Situating Urban Exploration

Amid the proliferation of blogs, website and forums dedicated to urbex which inspire claims that urban exploration is having its “cultural moment“, the activity itself is really nothing new. People have explored cities as long as they have existed, and today’s urban exploration ‘scene’ or ‘movement’  is simply one moment in a long tradition of poking around in cities.

Bradley Garrett's 'hero shot' atop the Forth Rail Bridge

Bradley Garrett’s ‘hero shot’ atop the Forth Rail Bridge. Image Credit Verso Publishing 

In a timeline of urban exploration, published by the Zine ‘Infiltration’, the first date is November 1793 when Philibert Aspairt, the “first cataphile”, becomes lost while exploring the Parisian catacombs by candlelight. His body is found 11 years later. Whether or not Aspairt’s ventures into the Paris catacombs were the first of their kind, it is clear that city dwellers have long been fascinated by hidden and ‘off-limits’ spaces.

Perhaps urban explorers can be seen as a modern incarnation of the flâneur, a symbol of the urban experience in the early twentieth century. The flâneur employed playful constructive behaviours such as dérive and détournement  which allowed them to fully experience and rethink urban space.

Those writing about urban exploration today (Garrett, 2012; Pinder, 2005) have traced the appropriation of the term ‘exploration’ back to the work of the Situationists International (SI) and the ‘urban expeditions’ of Bill Bunge in 1960s.  Bunge’s radical work in Detroit and Toronto eventually lead to him being literally blacklisted within US Academia.  Whilst academics today, Bradley Garrett being case in point, seem to be able to build a successful academic career off the back of urban exploration, in the 1960s the same activities put a stop to Bunge’s career. So what has changed?

Bunge’s expeditions were designed to be ‘contributive’ and ‘collaborative’. He wanted to ‘give back’ from academic geography and set up free university outreach programmes on cartography and urban planning for Detroit’s black residents. Bunge’s expeditions were about getting out into the city to understand and experience the views of those who live there. Urban exploration today tends to seek out places that are devoid of other human beings, it is an individualistic, even narcissistic pursuit which has little in common with Bunge’s concerns about the politics of urban social justice.

Of course not all urban explorers are simply after a ‘hero shot’, but the egotistical portraiture which adorns blogs, facebook pages and instagram accounts seems to hark back to portraits from the age of exploration. Bunge’s ironic usage of the  label “expedition” in an attempt to subvert the exploration practices of the nineteenth century, is perhaps not quite so ironic in the case of urban exploration.

“Hero shot” of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who organised the Spanish expedition to the East Indies, resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth.



Garrett, B. (2012 ) “Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Royal Holloway University of London
Pinder, D. (2005) Arts of urban exploration. Cultural Geographies 12(4):383–411


Quest for a question

Urban Explorers: Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning

This video was simultaneously posted on my wall and shown in my UG lecture on the same day, its obviously doing the rounds in the geography department at the moment!

A very interesting review of scholarly work relating to Urban Exploration featuring Alastair Bonnett, Tim Edensor, Caitlin DeSilvey, Hayden Lorimer and David Pinder. They discuss the various theories and practices in which Urban Exploration is rooted; psychogeography, material culture, nostalgia, hauntings and spectres, artistic expression, and heritage management.

I’m still in the process of trying to nail down a specific research question, and I’m not sure how useful this video actually is in terms of narrowing my focus!

Let the reading commence

After my interest was piqued by hearing stories of a friend-of-a-friend visiting St Peter’s Seminary, I came across Bradley Garrett’s book Explore Everything. I pretty much consumed the book in a day, scribbling and underlining as I went. If I’m going to spend the next year of my life constantly thinking, stressing and blabbering on about my research topic, it might as well be something interesting. Something that people may actually want to listen to? I’ve found it makes pretty good pub chat so far, so I can’t be going too far wrong.

A tour of online journals such as Environment and Planning D, Geography Compass, Transactions, and Progress in Human Geography revealed a modest (in size that is) but blossoming field of research. Within the handful of academic papers published, many are responses and rebuttals to each other. The healthy, and sometimes fiery, debate between those who are defining this emergent field of research is a jolly good read, and for me adds to the attraction of Urban Exploration as a research topic.

The study of Urban Exploration fits particularly well within the discipline of geography, not only for the historic associations with the term ‘exploration’. The use of embodied fieldwork to examine our relationships with space, and the sub-discipline of psychogeography both lend themselves to scrutinising the practice of urban exploration and more generally how people interact with liminal spaces within the city. This led me to the work of Ian Sinclair, which I will admit now that I couldn’t finish.

Bennett makes the distinction between Sinclair’s literary psychogeography,and the political psychogeography of Guy Debord and the Situationist International whose use of tactics such as dérive and détournement allowed them to ‘defamiliarise’ the heavily regulated experience of the city.

A far easier read was the coffee table esque ‘Beauty in Decay’ – a birthday present from my flatmates. The striking (perhaps over-edited) photographs are accompanied by possible motivations behind urban exploration. The ideas of risk and empowerment, the symbolism of ruins and the concept of abandoned spaces as a place for contemplation and catharsis are all possible reasons to reconsider ones interactions with the overstimulating yet highly regulated urban environment.