by Fiona Ferbrache
Robert Macfarlane (author of The Old Ways and other adventures on foot) focused his attention on Urban Exploration last month with an article in The Guardian. Macfarlane’s piece opens as “a guide for the uninitiated”; a little like a job application with a list of essential criteria for those wishing to pepper pot manoeuvre the architecture and materiality of urban spaces. Following Macfarlane through a “strange world of urban exploration”, the reader is introduced to a land of porous infrastructure where spaces deemed to be closed off, secret and securitised are opened up by the urban explorer.
Geographers reading Macfarlane’s article may decipher urban exploration as a critical engagement with space. For example, he writes that “the usual constraints of urban motion, whether enforced by physical barriers or legal convention” do not necessarily restrict the urban explorer. In another way, street level is interpreted as “a median altitude” in urban exploration, as accessible spaces penetrate downwards through sewers, bunkers and tunnels, and upwards via skyscrapers and cranes. Perhaps this is proper space exploration as well as urban exploration?
Macfarlane is guided through his urban initiation by experienced explorer (and geographer) Bradley Garrett. From Macfarlane’s conversational introduction to urban exploration, readers can gain a more theoretical perspective from Garrett (2013) in an early view TIBG paper. Here, Garrett refers to urban exploration as “recreational trespass” and explores explicitly some of the challenges to spatial engagements that are implied by Macfarlane: “urban exploration as a practice that speaks directly to past and present debates around space, place, subversion, surveillance, community and urban life within geography” (p.2).
The two articles are written for different audiences, thus offering young geographers useful insights to purposeful writing. For the more experienced geographer, Garrett’s paper sets up urban exploration in the context of political action, and will be of further interest to those concerned with deep ethnographies. For explorers, it may be the physical infrastructure of the local town that seems the most intriguing.
Garrett, B.L. 2010 Urban explorers: quests for myth, mystery and meaning. Geography Compass 4,10 pp.1448-61
Garrett, B.L. 2013 Undertaking recreational trespass: urban exploration and infiltration. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographer. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12001
Macfarlane, R. 2013 The Strange World of Urban Exploration. The Guardian