Urban exploration (often shortened as UE, urbex and sometimes known as roof-and-tunnel hacking) is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment. Photography and historical interest/documentation are heavily featured in the hobby and, although it may sometimes involve trespassing onto private property, this is not always the case. Urban exploration may also be referred to as draining (an alternate form of urban exploring where drains are explored), urban spelunking, urban rock climbing, urban caving, or building hacking.
The nature of this activity presents various risks, including both physical danger and, if done illegally and/or without permission, the possibility of arrest and punishment. Some activities associated with urban exploration violate local or regional laws and certain broadly interpreted anti-terrorism laws, or can be considered trespassing or invasion of privacy.
Urbex is most commonly understood as the exploration of parts of cities that no-one visits, be it abandoned buildings, steam tunnels, metro systems, or even dangerous underground locations such as sewers. Infiltration, which involves exploring used/inhabited (but not necessarily public) areas, is often lumped in with Urbex, but it tends to attract a different crowd. Virtually any building can be an infiltration “destination”, but the most popular are architecturally interesting commercial buildings, industrial sites and hotels.
Whilst Urbex has gained a notorious reputation of being illegal (such as requiring by definition trespassing), the bulk of exploration happens in places no-one cares about (which explains both their abandonment and/or the fact that no-one bothered to lock them up or even post a no trespassing sign). Although some urban exploration does indeed occur in areas that are legally off-limits, few “practitioners” would ever recommend that you do this.
However, many individuals and organizations involved in the genuine research, documentation and recording of older (and abandoned) buildings, works and infrastructure strongly advocate against “casual” Urbex, preferring that those interested, join specialist organizations, who have built up appropriate access procedures and goodwill with site owners over a number of years.
Novelty, thrill seeking, boredom, and photography are the main reasons, why Urbex expeditions occur. Urbex basically opens up a whole new field of sightseeing, and makes for good stories. Many explorers find the forgotten, abandoned, and otherwise undiscovered places to have a certain beauty not to be found elsewhere—hence the popularity with photographers and fans of architecture. Infiltration is popular too for thrill seeking, but is more valued for aesthetic and other pleasures that would otherwise be off-limits. Visitors to ghost towns and abandoned structures inevitably wonder what these places must have been like in their heyday.
For most Urban Explorer (or Urbexer for short), the motivation lies in discovering and documenting the objects in the aesthetics and romance that those places bring, as well as in the experience of an authentic-historical atmosphere. In addition, the onset of desolation and decay after leaving formerly used facilities and structured operations as well as the contrast to modern urban planning investment and order are described as a relaxing and liberating civilization escape. In factories that have been shut down for a long time often show graffitior bizarre pictures. trees growing from the walls. The majority of Urban Explorer keeps these impressions on photos, with surreal works arise. Meanwhile, Ruin Photography is considered as a separate genre of photography. In addition to photography and exploration, urban explorers, depending on their personal interests, also investigate history, create online documentation on facilities threatened by disappearance or complete deterioration, or seek out the sporting challenge of overcoming obstacles and obstacles intrusion into hard-to-reach, active facilities.
An important moment is the exploration of the last white patches “that were not designed as a spectacle,” as Guy Debord puts it.
Ventures into abandoned structures are perhaps the most common example of urban exploration. At times, sites are entered first by locals and may suffer from large amounts of graffiti and other acts of vandalism, while other locations may be better preserved. Although targets of exploration vary from one country to another, high-profile abandonments include amusement parks, grain elevators, factories, power plants, missile silos, fallout shelters, hospitals, asylums, schools, poor houses, and sanatoriums.
In Japan, abandoned infrastructure is known as haikyo (廃虚) (literally “ruins”), but the term is synonymous with the practice of urban exploration. Haikyo are particularly common in Japan because of its rapid industrialization (e.g., Hashima Island), damage during World War II, the 1980s real estate bubble, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
Many explorers find decay of uninhabited space to be profoundly beautiful, and some are also proficient freelance photographers who document what they see, as is the case with those who document some of the infrastructure of the former USSR.
