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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Extreme walking

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I'm sore today, my body jolting me with pain when I make demands of it. Sandy and I went parkouring yesterday, on the first day that deserved to be called spring a tempestuous mix of showers and then sunshine, a barrage of soakings and dryings that made the world fresh again.

"Parkour" brought a freshness to the world too, a new way to look at the city. I'd recently heard of the activity on the internet, the idea of using the city as an obstacle course, just picking a direction and running. Apparently "the art of movement" was invented by David Belle with his friend Sebastien Foucan in the French town of Lisses, a suburb of Paris. Their gang, the Yamakasi, was the subject for an action film of the same name that came out in 2001. It features some of the wall-running, fence-scaling, and rooftop-jumping stunts the sport is known for in Europe, although I prefer the lo-fi videos on the many fan websites for their self-aggrandizing rawness.

"Check this out," Sandy says. He gets a running start, jumps on a crate and launches into mid-air, legs splayed like David Lee Roth. We'd started in an alleyway near Sandy's place — its mix of garages and fences and piles of junk had become a series of challenges and opportunities. I shrug and jump off the same crate and slap the sole of a foot against the brick wall before I hit the ground.

Sandy laughs and spies a long piece of cardboard on the ground, a little soggy from the rain. He gets a slide of a few feet out of it, but my treads just grind it up. Then I see a rusty grilled window, and hop up on the sill, pulling my self along the side of the wall until I run out of grill and then jump with a bent-knee flourish to the ground.

My interpretation of parkour is that it's all about the stylistic flourishes, since I can't possibly come close to monkey-bodied Sandy's moves. He's been doing it and documenting it in his photographs and art for years, although he calls it street gymnastics or speed walking. It grew out of his skateboarding days, which were long before I knew him but definitely affected how he saw the world.

A lot of people who like the sport are attracted by the acrobatics, but for me the appeal is seeing the world in a different way. Like the way another French figure, the flaneur, allowed people to see the beauty in the urban, parkour gives its practitioners (called traceurs) a context in which to interact with their environment that is limited only by their creativity and physical ability.

More limiting is what people are willing to be seen doing in public. As we jog out of the quiet alley and onto College Street I'm suddenly self-conscious — I can't easily communicate to passers-by that my idiotic cavorting is in fact incredibly fashionable and European. But before I become overwhelmed I see a new city sewer pipe about to be installed, as high as my knee. "Ooooh," I say. I hop up on it first, running along the top of it and hearing the hollowness beneath my footfalls. The people on College Street forgotten, I jump to the next section of pipe.