What are urban explorers?

By: Josh Clark
The convergence of nature and man-made construction in a house in Norfolk, England. The best of both worlds?
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

You’ve most likely spent time in nature. Maybe you went fishing at some remote pond. Or perhaps you simply took a leisurely stroll in the woods. If so, then you probably noticed the comfort and serenity that the woods provide. Birds call to one another, dappled sunlight streams through the tree canopy overhead, and water flows tranquilly over rocks in a nearby brook. Colors seem more vivid, too, like the verdant green that’s exclusive to a moss-covered log. All of these sensory things converge to restore you when you enter the woods.

In many ways, this is the antithesis of urban exploration.


While natural forests are composed of trees, shrubbery, wildlife and streams, there's a new great outdoors here on Earth: man-made forests. These are cities of concrete and steel with skyscrapers and underground tunnels. And some people actually prefer this kind of forest.

There are entire modern abandoned cities dotting the planet, begging to be investigated. Within and underneath functioning cities, sections have been lost or left to decay. In some places, new town quarters are built on top of old ones. Abandoned buildings that may make some shudder with the creeps offer invitations of exploration to others. These people are called urban explorers.

Most of the places these explorers trod are derelict; their structural integrity is questionable, and sometimes these sites are lousy with toxic materials. What’s more, surveying these sites is against the law: Entering condemned, forbidden and abandoned property is considered trespassing and can carry fines and even jail time. Still, urban explorers brush past warning signs, hop fences and crawl through tunnels to enter these strangely alluring quarters.

So who exactly are these urban explorers? What is it that makes them risk their well-being in pursuit of places the rest of us have deemed useless or unsafe? Find out about what urban explorers do and how the pastime got started on the next page.


The Origins and Codes of Urban Exploration

This abandoned factory of OPEL auto makers in Bochum, Germany, looks like a great place to explore.
Photo courtesy FrizzText

Curiosity about abandoned places has fostered urban exploration (UE) for centuries. But many credit a counterculture group known as the Suicide Club, formed in­ San Francisco in the late 1970s, as the progenitors of modern urban exploration. This group undertook tours of utility tunnels and old hospitals around the city and threw dinner parties in strange places like the Golden Gate Bridge [source: San Francisco Chronicle]. The Suicide Club, in part, helped to point out that there are vast, forgotten areas of the urban landscape and suggested that perhaps there’s some value in infiltrating these places. And thus, urban exploration was born.

Urban needn’t mean "city." In regard to UE, it means investigating any man-made structure. While developed areas, like cities, have more sites to offer, some very interesting structures are off the beaten path. They take explorers to remote abandoned mines or missile silos in the middle of nowhere. Unusual or unique man-made structures like abandoned ships, sewer systems and office complexes all beckon urban explorers. As long as the site is no longer in use, off-limits and man-made, an urban explorer will probably want to visit.


UE gained popularity during the 1990s, and codes of conduct have developed over time. Explorers follow ethics like not taking anything found in these places or leaving any trace of their presence. Graffiti is definitely frowned upon, as is any form of vandalism. Nothing should be taken or broken. As an explorer called TunnelBug succinctly put it, “If it’s gone, then other people who come here won’t be able to enjoy it" [source: San Francisco Chronicle].

Urban exploration purists advocate only trespassing -- not breaking and entering. This means that using wire cutters to create an opening in a fence, breaking windows or kicking in doors is against the code of ethics. This forces explorers to get creative when finding an entry point into a structure.

These explorers usually take photos of the places they visit. The Internet has boosted the profile of UE, and photos of excursions can be found on any number of Web sites, as can videos of exploration on sites like YouTube. It’s also allowed groups to form in countries around the world. Books and documentary films of the culture have been produced. And there are legends in this impromptu community. One explorer is revered for infiltrating a tunnel beneath a cemetery that was filled with stalactites made of grave wax -- fatty deposits from decaying corpses.

