StreetGym® Session - Reflections
On the 20th March Roundhouse Birmingham partnered with Still Walking Street Gym, and Sport4Life to pilot StreetGym® sessions in the vicinity of the Roundhouse, taking place along the local waterways and around Brindley Place. Ben Waddington from Still Walking shadowed the session and provides his reflections on the activity. Roundhouse Birmingham’s active outdoors programme will unlock the streets and local waterways to provide people with new perspectives of their environment in healthy and sociable sessions. StreetGym® is just the beginning so keep an eye out for future updates!
24 years in the British Army has given StreetGym® founder John Allison a unique outlook on using the urban environment as a gym. StreetGym® was born out of a desire to inspire people to make the best of what they’ve already got: an open access gym in the streets that never closes. Bike racks, steps and street furniture become an obstacle course for a one hour urban circuit around streets, squares and canals.
People pay attention when StreetGym® turns up. I’ve completed three circuits in two cities now but this time I took a backseat position. It is a great spectator sport, though usually no-one is expecting it to arrive. Today I gained a new perspective on how people react to it and how unlike anything else it is.
David Johnson and Yus from the Ladywood based Sport4Life have selected ten young men from their books for today’s StreetGym® circuit around the towpaths, waterways and public spaces around Brindleyplace. It is the ideal location: nothing dropped on the floor stays there for long and unlike other areas of the city, it is free of debris and shattered glass. Over the next hour, the Sport4Life representatives under the leadership of StreetGym® founder John Allison will learn how to creatively rethink public spaces for the purpose of exercise. At its simplest, this is about improvising available street furniture as gym equipment but StreetGym® is also about being creative rather than just about saving on a gym fee. It’s a win-win for StreetGym® participants.
We (or rather they) begin in the rather literally named Open Space park opposite the Roundhouse. While warming up with jogging circuits and partner work, the locals are already intrigued. Kids emerge from the mini market with crisps and ice pops, trying to work out what’s going on and putting themselves in the picture.
After following the canal towpath though King Edwards Wharf, the first stop is Canal Square outside the JuJu café. Brunchers are aware that something is afoot. The first manoeuvre I call the Spiderwalk - a tricky left leg / right arm backwards crawl down stairs. The exercise itself is not strenuous but physical co-ordination is nearly impossible, at least initially, and then becomes more of a natural rhythm.
The military origins of StreetGym® are hinted at here, as participants wriggle facedown under an isolated bench near the café. On an obstacle course this would be done under a net, perhaps with a weapon. Today it’s smart phones and a go-pro camera. It is fun watching the team at work, only aware of their audience when someone shouts encouragement or claps them on, which happens regularly. I imagine how difficult this activity would be to do alone but as a team the unusual exercises becomes the norm. Everyone watching is dressed for a slower pace of leisure but there is a clear sense of intrigue and maybe even envy.
Inside the lattice work of supports on the canal bridge, another army-style exercise to group-lift a participant over a high bridge strut - only possible when you don’t mind your back becoming a step, however the Sport4Life lads are used to working together as a team.
Advancing to Oozells Square, the sun dappled cherry blossom trees and zen garden is in the calm before the storm. In these quiet minutes, children are busy testing their world, jumping in a synchronised group from a stone bench in time for parent to capture the perfect action shot. We talk about how unusual it is to notice our everyday space, let alone think about how to adapt it. But kids at play do it all the time, teenagers do it in a different way (that usually involves breaking things) then as adults we learn to accept what we have been given. At that point, space becomes invisible. I think this is why StreetGym® is instantly cheering to encounter and take part in - people are claiming back their space on their terms. Beyond being physical exercise, it at once has a child-like sense of playfulness and a radical social act.
When the group arrives it is like watching a military operation unfold. The water feature is long enough to accommodate several figures undertaking press-ups at once, and the group co-opt the same stone forms the children were jumping off for spring vaults. A sound pulses through the sunny plaza like a giant lung.
Running past more early afternoon lager sippers, the team approaches what proves to be my favourite part of the route. Next to the ICC, stairs leading up to the Brewmasters house: an impressive Spanish Steps-style sweep which narrows at the top to a bottle neck. Parallel to the steps it is what initially looks like cycle ramp however this ramp is fenced off and ends with a vertical wall, suggesting it is there to fill an awkward architectural space. For the first time since 1986, StreetGym® has found a use for this odd architecture sliver.
The challenge is not a simple one: participants must run the height of the ramp then jump and touch the higher part of the wall, which has been conveniently graded into brick bands. To complete the manoeuvre, they must then turn in the air, land back on the ramp and run back to a standstill. Not everyone manages to do it but John is there to slow down the airborne bodies and the cheers of encouragement from the group spur on the runners to ever greater heights.
The final location is another sweep of steps outside the NIA - steps which double in size on one half to form a seating / picnic area. The handrail becomes the focus here - a double sided chrome tubing installation that lends itself well to pull ups, push ups and an improvised slide for several people at once. John limits the number to hang, recognising that the original build spec wasn’t designed for this.
All done! A few grazed knuckles aside, everyone’s the better for StreetGym® having taken place today, Sport4Life and canalside spectators alike.
By Ben Waddington
Find out more about Still Walking.
Check out the amazing work being done by Sport4Life.
Thank you to Lisa Brown of Lisa Jane Photography for the photos.