Urban exploration as a means to personal development and fun

David Pinder, in his work ‘Arts of urban exploration’ (2005), is one of the researchers within the social sciences that has examined what is often known as urban exploration (often shortened as UE). He explains his particular viewpoint in the preamble of his article:

The catalyst of this event in May 2003 came from a Brooklyn-based artist collective called Toyshop. Numbering around 15 to 20 people mainly with a background in the arts, they have staged a number of street interventions and forms of direct action over the last few years. Centred on the street artist Swoon, the group / previously called Swoon Union or Swoon Squad / is concerned with public space and its democratization through what it calls ‘creative forms of productive mischief’. ‘[R]ooting around the edges of appropriate acts of citizenship’, its members say, ‘we are using every means at our disposal to make a city that instigates our creative impulses and fosters the feral spirit’. They describe how they work with the city ‘as muse and medium’. Criticizing the privatization of public space and the associated passivization of city dwellers, they state: ‘We are attempting to, through example, create a participatory model for citizens to take part in the physical and social structure of the environment we live in.’ Through street art and other interventions, its members seek to exploit opportunities for play and subversion as they interact with the city’s spaces. Swoon’s own art particularly involves the creation of life-sized figures on walls from delicate paper cut-outs, carved tape or woodblock prints. They often represent figures from her life or characters associated with particular places. They are an example of how work on streets can give people ‘a new, often transient set of landmarks with which to guide themselves’, and allow them ‘in a concrete way to see the manifestation of a certain kind of vitality in the city’.

Although urban exploration, in this sense, is partially historically linked to so called situationists, and thus often constitutes an active critique of the ‘privatization’ of the public sphere (Why am I, as a citizen, not allowed to go to, dwell or reside everywhere in public areas?), urban exploration is often associated with – as the name implies – the direct experience of cities, particularly abondoned buildings, tunnels (for instance transit tunnels and utility tunnels), sewers and other more or less inaccessible parts of its fragmented geography. The pioneers of UE were a group of youngsters who called themselves The Cave clan and who did their groundbreaking activities in Melbourne in Australia back in 1986.

Over the last three-four decades UE has gradually become a more established subculture, and people – often teenagers or young adults – visit new places where they make tags or leave other kinds of traces of their visits, take multible pictures with their cameras or cell phones and share them online (although this is of course not necessarily the case), and follow the customs that have been constructed in interplay with other, earlier, urban explorers. One such custom is to – once again – share photos online but seldom, and for obvious reasons, not reveal the identities of the explorers. And the fact that these communities resemble sort of a ‘secret society’ does certainly add to its appeal.

If one is interested in this phenomenon, there are tons of material online to look into, whether general articles and information, or UE communities as well as various YouTube videos (and there is actually a 86 minutes long documentary film, Urban exploration: Into the darkness (2007), dedicated to UE).

But to make a complex story short and cut to the chase, UE is – or, at least, may be – an excellent way to broaden one’s horizon of understanding the world and the environments that surround us but which are rarely explored. In conjunction with UE, a person may learn a lot about a particular part of a city’s history, and with this in mind, a rather broad age spectrum of its potential target group seems natural. Perhaps it is a constructive way to preserve one’s juvenile dimensions? A combination of facts and fun.


As a potential urban explorer, you may chose your local small town (or even the countryside, like a desolated house, church or castle, which thus instead makes into ‘rural exploration’!), Stockholm, London, New York, Paris or some other place as your point of departure – the main thing is that you, preferably, look after the special locations, somewhat hidden from the general routes where citizens tend to be allocated, and examine them, probably in tandem with a few friends.

And trust me, this might create collective memories that will last as long as you live. For instance, during the spring time of 2010, I and two friends made two intriguing explorations in Uppsala (where we all lived at that time) and Stockholm. Nothing ‘extreme’ and truly unique – to the extent to which that is relevant – but still interesting, inspiring and somewhat thrilling.

And the activities do not even have to be prohibited or illegal; sometimes it is just interesting to walk around, along a particular street or in a particular neighborhood (동네 in Korean), especially if you visit a city for the first (and perhaps also the last) time. I come to think of everything from Los Angeles, to Budapest, to Oslo, to Kuala Lumpur, to Busan, to New York city, when I associate this with many spontaneous city walks. It is stimulating, and sometimes even venterous (although all is relative), but nevertheless very often rewarding. But then it is not UE as it is generally understood, but rather a way to  experience or ‘interact with the urban environment’ in the sense that David Pinder discusses (but most likely without any political implications, since one is only there for a brief time).

Additionally, one might burn quite a massive amount of calories, and in a lot more interesting environments than in the gym or at the regular jogging route, while experiencing UE of some sort. But most importantly, it is a fun and interesting activity (재미있는 일 이에요).

Urban exploration (ofta förkortat som UE) är ett intressant fenomen som har en historia som sträcker sig från 1986 och en grupp ungdomar i Melbourne, Australien, och som successivt har utvecklats till en subkultur. Många har säkert hört talas om det eller testat på det själv (oavsett om de känner till termen eller inte).

I grunden handlar det om att utforska olika övergivna och mer eller mindre svårtillgängliga byggnader och andra typer av stadsmiljöer, till exempel tunnelbanesystem och mentalsjukhus. Man kan även tänka sig mer lantliga miljöer – gamla kyrkor, slott och övergivna hus – som ett slags rural motsvarighet till detta. Och det behöver inte vara en jättestor stad för att finnas intressanta, outforskade eller i alla fall mindre vanliga platser att uppsöka.

I dag finns det mängder av UE-forum där utövare delar bilder och diskuterar tips och erfarenheter, och på YouTube hittar man förstås mängder av videoklipp som berör fenomenet på ett eller annat sätt. Inom denna subkultur finns en hel del kutym, både vad gäller hur man helst bör bete sig på plats, och beträffande att inte avslöja identiteten på vare sig själv eller andra utövare. Det är en gemensam aktivitet som man företrädesvis gör tillsammans med några vänner och inte talar högt om, eller i alla fall inte är alltför specifik beträffande.

Jag har testat på UE- eller UE-liknande aktiviteter i Sverige, och i en bredare mening även i flertalet andra länder genom långa, spontana promenader i både respektive stadskärna och -periferi. Det är, eller har åtminstone potential till att vara, en utmärkt aktvitet som hjälper en att vidga sin förståelse av världen, och kan ge fantastiska minnen för livet att dela tillsammans med andra. Man kan också lära sig en hel del om städer och platsers historia, speciellt om man gör lite egen research innan, i samband med, eller efter vistelsen.

Tänk också på hur många kalorier det bränner att gå, huka, krypa, klättra och hoppa i flera timmar. Garanterat mer intressant kardioträning än att vara inne i ett gym, särskilt under vår- och sommarperioden. Bejaka barnasinnet på ett konstruktivt sätt. Vi ska alla dö förr eller senare och det finns all anledning att gå utanför sin egen comfort zone och göra något spännande och annorlunda.