It should be said that UE is an extremely dangerous and illegal pastime. By nature, old abandoned buildings are unsafe. They haven’t been maintained or inspected, sometimes for decades. Rotting floorboards, collapsing roofs and unstable staircases can lead to injury or death. And accidents do happen from time to time. In January 2008, two Australians were killed while exploring a sewer system in Sydney. A burst of rainwater from a sudden storm swept them off their feet and carried them to a sewer grate, where they were pinned and drowned [source: The Age].

Incidents like this have attracted police forces' attention. In South Wales, police warned people to stay away from an abandoned local theater after explorers posted photos taken inside the structure [source: Swansea]. Increased police awareness of UE, as well as burgeoning public popularity and media attention, have caused many explorers to take their activity underground. They've begun tightening standards of group membership and hiding their Web sites.

So with all of the danger and possible run-ins with the law, why do people engage in urban exploration? Find out why on the next page.


Urban Explorers' Motivations

The imposing abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium at Waverly Hills in Kentucky.
Photo courtesy Pam Culver

Why would anyone want to traipse around crumbling factories or wiggle through narrow underground shafts? Abandoned buildings and other neglected structures are viewed by most people as dark, dangerous places. But peel away the layers of graffiti, broken windows, drug paraphernalia and the occasional corpse: There you’ll find the allure that beckons urban explorers.

Many abandoned sites are eventually torn down -- perhaps the greatest role of the urban explorer is to serve as a building’s last witness. Buildings are created with people in mind; they’re constructed to serve some function that benefits us. But when buildings are abandoned, these sites cease to have any sort of purpose. By gazing upon these structures as art or historical monuments, urban explorers give them a new purpose. Most people who undertake urban exploration consider the journey as an end in itself. The experience of scoping out forgotten areas is reason enough to explore. But there are also more specific reasons that people seek out man-made structures.


Some appreciate the old architecture and ancient machinery. For other people, it’s the thrill of just standing still in a silent, untraveled place. Others find beauty in the type of decay that can be found only in neglected buildings.

One class of urban explorers considers itself curators of a lost past. These documentarians take their role seriously. One UE Web site, ForgottenDetroit.com, is dedicated to cataloging the crumbling remains of downtown Detroit’s golden age. The site is filled with histories of the area’s buildings and photos of incursions made within them, after they became neglected.

Urban explorers who appreciate history find it in plentiful supply in abandoned spaces. All old structures have pasts, and there are some pretty colorful ones left neglected around the world. For example, the enormous, abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium at Waverly Hills in Kentucky still has a morgue, which stands as a reminder of the more than 60,000 patients who died there [source: Manhattan Project (which produced the atomic bomb) took place [source: New York Times].

In derelict buildings like these, what were once common, everyday items take on new meaning. An old desk, a ragged doll, a defunct elevator motor, a row of seats, personnel files -- all of these things serve as reminders of the sites’ past incarnations. Wandering in these spaces, the explorer's mind reels, imagining what they were once like.

For those explorers with an appreciation for architecture, there's a veritable gold mine to be found in forsaken districts. Many older structures feature intricate handiwork that is rarely seen in today’s construction. UE offers an escape from the homogeneity found in newly built shopping malls and homes -- like the abandoned, cathedral-like small pox hospital on New York’s Roosevelt Island or the campy signage that still adorns Columbus, Ohio’s abandoned Linden Air drive-in movie theater [source: San Francisco Chronicle]. Exploration reveals the period details found in old movie palaces and theaters and the decadence found in historic hotels, like the ornate balconies that adorned the walls of the grand ballroom in Detroit's Booker-Cadillac hotel. This kind of observation isn't too far removed from urban anthropology, in which people study society by examining its discarded past.

Whatever his or her motive, an urban explorer finds adventure in these abandoned sites. There's a peacefulness in these empty, concrete caves that isn't like the solitude found in the woods. It's an experience opposite of nature; instead of finding reassurance in the renewal of the seasons, the urban explorer finds kinship with the past.


Lots More Information

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