Abandoned sites are also popular among historians, preservationists, architects, archaeologists, industrial archaeologists, and ghost hunters.
Another aspect of urban exploration is the practice of exploring active or in use buildings which includes gaining access, by various means, to secured or “member-only” areas, mechanical rooms, roofs, elevator rooms, abandoned floors, and other normally unseen parts of working buildings. The term “infiltration” is often associated with the exploration of active structures. People entering restricted areas may be committing trespass, and civil prosecution may result.
Catacombs such as those found in Paris, Rome, Odessa, and Naples have been investigated by urban explorers. The Mines of Paris, comprising much of the underground tunnels that are not open to public tourism like the catacombs, have been considered the “Holy Grail” by some due to their extensive nature and history. Explorers of these spaces are known as cataphiles.
Sewers and storm drains
Entry into storm drains, or “draining”, is another common form of urban exploration. Groups devoted to the task have arisen, such as the Cave Clan in Australia. Draining has a specialized set of guidelines, the foremost of which is “When it rains, no drains!” The dangers of becoming entrapped, washed away, or killed increase dramatically during a heavy rainfall.
A small subset of explorers enter sanitary sewers. Sometimes they are the only connection to caves or other subterranean features. Sewers are among the most dangerous locations to explore owing to risk of poisoning by buildups of toxic gas (commonly methane and hydrogen sulfide).
Exploring active and abandoned subway and underground railway tunnels, bores, and stations is often considered to be trespassing and can result in civil prosecution, due to security concerns. As a result, this type of exploration is rarely publicized. An important exception to this is the abandoned subway of Rochester, New York, the only American city to have an abandoned, formerly used, subway system. The Cincinnati subway is also abandoned, but was never completed and placed into service.
Universities, and other large institutions such as hospitals, often distribute hazardous superheated steam for heating or cooling buildings from a central heating plant. These pipes are generally run through utility tunnels, which are often intended to be accessible solely for the purposes of maintenance. Nevertheless, many of these steam tunnels, especially those on college campuses, often also have a tradition of exploration by students. This practice was once called “vadding” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, though students there now refer to it as roof and tunnel hacking.
Some steam tunnels have dirt floors, poor lighting and temperatures upwards of 45 °C (113 °F). Others have concrete floors, bright light, and more moderate temperatures. Most steam tunnels have large intake fans to bring in fresh air and push the hot air out the back, and these fans may start without warning. Most active steam tunnels do not contain airborne asbestos, but proper breathing protection may be required for other respiratory hazards. Experienced explorers are very cautious inside active utility tunnels, since pipes can spew boiling hot water or steam from leaky valves or pressure relief blowoffs. Frequently there are puddles of muddy water on the floor, making slips and falls a special concern near hot pipes.
Steam tunnels have generally been secured more heavily in recent years, due to their frequent use for carrying communications network backbone cables, increased safety and liability concerns, and perceived risk of their use in terrorist activities.
Universities and other larger institutions, such as hospitals, whose heating systems are supplied with steam centrally, often have larger underground facilities that are only accessible for maintenance. Often these were accessed by unauthorized students, which was established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, the term vadding, derived from the computer game Adventure.
Great interest also applies to abandoned military facilities, such as. B. submarine bunker Elbe II or rocket base Pydna.
The rise in the popularity of urban exploration can be attributed to its increased media attention. Recent television shows, such as Urban Explorers on the Discovery Channel, MTV’s Fear, and the Ghost Hunting exploits of The Atlantic Paranormal Society have packaged the hobby for a popular audience. The fictional film After… (2006), a hallucinatory thriller set in Moscow’s underground subways, features urban explorers caught up in extreme situations. Talks and exhibits on urban exploration have appeared at the fifth and sixth Hackers on Planet Earth Conference, complementing numerous newspaper articles and interviews.
