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Urban space, participation and parkour - from limited youth project in Gütersloh to largest parkour park in Germany

By Claus-Peter Mosner (degree in teaching; Department of Youth and Education of the City of Gütersloh)


Have you already heard the term 'parkour'? Or have you perhaps in the past encountered one of its self-assured but unassuming practitioners? Defying gravity, they seem to exhibit supernatural powers as they playfully run up the walls of houses or overcome obstacles and ravines in the urban landscape as if they had springs in their heels. It is quite remarkable what these young people show the average urban dweller that can be accomplished.

Even more remarkable is the philosophy and attitude towards life that is predominant among the adherents of this form of youth culture: they cultivate respect for the environment, for others and themselves, exhibit a sustainable attitude to the use of resources (including the own mind and body), express the wish to generate changes and display modesty with regard to their own skills. The close educational, architectural and cultural correlations between parkour and urban development are apparent from the urban nature of parkour and the imaginative way it uses and reinterprets the spatial framework of this environment. This also demonstrates how important it is to involve youth groups and residents of cities in the design of urban structures.

The example of Gütersloh and its parkour project illustrate how individual the results of community consultation can be and how important collaboration with regard to structural aspects is when city and local authority take the various departments and agencies seriously and everyone works towards a common goal.


Education, parkour and values

The whole thing began with a small youth service project designed to counter violence. The result is the largest parkour centre in Germany. There was a gulf of ten years between these two points in time. Exciting years, in which a youth group became socially involved, making parkour an integral element of the city. Back then, no one realised the extent of the enthusiasm and energy that would be generated by the small parkour project that originated, quite literally, on the street. Thanks to the willingness of school and youth services to cooperate, a continuous training programme was put in place that very soon found itself the centre of a growing demand. This regular training programme supported by the youth services in Gütersloh was then transformed into a new project that took on board the values, philosophy and athleticism of the traceur youth culture, contributing an educational/adventure-based element into the mix.

The philosophy and the emphasis on athleticism were and are factors that young people in all social situations and environments find very attractive. These are young people who like to be involved in the community, are seeking friendships and have certain values - aspects that are less likely to be found in this combination in other contexts.

They find appealing the facts that competitiveness is out, that cooperative learning is fostered and that individual goals are shared, promoting the stated values. Parkour encourages diversity and in its social manifestation is both unambiguous although heterogeneous.


Parkour and architecture

Traceurs - those who practice parkour - reclaim the urban architectural landscape for themselves. Existing structures and normative prescriptions are actively challenged and reinterpreted. The functions of urban landscape and its configurations are encountered playfully and creatively, providing an experiential space in which it is possible to redefine the self and extend mental and physical skills. Traceurs always need to react rapidly and efficiently to new situations to overcome rigid boundaries, and this means they must be flexible, supple and adaptable. This also requires them to question existing rules, standards and values, assess their relevance and determine what is possible in the light of experience.

It is very often the case that those who take up parkour learn at the very beginning one important principle; if they overestimate their own capacity and skill and misjudge the situation, they can expect no reprieve from the outcome and will have no one else but themselves to blame for this - indeed, perhaps an important axiom for the whole of life.

In Gütersloh, calls for a training centre at which numerous parkour variations and training options would be provided in one place began to be heard in 2011. However, this centre was not to replace use of public urban spaces. The desire was for it to be like a park, a venue at which 'chance' encounters could take place, at which social interaction - even with passers-by - would be possible together with ambitious practice sessions.

The parkour community submitted its first outlines for this new facility in 2012. However, they had to wait for a further three years until its realisation become feasible. One reason that the project saw the light of day was the continuous educational input provided by the Department of Youth and Education and the support provided by the city authorities and local politicians.

A range of consultation events, social involvement and traceur performances made the community as a whole familiar with the ideas, values and skills associated with parkour and the close family-like bonds between its practitioners. A major donation that was distributed across three projects made it clear by early 2015 that Gütersloh was actually going to get a parkour park.


Consultation and cooperation

In the run-up, information as to the basic requirements for and concepts with regard to the kind of atmosphere that the facility should have were collected from the traceur community and these were discussed in candid exchanges between the Youth and Education, Culture and Sport and the Green Spaces Planning departments.

On the basis of the resultant criteria, a suitable site was eventually selected.

As the initiative from the very beginning was with the young people themselves, the actual planning of the facility was undertaken in three consultation workshops involving the traceurs, the Youth and Education and the Green Spaces Planning departments, together with the specialist parkour facility designers Proelan. The experiences, ideas and self-concepts of the traceurs provided the main input for planning.


Gütersloh's parkour park

Placed at the centre of the facility are seating elements that provide for the necessary factor of personal interaction. The park is basically circular in shape and there is no fencing that separates the facility from its surroundings. This arrangement means that the four external focal areas can be approached both from the outside and inside of the circle and can be used in an almost inexhaustible number of ways.

Natural features and substrates, such as ground (grass, natural stone), wood and trees and their differing surface structures and irregularities provide for recurrent challenges and symbolise flux and life itself. The natural 'spaces' are all counterbalanced by urban space elements. All the focal areas are linked by a central 'street canyon'.

The various beams and concrete elements have been arranged so that they seem to be 'randomly' aligned, ensuring considerable variability over the long term when it comes to forms of use. The facility has been in general designed to ensure that it provides challenges and opportunities for users with all levels of ability. To counteract the risk of excessive self-confidence resulting in injury, some of the higher positioned elements can only be accessed by those with the corresponding skills.

The parkour park was planned in conformity with the stipulations of the new DIN EN 16899 for parkour parks. In this case, the point elastic fall attenuation surfacing used in other and similar sports facilities was considered insufficient. In collaboration with the manufacturer Melos, a new product was developed that conforms to the stipulations of the standard and the experiences and requirements of the traceurs.


Culture and get-together

Together with the natural hornbeam copse, the facility extends over 1,600 m2, and is thus the largest site of its kind in Germany. The parkour park in the north of Gütersloh is also setting standards as a social environment. It was officially opened on 16 June of this year and since then has been actively used in daytime by many different peer groups and those looking to exercise individually or as members in athletic organisations.

It will undergo its baptism of fire on the occasion of the tenth annual Gütersloh Parkour Camp, when traceurs from throughout Europe will be able to meet in Gütersloh to make friends, overcome obstacles and celebrate what their own commitment has made possible.


Learning from the traceurs

Urban planning and construction are challenging tasks. Development of a close social bond is necessary if consultation projects are to be successful. Those who wish to take youth cultures seriously must be prepared to discuss the corresponding concepts openly and integrate these in the practices of urban planning. Of course, a certain amount of resolve is required to venture outside the box of concepts that have become established within official departments and enter into a dialogue in order to achieve an objective that remains essentially true to the wishes of the youth group in question and to educational needs.

Young people and new urban cultures require spaces that they can call their own, with which they can engage and they can co-design, while they also need others and specialists who take them seriously and understand that society and culture undergo continuous transformations and interactions that need to be considered. Only then is it possible to overcome otherwise insurmountable obstacles and create new values with the necessary vitality. We have been lucky enough in Gütersloh to learn this from the traceur community.



Image: Daniela Toman (City of Gütersloh), Jens Dünhölter (freelance journalist)

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