Urban exploration (often shortened as UE, urbex and sometimes known as roof-and-tunnel hacking) is the exploration of manmade structures, usually abandoned ruins or hidden components of the manmade environment. Photography and historical interest/documentation are heavily featured in the hobby and it sometimes involves trespassing onto private property. Urban exploration is also called draining (a specific form of urban exploration where storm drains or sewers are explored), urban spelunking, urban rock climbing, urban caving, building hacking, or mousing.
The 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.
Ventures into abandoned structures are perhaps the most common example of urban exploration. Many sites are entered first by locals and may have graffiti or other kinds of vandalism, while others are 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 (廃墟) (literally "ruins"), and 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 profoundly beautiful, and some are also proficient freelance photographers who document what they see, such as those who document the infrastructure of the former USSR.
Another aspect of urban exploration is the practice of exploring active or in use buildings, which includes gaining access 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. Some consider the Mines of Paris, comprising many of the tunnels that are not open to public tourism, including the catacombs, the "Holy Grail" 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 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 railway tunnels, bores, and stations is often considered 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 with an abandoned subway system that was once operational. The Cincinnati subway is also abandoned, but was never completed. London has a number of stations on the London Underground network that have been closed over the years, with Aldwych tube station a popular location for explorers.
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, have a tradition of exploration by students. This practice was once called "vadding" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but students there now call it roof and tunnel hacking.
Some steam tunnels have dirt floors, poor lighting and temperatures above 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 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. Often 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 use in terrorist activities.
The rise in urban exploration's popularity can be attributed to 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 that 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 hobby's popularity, there has been increasing discussion of whether the extra attention has been beneficial. 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 concern among many property owners.
Safety and legality
Urban exploration 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 abandoned structures have hazards such as unstable structures, unsafe floors, broken glass, 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 by 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 contaminants from dried bird feces, which can cause pigeon-breeder's lung, a form of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Urban explorers may use dust masks and respirators to mitigate this danger. Some sites are occasionally used by substance abusers for recreation or waste disposal, and there may be used or infected syringes en route, such as those commonly used with heroin.
The activity's growing popularity has resulted in increased attention not just from explorers but also from vandals and law enforcement. The illicit aspects of urban exploring, which may include trespassing and breaking and entering, have had critical attention in mainstream newspapers.
In Australia, lawyers for the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales shut down the Sydney Cave Clan's website 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 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, writes that genuine urban explorers "never vandalize, steal or damage anything". The thrill comes from "discovery and a few nice pictures". Some explorers also request permission for entry in advance.
Rooftopping and skywalking are the ascent of rooftops, cranes, antennas, smokestacks, etc., usually illegally, to get an adrenaline rush and take selfie photos or videos. Rooftopping is different from skywalking because it is mostly about taking panoramic photographs of the scene below and safety (getting home to see and post your photos) is more important than the thrill. Skywalking 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 in this field include Julia Solis, Rebecca Lilith Bathory Johnny Joo, Seph Lawless, and Andrew L. Moore. Other well-known photographers, such as Jan Saudek, use interiors of abandoned buildings as backdrops for their figurative and portrait works. In recent years the photography blog PetaPixel has run numerous stories about urban exploration photography.
Methods and technology
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.
In popular culture
Urban exploration is featured in a number of works, in a variety of media, such as:
- Red Bull TV launched URBEX – Enter At Your Own Risk on 1 August 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.
- Nestor, James (19 August 2007). "The Art of Urban Exploration". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 20 June 2008.
- Haeber, Jonathan (21 December 2008). "Complete Guide to Urban Exploration". Bearings. Retrieved 30 September 2009.
- Gakuran, Michael. "The Hazards of Haikyo and Urban Exploration". Retrieved 21 June 2011.
- "Haikyo: Abandoned Treasure". Weekender. May 2010. Retrieved 18 November 2010.
- Shevchenko, Vitaly (11 February 2014). "The urban explorers of the ex-USSR". BBC. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
- Paris Underground Map (Map). Michel-Eugène Lefébure de Fourcy. 1841.
- "Boy, 14, drowns in drain during heavy rains". GNA. 4 June 2007. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
- Owen, Mary (5 December 2004). "Abandoned beauties: Urban explorers find adventure in ruins of old buildings". U-T San Diego. Retrieved 27 July 2009.
- "Urban exploration - Richard Shepherd photographs derelict buildings in the North East and further afield". BBC Tyne, Broadcasting Centre. 20 August 2008. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
- Batz Jr., Bob (7 September 2003). "Urban explorers dare to investigate seldom-seen Pittsburgh sites". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 20 June 2008.
- Ebaster, Al (19 September 2007). "Legal Urban Exploration: 7 Tips for Visiting Historical Abandonments". Web Urbanist.
- "Meet the rooftoppers: the urban outlaws who risk everything to summit our cities". The Guardian.
- Lucy Ash, Article in "BBC News" March 23, 2017
- "Motto of the Baltimore Grotto (caving society)". The Quotations Page. QuotationsPage.com. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
- "Afraid of heights? You'll still want to watch this". Red Bull. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
- "The Hong Kong urban adventurers for whom nothing is too tall, or deep, or spooky". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
- "Meet the Place Hackers". Time (magazine). Retrieved 11 February 2017.
- Ives, Mike (7 February 2017). "Using Stealth, and Drones, to Document a Fading Hong Kong". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
- Harris, Jesse. The Practical Guide to Ingress: What you really need to know without the extraneous junk. Jesse Harris. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
- "Why Pokémon Go will surprise you in your own city". Newsweek. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
- "Pokémon Go - A New Avenue for Urban Exploration » CSBE". Center for the Study of the Built Environment. Archived from the original on 12 February 2017. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
- Walker, Alissa. "5 Apps That Help You Find Your City's Hidden Gems". Gizmodo. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
- "Abandoned App Leads You to Local Urban Exploration Sites". WebUrbanist. 26 February 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
- "The ultimate selfie! Daredevils show no fear chasing the perfect shot". Retrieved 11 August 2016.
- Timothy Hannem, Urbex : 50 lieux secrets et abandonnés en France, Arthaud, ISBN 978-2081356078
- Garrett, Bradley L. (October 2013). Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. Verso Books, Brooklyn, London and Paris. ISBN 9781781681299. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
- Gates, Moses (2012). Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World's Great Metropolises; A Memoir of Urban Exploration Tarcher, New York. ISBN 978-1585429349
- Lyden, Jacki (14 September 2013). "New York Underground: Exploring City Caves and Catacombs". All Things Considered. NPR.
- Margaine, Sylvain (2009) Forbidden Places: Exploring Our Abandoned Heritage (Hardcover), ISBN 2-915807-82-5
- Ninjalicious (2005). Access All Areas: A user's guide to the art of urban exploration. PO Box 13, Station E, Toronto, ON M6H 4E1 Canada: Infilpress. ISBN 0-9737787-0-9
- Paiva, Troy (2008) Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration Chronicle Books ISBN 0-8118-6338-7
- Melody Gilbert's Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness (2007), a documentary about some of the world's urban explorers.