Another source of popular information is Cities of the Underworld, a documentary series which ran for three seasons on the History Channel, starting in 2007. This series roamed around the world, showing little-known underground structures in remote locales, as well as right under the feet of densely packed city-dwellers.
With the rise in the relative popularity of the hobby due to this increased focus, there has been increasing discussion on whether the extra attention has been beneficial to urban exploration as a whole. The unspoken rule of urban exploring is “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”, but because of the rising popularity, many individuals who may have other intentions are creating a concern among many property owners.
Safety and legality
Urban exploration is a hobby that comes with a number of inherent dangers. For example, storm drains are not designed with human access as their primary use. They can be subject to flash flooding and bad air. There have been a number of deaths in storm water drains, but these are usually during floods, and the victims are normally not urban explorers.
Many old abandoned structures feature hazards such as unstable structures, unsafe floors, broken glass, the presence of unknown chemicals and other harmful substances (most notably asbestos), stray voltage, and entrapment hazards. Other risks include freely roaming guard dogs and hostile squatters. Some abandoned locations may be heavily guarded with motion detectors and active security patrols, while others are more easily accessible and carry less risk of discovery.
Asbestos is a long-term health risk for urban explorers, along with breathing in contaminants from dried bird feces, which can cause a condition known as pigeon-breeder’s lung, a form of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Urban explorers may use dust masks and respirators to alleviate this danger. Some sites are occasionally used by substance abusers for either recreation or waste disposal, and there may be used or infected syringe needles en route, such as those commonly used with heroin.
The growing popularity of the activity has resulted not just in increased attention from explorers, but also from vandals and law enforcement. The illicit aspects of urban exploring, which may include trespassing and breaking and entering, have brought along with them critical articles in mainstream newspapers.
In Australia, the website of the Sydney Cave Clan was shut down by lawyers for the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales, after they raised concerns that the portal could “risk human safety and threaten the security of its infrastructure”. Another website belonging to the Bangor Explorers Guild was criticized by the Maine State Police for potentially encouraging behavior that “could get someone hurt or killed.” The Toronto Transit Commission has used the Internet to crimp subway tunnel explorations, going as far as to send investigators to various explorers’ homes.
Jeff Chapman, who authored Infiltration, stated that genuine urban explorers “never vandalize, steal or damage anything”. The thrill comes from that of “discovery and a few nice pictures”. Some explorers will also request permission for entry in advance.
“Rooftopping” refers to the ascent of rooftops, cranes, antennas, smokestacks, etc., usually illegally, and for the purpose of getting an adrenaline rush and taking selfie photos or videos and panoramic photographs of the scene below. It is chiefly an undertaking of millennials seeking social-media exposure, and has been especially popular in Russia.
Many urban explorers adhere to the philosophy of cave explorers and outdoors hikers: “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” Some are photographers who specialize in documenting urban ruins and scenes of industrial decay. Professional photographers working in this field include Julia Solis and Andrew L. Moore. Other well-known photographers, such as Jan Saudek, use the interiors of abandoned buildings as backdrops for their figurative and portrait works.
Methods and technology
Some urban explorers use head-cams such as GoPro or other helmet cameras for videos.
Some also use quadcopter drones for exploration and recording.
The location-based games Ingress and the following Pokémon Go based on the former have urban exploration elements. While some are concerned with keeping certain sites secret from the public at large, mainly to prevent vandalism, several apps dedicated to urban exploration exist.
Urbex sites exist almost anywhere in the world. However, as a general rule, the interesting nature of a site will be based on a few key factors:
Age of local modern culture – A recently modernised country such as Australia for example is naturally going to be lacking in ancient catacombs.
History – A country with a turbulent past may have military ruins, a country in the former Soviet bloc may have communist factories, economic strife coupled with lax zoning regulations may give rise to abandoned hotels. Urbex is as much about delving into the past as it is exploring the present.
Natural biomes – The nature of the local plant life. A region hospitable towards vines, creepers and weeds may make for a more atmospheric explore than a desert… but not always.
