June 11, 2020

What is Urbex? – Urban Exploration

Few things have stamped such an indelible mark on our planet than our towns and cities. They have developed and expanded over time, with many features built over, on, or through others. Some are knocked down or replaced, streets change, buildings are abandoned. The character of an urban area is shaped by history. And it's all about one thing; people.

There is an abiding concept that cities and towns are something to escape from, that they represent dirt, grime, noise, stress. And, to an extent, this is true. Abandoned buildings and brownfield sites appear as an eyesore, yearning for development.

However, there's a dimension to urban areas, a vitality, a sense of mystique that appeals to many, and which is not always understood. And this is one of the things that inspires those who engage in the pastime of Urbex.

The Urban Jungle

The sport of parkour - or Freerunning - with its intense physical exertion along with the thrill of danger, uses the urban landscape as a sort of playground for grown-ups - albeit a hazardous one. This pastime was only accepted as a sport in 2017 in the UK and although not exactly illegal elsewhere, it can lead to prosecution in some cases. The traceurs, as they call themselves, seek to push their minds and bodies to ever greater extremes, using the city as an obstacle course (the name Parkour comes from the French for obstacle course - Parcours du combattant).

It may be that they are too focused on their task, pumped up with adrenalin, to notice the buildings they are leaping across, or to feel a sense of their history or purpose.

Either way, the same can't possibly be said of Urban Exploration.

So, What Is Urbex?

Urban Exploration may sound a little dull at first. It doesn't convey the same sense of excitement and danger as parkour. It could conjure an image of middle-aged men in anoraks, trudging around grey, exhaust fume-filled streets, staring at office blocks, apartments, and factories.

First of all, we need to rid ourselves of that comical notion. The term urban could be slightly misleading here; Urban Explorers will head to any man-made structure above or below ground, especially if abandoned, and not necessarily in a strictly 'urban' setting. And the alternative name for urbex - Roof and Tunnel Hacking - possibly conveys it better. The main idea behind it is the thrill of discovery, to go into places deemed off-limits, abandoned, or forgotten.

Consider the countless thrillers, horror films, ghost-hunting series, games, and so on, all using derelict buildings to heighten the sense of mystery, intrigue, and suspense. Once again, it all comes down to people. These structures were designed, built, and used by people. Each and every inch is imbued with some aspect of humanity - even the damage inflicted after the building has fallen out of use. Graffiti, vandalism, and litter are not pleasant to encounter, but they nonetheless add to the experience.

Who Is URBEX For?

This is where it gets more interesting. With parkour, the expectation is that those involved will be younger, fitter, and more agile. When it comes to urbex, most are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines, such as the following:

  • History
  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Architecture
  • Augmented Reality Gaming
  • Paranormal Investigation

Urban explorers will frequently document and photograph the details and features they find. It is an intensely 'human' pastime, soaking in an atmosphere of the past lives of people. Often, they will be the last to use a building before it is destroyed. There is a general sense that they are engaging in something good - even if they are breaking trespass laws.

Clearly, this pastime is not without its dangers. Lift shafts, unstable floors or stairways, asbestos, discarded drug paraphernalia - all of these should be taken into account. As should the possibility of arrest. 

But none of this is likely to deter the avid Urban Explorer, who will happily seek out a new place to delve into with torch, helmet-cam. and notebook in hand. It might not be for everyone, but as long as there's a forgotten silo or abandoned amusement park to investigate, there'll be someone there to explore it.

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