There’s a jump I haven’t broken yet. It’s along Southbank, about halfway between St Kilda Road and Docklands. There is a short, concrete wall holding up a grassy bank, preventing it from spilling out over the walkway and into the river. A set of stairs creates a two metre gap between the short wall and a taller one; the one that, if I climb it, will lead me onto the upper walkway closer to the bars and restaurants. I’m standing on the short wall, contemplating a run towards the edge, a leap across the stair gap to the higher wall. There’s a metal sign I really don’t want to clip. A corner I don’t want to crash into. It’s evening. Pedestrians on the busker-laden, music-filled eating and drinking strip stop to watch my friends making bigger jumps. One friend stands beside the gap, ready to catch me if I miss.
Finally, I shake my head.
I didn’t always see spaces as obstacles, or rather, a multitude of pathways. The city, to me, loomed forebodingly with identical grey buildings. It was crowded with people in a rush. It was the boring place my parents worked, where I occasionally had the misfortune of being dragged to for whole days when there was no school. In my late teens, the city became a place of waiting in lines for nightclubs. The shadows in the alleyways made everything darker. Then, for a little while, I followed in my parents’ footsteps and became an office worker on the ninth floor of a tall, grey building.
Six years ago, I started training parkour, and I’ve never looked at any city – or any space, urban or natural – the same way again. The city has become my training ground. It’s partly because I’ve travelled and seen so many other cities that I can now appreciate Melbourne’s attractiveness, but it is mostly because parkour demands that we pay attention to the textures and shapes around us.
When I look at that jump, I know how it will feel to traverse that space, from the moment my foot leaves the short wall and my feet and hands come into contact with the higher one (all going to plan). I can already feel my shoes sinking into the wall, grating down its rough surface. My fingers curling over the top before I pull myself up. I know I can make it because I’ve jumped the same distance many times on the ground beside it. It’s the technicalities of running off the short wall, and needing to avoid the sign and corner, which hold me back.
I notice now that pavements are so smooth we don’t need to think about where and how we are stepping. You can daydream and walk. Talk and walk. Eat and walk. Signs tell you where to go, and walls and roads guide you so thoroughly you can move from one place to another with blinkers on. Pavements are easy. But when you’re creating a new path, calculating every step, arm swing and tilt of your body, you can’t do anything but be in that moment, in that space, aware and appreciative and respectful of the structures around you that are enabling you to move through it in whichever way you choose to try.
When a child looks at a playground, they see options. Where to start? The slide? How should they get up there: the rope ladder? The rock-climbing wall? The stairs? Via the monkey bars and chain bridge without touching the ground? There’s no wrong answer, each will lead to the same destination. The excitement comes from having the freedom to choose.
At what point do we lose this sense of freedom? If we still get to where we’re going without necessarily losing any time, why not choose a path that was different from yesterday’s? Why not explore a little, just because?
I’m not calling for all public spaces to be built like playgrounds or obstacle courses. Public spaces should certainly be safe and accessible. But I also believe you shouldn’t need to practice parkour to start seeing space for the possibilities it presents. I would love to see more public spaces encouraging people to find their own way.
There are great examples of the way creative initiatives can enliven spaces: the Piano Staircase in a metro station in Stockholm, the giant slip ‘n’ slides in Melbourne, the numerous playful elements of the Google offices. Even as grownups, we are meant to play, to experiment, to be creative, to use our environment and our whole bodies mindfully. More awareness in our everyday lives, even if it’s just on the walk from the train station to work, reveals possibilities, encourages conscious choices, and makes us feel important where we might otherwise feel like we’ve disappeared into a crowd. Awareness is safer – and hey, a lot more fun – than complacency.
I’ll be training tonight. Now it’s on my radar again, I’m itching to go back and break that jump.
Photographer: Scott Bickle