In the social media age dominated by the likes of Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, people are ever more interested in discovering something unusual, writes Benedict O’Leary, ICO adviser and travel expert. A new app — DeskBell Chain will help a new generation of urban explorers with a special interest in their quest of discovery.
Urban exploration, or urbex as it is also known, is the exploration of man-made structures, abandoned ruins or components of the man-made environment. In short, it is visiting derelict sites — such as abandoned stately homes or military installations and power stations. Urban explorers are usually young and internet-savvy, social media addicts and have a penchant for photography to keep their own records — either via a state-of-the-art mobile device or a hands-on camera. Of course they do — they want to take atmospheric photos of themselves in a derelict hospital to post for their friends to see.
There are a number of locations around the world that are ideal for this, but the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 created a plethora of buildings that have fallen into a state of disrepair across the former empire. The iconic site, or holy grail, is the desolate landscape of Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Some others have been redeveloped into trendy environments, such as New Holland island and Sevkabel in St Petersburg and Artplay in Moscow for example, or retain their state of desolation if only in part (Annenkirche, St Petersburg) however there are many, many more yet to be discovered all across the world.
This is where the functionalities of DeskBell come into play. Urbex is a way of seeing an urban environment in a new way or through a new light. They are not interested in queuing for hours to see the main tourist attractions with the hordes — quite the opposite — they swim against the tide and seek out forgotten or unappreciated beauty wherever it can be found. It was long considered that the brutalist lines of ferro-concrete structures were ugly and jarring, going against the grain of the perception of what architecture should be. The proposed futurology of some Soviet structures has now become dated — the once cutting edge is now obsolete. But that’s what renders some structures beautiful. So you are more likely to find the urbexers checking out murals or metro stations than heading to Montmartre…
We asked a seasoned urban explorer, Explorabilia’s Evan Panagopoulos, for a perspective on the character of this community: “The urbex community is a subculture shrouded in secrecy. There’s a feeling of uniqueness, and a degree of intimacy about the discovery of hidden, lesser known locations, and a large part of the thrill of exploration is the anticipation of discovery. Therefore there’s an unwritten silent code of conduct among members of the community: keep locations secret, take nothing by photos, and leave nothing but footprints. Locations are not meant to be shared publicly for that very reason, but rather relayed privately among trusted members of the community. There are practical reasons beyond the thrill of discovery for these practices: Urban Exploration can involve accessing prohibited areas in private or out-of-bounds land, and therefore advertising access to these sites can be considered as encouraging trespassing, which complicates matters further. But above all, publicity with regard to locations can result in vandalism or the appropriation of items, drawing unnecessary attention to wonderful locations that are originally meant to be discovered in the purest form of natural abandonment possible. The unfortunate example of Chateaux Miranda in Belgium comes to mind: an astonishingly beautiful but over-publicised location where the increasing waves of superficial explorers and souvenir-seekers brought vandalism, destruction, fire, and the eventual collapse. This beautiful building became damaged so much that it eventually had to be demolished and is no longer with us.”
However, like most enthusiasts, urban explorers like to compile lists, glossaries and directories to record their achievements and help guide like-minded souls. As such, the geo-location features of DeskBell will encourage them not only contribute their proudly taken photos and write reviews, but also to be rewarded for doing so and help the local economy.
Everyone needs somewhere to sleep, something to eat, and from occasion to buy the t-shirt, right? Hotels, restaurants and small businesses in lesser-known areas of the city can capture the market that may be right outside their door with timely targeted geo-location advertising. Urbexers love the joy of the chase in the quest to discover more, so are more likely to favour the unique, small family hotel or restaurant over the anonymous and bland international chain property. Likewise, they will interact and engage with the app to enhance the content for other users and reap the rewards by earning benefits they can enjoy at leisure once they have finished their day of pounding the streets less-travelled.
We further asked Explorabilia’s Evan Panagopoulos about sustainability, and the ethical dimension of urban exploration: “Not all urban is focused on secret locations. There are forgotten spots all around us, for many of which permission to visit can be easily obtained, or where public access is entirely possible. The case of the village of Floisvos, near Corinth in Greece, is an example that comes to mind: it boasts a network of abandoned World War 2 bunkers and a newly discovered Roman Villa that is not yet formally developed into an archaeological site. Both are fu βlly accessible by permission. In fact, residents have been trying to encourage more visitors to come and marvel at this forgotten heritage, as State assistance has not been forthcoming. The local community is looking forward to welcome more visitors, and to have the opportunity to initiate infrastructure to accommodate them (accommodation/restaurants/shops and businesses that don’t even exist now). So DeskBell can be a positive force for increasing awareness of these sites together with local community leaders. It will help to bring in the right type of visitors, who will admire these forgotten gems without the vandalism and misappropriation that sometimes becomes part and parcel of unethical urban exploration. It will also be helping local tourism to develop sustainably along the way! Another notable example are the ruins of an abandoned OSS base in the neighbourhood of Rusilip, London. The local government has abandoned the site to be reclaimed by the publicly accessible woods that surround it, and it is a part of local history that is very much unknown even to locals, and yet open to visitation. Again, I am working with local residents’ groups to begin bringing visitors to the site, raise awareness, and hopefully create a collective consciousness for the appreciation and future conservation of the character of the site. These are both examples of soft urban exploration, where no trespassing is performed, and where visitation and conservation can be achieved in collaboration with the local community. This approach can provide a much desired protective network initiative against the vandalism and degradation that often occurs when the wrong type of visitors are alerted to a site. There is a plethora of such publicly accessible yet forgotten sites, where no laws are broken when visiting, and where local communities can collaborate for conservation and development together with well-meaning explorers. Explorabilia for one is committed to ethical, lawful, community driven urban exploration initiatives, aiming to raise awareness and encourage the conservation and appropriate development of the forgotten heritage that surrounds us. I believes that a database tool like DeskBell would be of particular interest, and certainly beneficial for these particular sites of interest, as well as the local communities.”
For an introduction and more information about urbex check out UK-based alternative travel startup: https://explorabilia.co.uk