Strict urban planning regulations and exponential urban sprawl throughout the country’s entire modern history has left Australian abandonments somewhat scarce, but not completely absent. Do not expect to stumble upon any long-lost historic sites however, as Australia has a reputation for perhaps overuse of historical preservation laws: quite willing to even list an entire building as protected (and thus maintained) on account of a single chimney.
Draining, the somewhat dangerous exploration of public works is rather popular on the east coast.
The Cold War from 1945 to 1991 left behind military installations, bomb shelters and a partly fortified border called the Iron Curtain.
Exploring abandoned communist era factories in Iaşi
Prora – at the Baltic Sea coast lies Hitler’s beach resort for 20,000 guests which got finished but never got into use.
Referred to locally as haikyo, one can explore mostly abandoned 80s-90s bubble-era service industry facilities (mostly hotels), plus the odd wartime relic (coastal military burrows). Due to the high levels of respect in Japanese culture, plus a cultural regard for beauty in decay, the community is a bit more open in Japan, but do not abuse this privilege. Japanese urbex has some crossovers with cosplay. Best place to start is a bookshop as sufficient books are available to give them a dedicated shelf in the larger Shinjuku shops. Books typically provide useful details for a site slated for future demolition, to some location hints for a regular site and sometimes nothing on fragile or historically significant site.
Local sites predominantly are recently abandoned. What sets South Korea apart are the high numbers of entire abandoned neighbourhoods. Modern Korean urban geography consists of many skyscraper apartment block communities which contrasts heavily with the former Asian styled small low rise neighbourhoods of 2-storey concrete houses and alleyway-sized streets. As such, Urbex sites pop up and vanish regularly as the chaebol (Japanese: zaibatsu) companies slowly buy up entire suburbs in preparation for urban renewal. Despite once being famed for the “rotting theme parks of East Asia”, the vast majority of these have in fact been utterly levelled in the name of rapid progress. In contrast to South Korea’s neighbours, Urbex is not seen favourably by residents.
As abandoned sites are, by their nature, not kept up by anyone, it is essential that an urbexer leaves them how they are found for the next visitor to prevent a slow but steady decay. That means do not remove anything from the site. Do not move things needlessly. If something is moved for a photo, move it back before departing. Do not litter. Removing even moss from a wall or weeds, vines and creepers is frowned upon as this can negatively impact a future photo shoot. Basic respect and all that. Some sites, whose locations often but not always remain a closely guarded secret, are contenders for future historical preservation, or in a few odd cases even potential UNESCO World Heritage rating. Archaeological sites often omit specific location from their public entries on historic registers to prevent the historical record from being damaged or destroyed.
If exploring an abandoned business or theme park, then a single business card or flyer (in cases only when there is an entire room full of them: more common than you’d think) is sometimes deemed an exception to this rule by specific urbexer enclaves, but not by the broader community as it can constitute theft. Plus, for a popular site, that room full of discarded cards—a bizarre sight in itself — can whittle down very rapidly.
This is much of the reason why giving out maps and directions to a site in public is taboo within the community. Unless the experienced urbexer has been able to meet, talk to, and sufficiently understand the potential recipient of information, there is no way to ensure that they are not a vandal or treasure hunter. It only takes a single undignified urbexer to at best, ruin a site, at worst, erase a piece of history.
For photographers annotating photographs, in keeping with this guideline, the norm is to just state the name (often an exonym) for the site and details down to country or sometimes state/province/prefecture level. For sites of extraordinary historical value or fragility, and little fame, no details apart from an exonym is the norm.
‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints, and avoid the latter if you can.’
Safety is or should be the number one preoccupation of any exploration. Urbex trips are often fraught with danger. Abandoned buildings or entire ghost towns are abandoned for a reason. Decrepit floors and stairs might collapse under your weight, a brush against rusty metal could give you tetanus, you might run into a gang that’s been playing around in the place, encounters with wild animals, etc. On the upside, law enforcement is unlikely to care too much about your being there. At worst you would probably get a fine, and be allowed to walk out on your own.
