Parkour & Urbanism: Danger, Freedom and the City

This ongoing series is supposed to bring together the disciplines of Parkour and urbanism. It bring knowledge from both fields together to better understand the contemporary city and the realities of its inhabitants.

The green steel skeleton is a jarring break from the buildings around. It has the beauty of decay and passed time. It used to house parts of Berlins first public meat packing district. It opened in 1881 to provide an alternative to the bad hygiene of privately owned slaughterhouses. After being almost entirely destroyed in the second world war it was rebuild and used as a meatpacking district in Eastern Berlin. In 1958 it was brought into state ownership and employed up to 2700 people. After reunification the area was privatized and went out of business almost instantly. It then came under urban heritage conservation and has since then been transformed into a residential district. Since 2004 the park with the steel support structure of the former meat auction hall is open to the public. It attracts the usual suspect of a large open green space. Dogs bark as they chase each other, homeless people watch from the benches, a group of teenagers smokes their first cigarettes and runners make their rounds.

I’m watching the scene from above.

In the Berlin Parkour community the steel arches are simply known as the ‘Höhenfick’, the height fuck. For obvious reasons. It is intimidating to look at, to climb up it, let alone to walk on top of it. I came here to do exactly that. Why would I expose myself to this danger?

Doing this rarely makes sense, but almost always feels right.

Urban planners often see behaviour that deviates from the norm as something to forbid and make impossible. The classic example of so called defensive or hostile architecture is the Camden bench. It was designed so people couldn’t sleep on it, no drugs could be hidden near it, or skaters couldn’t grind on it. But it is also controlled in more sublte ways, simply by the way people expect you to use these structures. [1]

Rarely someone looks up, but I still prefer the part of the structure which is partially covered by trees. People don’t realize how off putting it is, when they scream at you from below. They see someone putting their life on the line and in an attempt to warn me actually cause the opposite. To be observed by someone else, especially when they can’t believe that you are balancing 10 meters off the ground, can make you feel self conscious. And this can interfere with the concentration you need at these heights. It takes a level of commitment which most people experience only sporadically. As I’m taking my first step on the narrow beam, I’m totally fixated. I’m going to do this. It’s the most important thing in life right now. That’s not the kind of mental state I can share with random strangers and onlookers. So I stay where people can hardly see me. I want to face the challenge of walking in these exposed heights alone.

For many people it is hard to grasp why someone would expose themselves to such a risk. I find this odd. I feel that most of us understand the allure of the mountains. Taking risks in the outdoors seems heroic. It is celebrated. But we don’t have the same understanding of urban risk taking. People accept that you are responsible for yourself in the outdoors. But in the city there is no sense of responsibility for yourself. Rules need to be put in place to protect you.

Joseph Bartz writes eloquently about this and I will quote him at length: “the state and the society that it represents have this code of ethics where it assumes that the most important thing for human beings is safety and health. But only because this is the common view doesn’t authorize the state to induce this view on every citizen. A human being can have a complete different point of view where he beliefs, for example, that the most important things are freedom or experiences or suffering… Please let me put myself at danger. Let me swim in the ocean, take the 147 flights of stairs, ride the bicycle without a helmet, cross a red light, climb trees, balance in height. As long as I don’t (also potentially) hurt someone else, please just let me be.”

Someone told me that climbing mountains with all of its inherent danger is about human dignity in the face of death. I would add that it is an expression of the absolute freedom we face when we accept that the universe is a deeply meaningless place. I say this in this most joyful way possible, like the existentialists did. We cannot justify our actions by appeal to anything outside ourselves, and we have no excuses for anything we do. We are „thrown“ into the world as free beings, and insofar as this is a bad thing, we can say that we are condemned to be free. „Condemned, because man did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.“ (Satre)

The city is much more restrictive when it comes to exploration than the outdoors. That is not only due to the different perception of risk but also because of the questions of ownership. It intuitively makes sense that mountains belong to no one and so their exploration should be free[2]. But a building has a definite owner, which then also potentially carries liability. Again we see the loss of responsibility. If you fall it appears to be the owners fault because he did not prevent you? Ironically every action they will take to deter us will only result in a new challenge for us.

Because that is what we seek.

To take physical risk is almost absent from our culture. I don’t regret that fact. Risk taking behaviour has shifted towards the intellectual. In business risk taking is applauded and celebrated to a fault. There you only challenge yourself for a desired outcome. Challenge seldom is taken on for itself. To simply enjoy the process of doing something you are unsure you can do.

At first I was even hesitant to write about this or film it. Contrary to popular belief most people that take these risks are not motivated by the result or by others people admiration. The few that are, are unfortunately the most visible with their clickbaity Youtube channels, overproduced videos and flourishing merchandise shops.

Most practitioners see the challenge as the reward.

Simply the fact that I am able to commit to this is already enough for me. It is the process and the mental state I can enter why I’m doing this. As the great free solo climber Alex Honnold writes “The beauty of climbing has always been the reward of the process itself”

But again why do I do this?

People often describe the outdoors as a place of connection where they come to recharge, disconnect, live simply. Through Parkour the city becomes my wilderness. I feel the same connections. We perceive urban living as isolating because we have no ability to interact with it. Things make sense to us if we know how to use them. There is only very few usages of urban space. We have a fear of touch towards the steel, brick and concrete that surrounds us. But as my hands grasp the steel beams, when I slowly stand up and my senses are heightened and absolutely focused I feel like I stand on the top of a mountain. This is my motivation.

To feel home.

To be.

 

Literature:

Alex Honnold: Alone on the wall, W W Norton, 2015

Jean Paul Satre: Existentialism Is a Humanism, World Publishing Company, 1946

Susanne Schindler-Reinisch (Hrsg.): Berlin-Central-Viehhof: Eine Stadt in der Stadt, Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin 1996

[1] Pointing out these issues can seem cynical, as the consequences for me are farely low. But this kind of social control affects less fortunate groups a lot more severly. Parkour and other forms of creative interventions can highlight issues like this.

[2] I will not dive into issues around nation states and their claims on wild places here.

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