Urban Sports and Design

Kaspar Astrup Schröder's documentary film My Playground "explores the way Parkour and freerunning is [sic] changing the perception of urban space and how the spaces and buildings they are moving on are changing them."

[Trailer via Objective Cinema's page on My Playground]

As this trailer has been making its way around the internet it sparked some thoughts, primarily in regards to how "urban sports" like parkour and skateboarding are discouraged over time and then embraced with their own physical venues. Think anti-skateboarding furniture in urban plazas and skate parks.
[Page from the Skate Stoppers Skate Deterrents catalog | image source (PDF)]

"Skate deterrents" are typically metal brackets that attach to benches or low walls, a retrofit to discourage "grinding." In places like New York City the design of street furniture now takes these deterrents into account earlier in the design process, even as the city city creates dedicated skate parks in places like Hudson River Park. This bench below is an especially nice design that wraps the slat seating around the pipe at the front to make grinding quite difficult; this bench also splits around a tree to act as a guard for the trunk.
[Zipper Bench by WXY Architecture + Urban Design | image source]

But the proactive way of dealing with skateboarders is to provide physical spaces for them in the city, skate parks. New York City, according to the Parks Department web page, has twelve skate parks in the five boroughs. The one at Chelsea Cove, part of Hudson River Park, is the product of Site Design Group and California Skateparks. It is a "flow" type of skate park, recalling a pool from the California heyday of skateboarding but more varied and organic. Yet another type of park at Site Design Group is the "street plaza," which ironically replicate the furniture, railings, and low walls from the real urban plazas that skateboarders are either banned from or cannot use to full effect due to deterrent measures.
[Chelsea Cove Skate Park | image source]

Getting back to Parkour, the "sport" appears to be a response to urban conditions, just like skateboarding. Yes, skateboarders could be content riding on asphalt and concrete surfaces, but the stairs, railings, furniture, and other urban elements offer them a challenge. Likewise the spaces in cities offer inspiration for traceurs like Team JiYo, but in the case of My Playground the buildings are also the canvas for their performances, most notably the Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen by PLOT=BIG+JDS.
[Traceurs on Mountain by PLOT=BIG+JDS | image courtesy BIG]

The first Parkour video I saw showed some young guys (both of these activities, though not exclusively male, tend to be practiced by males under 30) jumping from floor to floor in an atrium, something like Herman Hertzberger's Centraal Beheer project. So in effect Parkour responds to the urban landscape, the changes in level and the elements (walls, ramps, stairs, etc.) that accommodate these changes. In this regard I'm a bit bothered by Plug'n'Play by Kragh and Berglund, a project near the Mountain Dwellings that provides an area for Parkour. Even though Plug'n'Play is designed with the assistance of Team JiYo, something that lends it authenticity, the facilities present an idealized terrain for their activities.
[Plug'n'Play in Ørestad | image source]

Skate parks and now Parkour parks isolate their respective urban sports in places catered to them. This is a modernist idea, where particular uses (living, working, manufacturing, playing) have their own place in the city, separated from the others. But skateboarding and Parkour are about exploding the partitioning of modernist urban planning; they inject something unexpected into places created for other uses. And now they have been co-opted by local governments with these small parks. While these activities still occur in the rest of the city, the degree to which they are discouraged -- physically and politically -- challenges their social acceptance and leads to their remove to dedicated parks.
[Skateable Furniture by Tom Hawes | image source]

One alternative, which I noted on this blog in 2005, is Tom Hawes' Skateable Furniture. It "recognizes skateboarding as an unstoppable urban pathology...[via] a range of benches that encourage skateboarding as a positive activity for youth to regenerate public spaces." Instead of deterring an activity or isolating it somewhere else, the designer shapes the urban space to things like grinding, while still enabling people to sit down. Yet I don't think Hawes' design was realized. Does anybody know any hybrid spaces that have been built that respond in this manner?


  1. If you are looking for more skateable spaces, check out Ramp House in Athens, Greece designed by Archivirus.


    Seattle Architects Coates Design specializes in green building and sustainable design.

  2. I beg U! Support soundtrack from that film!

  3. the St Kilda promenade project in Melbourne by JCBA includes faceted timber ramps and steel capped benches to include skating, riding and pedestrians into it's use. Good space, lots of movement, and great to skate.


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