Empty Elephant

The housing estates at Elephant and Castle have been a favourite training location for London’s traceurs for several years. During its early stages, parkour in the UK was often focused in city centres, both in training and in media representation. In my experience, it’s not that Parkour ever left the housing estates but perhaps got temporarily distracted by the shiny city, before realising that the best terrain is residential, not commercial. Better obstacles, less private property, fewer police, no security guards, and many more playgrounds.

Residential housing has often been experimental, and mistakes were made during the 60s and 70s as cities expanded rapidly and populations grew, becoming increasingly dense. What was once regarded as visionary is, a few decades later, regarded as an unpractical eyesore that compounds society’s ills. Many were hastily constructed – some even collapsed – and it’s with hindsight that the disadvantages of these Le Corbusier-inspired housing projects are fully understood.

A bit of Googling will teach you that the Aylesbury and Heygate estates at Elephant and Castle are due for demolition, and have been since 2004. A huge regeneration project has been dogged by seemingly endless delays and has created something quite surreal: near emptiness.

There are a handful of enormous blocks, each up to eleven storeys in height, each with a mere handful of occupants. For the most part, residents have been relocated (more than a thousand), but this is inevitably a problematic process; some have no desire to move, some refuse the suitability of their new homes, some claim to have been harassed and intimidated by the team attempting to rehouse them.

Being virtually empty, there is no self-policing through the vigilance of its own residents. As a result, patrols are sent around in an attempt to keep gangs, drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless at bay. A team of litter pickers visit daily, collecting the rubbish left behind by the random collection of visitors and the occasional resident dumping unwanted, bulky belongings as they move elsewhere.

Metal panels cover every empty flat, and the floors that are completely empty are sealed off with more metal fencing, keeping squatters out. (London is a haven for squatters due to some strange quirks in English law.) Each piece of metal is welded into place to prevent it from being unbolted and stolen. The expense must be phenomenal.

For parkour practitioners wishing to train there, it’s quite peaceful, if a little strange. A few remaining residents can be found passing by and for them, Parkour is a familiar sight, to the point that local children create miniature versions of the movements amongst the walkways.

This gallery of images is selected from what I took during a morning spent wandering around the estate.