Found Spaces: The Essence of Parkour
It looks like parkour, sounds like parkour, is called parkour… it must be parkour, right?
Over the last few years we have seen a proliferation of parkour or freerunning academies all over the world, fantastic indoor and outdoor spaces with great equipment, purpose-built structures and bespoke training environments. They’ve become all the rage in some countries, and whole new communities are being introduced to parkour in this fashion, some of them starting indoors and staying indoors – never even being introduced to the notion of exploring the environment outside their doors.
And there is no doubt that moving parkour into a managed space environment has allowed the art to reach thousands more people from entirely new demographics, and made it accessible to huge swathes of the population who just would not even approach the idea of starting parkour in its natural environment.
It’s worked. Perhaps too well, in fact.
With tens of thousands of people wanting to take up parkour for all manner of reasons the response has been gyms, sports centres – even trampoline centres – wanting to capture this trend by offering classes in their ‘safe, managed environments’ and announcing themselves as ‘Parkour Academies’.
But an academy is not formed of wood or stone, and isn’t established by any amount of buildings containing shiny new equipment with parkour! stamped boldly across every surface. It certainly isn’t one just because it proclaims itself to be one. An academy is built on the individuals who guide and teach within it, who pass on knowledge and help others learn; those who are actually capable of coaching, who understand that it is a skill and a discipline all of its own, just as intricate and demanding as parkour itself. People are what make an academy what it is; make it something of worth and value to others, to its surrounding community.
Having a structure, a space, a building is not enough. It isn’t anything, in fact. An academy is a body of knowledge, experience and expertise – without that, the grandest facilities in the world are useless. And quite often the best pools of learning and teaching, in any field, develop far away from the best facilities.
Simply put, there is a subtle yet hugely important qualitative difference between training your movement to adapt to your environment and shaping your environment to fit your movement.
For many years, long before any such thing as a parkour academy was even contemplated, the founders were teaching small groups in France – in Evry, Lisses and Sarcelles: passing on what they had learned, helping others find their own way in a highly personal and private fashion. They did it without being based in buildings, without special equipment or structures, without mats or prepared surfaces. Yet it was a true academy of knowledge, and those lucky enough to practice there gained access to all of that and more.
It isn’t just a case of indoor vs outdoor, though: it’s a case of ‘found spaces’ vs ‘bespoke spaces’. What matters is whether the area was designed for parkour or not, because perhaps the most fundamental principle of parkour is in adapting to and overcoming ‘real-world’ challenges, and no matter how elaborate a bespoke space is the user is still and always aware on some level that it was built for this type of movement, and so a central element of the challenge just isn’t there. Psychologically, it’s different. Physically it’s different, too. Simply put, there is a subtle yet hugely important qualitative difference between training your movement to adapt to your environment and shaping your environment to fit your movement.
So while we do teach in managed spaces – we started it in fact – and while such training does have its uses, we make sure to avoid reducing our training and teaching only to managed spaces, whether indoor or out. The two approaches can work together, but it needs to be done in a balanced fashion. That’s why our own Chainstore Parkour Academy in London is as raw and unstructured as possible, with the training area being completely modular so its layout can be altered every few months to present an entirely new set of unplanned challenges. Even this, though, isn’t quite the same as training in a found space, which is why we encourage our members to utilise it as a supplement but to frequent the roaming classes more than the fixed point ones.
I can’t stress this point enough, and the greatest danger of the advent of such parkour centres is the loss of those core concepts that moulded and forged the discipline in its early years. The concepts of discovery, exploration, adaptation and challenge – finding solutions to problems that arose from a raw and complicated interaction with an environment not designed to be used in that way.
This isn’t to say that training in bespoke spaces is a ‘bad thing’, far from it. As mentioned above, it has opened parkour up to a much larger world and brought its considerable benefits to areas of society it would never have otherwise reached. Schools are a prime example, and these and other similar institutions simply would never have opened their doors to parkour instruction if it could not have been delivered in an indoor, managed space.
Using these indoor spaces and bespoke builds as a way to work on specific skills, to condition and work in large groups, to introduce the less confident amongst us to the concepts of movement and their own potential – fantastic. But training in this way must only ever be a supplement to actual parkour. It must never replace it. And for anyone who takes up the responsibility – and it is a serious responsibility – of teaching parkour to others it must be an imperative to maintain this balance.
Parkour is a concept, an approach to living and training. It has an essence, difficult though that is to define. It’s far more than just an amalgamation of athletic skills, agility and strength training. That essence is found and nurtured best in its natural environment – which is, paradoxically, any environment that was not designed specifically for parkour.
Parkour evolved through a process of exploration and adaptation to the hugely varied terrain of the world at large – both rural and urban. The physical and mental attributes that lie at its heart were forged in the endlessly unique interactions between individual and environment. Indeed even the physical techniques and movements that we know and love developed as a response to the challenge of overcoming obstacles that were not built to be overcome. Remove that process and you remove what made parkour happen in the first place. You cut it off from its vital source. In short, you cage it. And caging a wild animal changes it, irrevocably.
The point is that if we allow parkour to become restricted to these ‘parkour gyms’ and managed spaces, we condemn it to dilution and an early death. And, worse, we deny those future generations of new practitioners the most powerful benefits and truths that parkour has to offer – that of self-discovery and self-knowledge through applying oneself to the challenge of the unfettered world around us.
Parkour has the power to liberate whatever it touches – from individuals to whole communities. Its essence resonates with something deep inside us, something untamed and adventurous that we are all born with. That has to stay at its heart, no matter what.
Change that, and it doesn’t matter how far you jump, how fluid the motion is, how precise your landings are – it just isn’t parkour anymore.
For information on parkour see Parkour Generations
To experience parkour in its true environment join our weekly outdoor classes