we teach children while they are young enough, they will never find themselves lost in a world without a playspace of their own.
Obstacles are apart of every day life, whether it is climbing a wall, getting to work on time, or delivering making a presentation in front of a large group. The lessons we can learn through play and though parkour--to creatively approach problems, to face our fears, to love and respect the people around us and the world we are in--are lessons that can be carried out through the rest of our lives, and are lessons without completion.
So we urge you to, right now, this very day, to start pinning your map with every opportunity for play, for every chance to grow. To always look for opportunities to become better than you are, regardless of whether you are a child or adult.