Underground Urbex suffers from several physical threats—again, crumbling infrastructure can be your enemy, as well as resident weirdos and animals, but there are extra dangers from steam vents, electricity, flash floods, and poisonous gases. Make sure you know what you are doing. Abandoned mines are a particularly dangerous maze of cramped, dark tunnels with sections submerged in water and vertical shafts dropping 60 metres or more. Rock may be crumbling; wooden structures which once supported the tunnels may be rotting. Cave-ins, falls, contaminated mine water and poisonous gas are hazards.
Danger from law enforcement has increased exponentially in the United States and several other countries following major terrorist attacks. If you are found on camera to be sneaking around subway tunnels, you may find yourself arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity: that’s far worse than a fine for trespassing!
A good place to check for legal dangers is to review details of your intended country’s freedom to wander.
There are universally recommended steps to keep yourself safe while exploring, and you would be a fool not to follow them. Don’t ever do this alone. Make sure that someone else knows what you are doing, and plan to check in with them at set times. Bring a phone, light source with multiple batteries, hard hat if appropriate, heavy duty boots, and some water and food. If trying something new, do research first either on the chosen site, or at least on the type of site… and lastly, if it rains, no drains!
Wandering around non-public or otherwise off-limits area of otherwise inhabited sites or buildings (without authorization or consent) may entail far less physical danger, but an exponentially increased chance of discovery and trouble with law enforcement, site operators or other authorities.
Government buildings, airports, sea-ports, as well as rail and transit infrastructure (examples being tracks, depots, rail-yards, plant rooms and car-sheds), are exceptionally paranoid due to ongoing threats from terrorism. You will end up in jail (potentially for an extended period) if discovered. In some countries and even some specific sites, it is worth considering individual staff, law enforcement, and “security” can be very direct in ensuring the integrity of their sites.
Industrial sites have also become quite paranoid.
Staff and “security” can also be somewhat direct in respect of hotels and commercial buildings, even if the concerns are motivated by more concerns about potential criminal intent, than ongoing terrorism concerns. Whilst many may respond with a demand to leave the building or a request to pay a fine, others will have no hesitation in calling law enforcement.
Even in heavy-traffic areas which are clearly open to the public (such as banks and subway/metro stations), you may be confronted if you attempt to take photographs, or make notes about certain things.
In popular culture
Urban exploration is featured in a number of works, in a variety of media, such as:
Bradley L. Garrett’s work of nonfiction, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City (2013)
John Green’s novel Paper Towns (2008)
In James Rollins’ Sigma Force novel 6.5, The Skeleton Key (2010), cataphile and urban explorer Renny MacLeod, who has tattooed the Paris Catacombs on his body, is kidnapped and forced to guide former Guild member Seichan to find and save the kidnapper’s son, who is scheduled be sacrificed, at noon, by the Order of the Solar Temple.
VICELAND premiered ABANDONED on September 2, 2016, a series hosted by skateboarder Rick McCrank about abandoned places and the people who love them.
Red Bull TV launched URBEX – Enter At Your Own Risk on August 1, 2016, an 8-part series about the motivations, mindsets, and adventures of urban explorers.
Travel Channel aired Off Limits (2011-2013), a series based on urban exploration hosted by Don Wildman.
Unforgettable’s “Maps and Legends” (season 2, episode 7) featured urban exploration.
Discovery Channel briefly ran Urban Explorers (2005), a series based on urban exploration hosted by urban explorer Steve Duncan.
stalkers – subculture of urban exploration in Russia and Ukraine. The name comes from the novel Roadside Picnic.
diggers (ru:Диггерство) – an alternative subculture of urban exploration in Russia and Ukraine
rural exploration, or rurex – similar to urban exploration but often taking place in rural settings
Source from Wikipedia