Urban Exploration as Creative Practice

February 26, 2024

While the practice of urban exploration exists outside of the domains of architecture, planning, and historic preservation, its practitioners share a curiosity for buildings and places, and an appreciation for design and history.


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Cook County Hospital, Chicago, Illinois. © Nosedive.

Urban exploration, or urbex, is a phenomenon that is performed everywhere in the world, from the former Soviet Union to Rockford, Illinois. The practice of entering vacant, uninhabited, or abandoned buildings and places for the purpose of exploration and documentation is performed as a creative act, a source of adrenaline, a defiance of authority, a social media flex, or any combination of these. Yet, in the realms of urbex and the explorers that practice it, there is a variance in methodology, ethics, and goals, both for the places that are explored and the explorers themselves.

Urban exploration might be defined as the practice of entering vacant, uninhabited, or abandoned buildings for the purpose of exploration or documentation. The terms “vacant,” “uninhabited,” and “abandoned” are often used interchangeably by urban explorers to describe exploration sites. Sites are found through networks of communication between explorers, but also through the practice of exploring itself. Many practitioners keep locations secret, as either a point of pride, a way to keep the sites exclusive, or to prevent sites from being vandalized or graffitied. Whether sites are documented via photography or video, or experienced without documentation, the act of exploration itself is often a creative endeavor.

While urbex exists outside of the domains of architecture, planning, and historic preservation, its practitioners share a curiosity for buildings and places, and an appreciation for design and history. Yet, there is a variance in what explorers desire these buildings to ultimately become. Some wish for them to return to the ranks of usability through care and maintenance, while others wish for them to remain in their decayed state.

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Home interior, undisclosed location. © Nosedive.

Urbex sites range in typology and age, as well as across the public and private sector. Abandoned amusement parks, like Jazzland/Six Flags in New Orleans, which opened in 2000 and closed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, are explored in earnest just as a vernacular nineteenth-century farmhouse on Long Island, New York, might be, or a midcentury modern psychiatric hospital in Chicago, or the 1911 Packard Motor Plant in Detroit.

Some of the most highly sought-after urbex sites are those that appear to have been abandoned abruptly, without consideration for even the items inside. These items, from medical equipment to furniture and to clothing, add to the intrigue of vacant and abandoned places, and provide opportunities to theorize and judge the conditions that caused them to be abandoned along with the buildings that house them.

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Prison dentist office, undisclosed location. © Nosedive.

Just like the motivations for urbex vary, so do responses to decay itself. Vacant buildings can serve as an instigator towards a fear of what might dwell in buildings now that the original occupants have gone, both from the supernatural and natural world. Places in a state of decay can be ghostly and appeal to those with a penchant towards horror. Buildings without designated occupancy or security can be places where crime or harm could potentially occur, or personal safety could be threatened if a building’s structure is unsafe, a threat from the natural world that competes with the threats from the supernatural one. A decaying building or place is often viewed as indicative of how society or communities do not care for their resources. Vacancy and decay are not usually deliberate acts done to places by careless individuals, yet there is an inclination to criticize vacancy as a circumstance where care is intentionally not applied. However, even when the desire to care is present, that desire alone does not provide the resources, time, or skill to reverse vacancy or decay.

Buildings and places arrive at an unused state due to social, economic, and physical conditions that are rarely visible by looking at them, and almost always outside the simplified challenge that someone might not care enough to maintain them properly. Inequitable planning policies, discriminatory real estate lending, chronic and intergenerational poverty, economic factors, and even natural disasters can cause a building to become vacant. Factors like time, vandalism, and a lack of maintenance continue to exacerbate decay.

The adrenaline rush associated with urbex is also undoubtedly delivered through the act of entering a vacant building without the consent of the owner, under the threat of criminal responsibility. Despite posing an ethical dilemma, the lack of consent and the overlooking of laws associated with trespassing are a part of the process of urbex. Avoiding property owners or law enforcement requires vigilance, coordination, speed, and trust between members of an exploration team.

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Edgewater Hospital Interior, Chicago, Illinois. © Nosedive.

For Tonya Jones and Kelly Donahue of Chicago,1 who explore and photograph under the moniker “Nosedive,” explorations help explain how time affects places and buildings. Their first forays into exploring “bandos”—a shorthand term for abandoned sites—began through visiting vacant sites like Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, which spent nearly two decades in a state of decay before being renovated in 2020, as well as homes, hotels, schools, and churches. Their explorations have brought them face to face with the detritus of human life, abandoned alongside the buildings that house them. “We’ve seen everything from family photos to medical records, and even vials of blood,” shares Donahue. The exploration of abandoned places for their ephemeral nature led Donahue and Jones to begin exploring occupied places that “were on some sort of brink,” shares Jones. They began to seek out nearly dead malls, hanging on by nary a kiosk, as well as chain restaurants like Taco Bell that had missed out on contemporary renovations that would have meant the end of the 1990s-era interiors characterized by teal and purple booths and pink squiggles.

Jones and Donahue find and share exploration sites within a private network of other explorers, who also share information on locations, how to access buildings, and things to watch out for to stay safe. “Getting that intel from others goes a long way,” says Donahue. There is a level of trust amongst members of individual teams that depend on each other for information, but also look towards each other for accountability. While Jones and Donahue will take advantage of an open door or a window broken by previous explorers, they are careful to set a precedent where they aren’t damaging property in order to access a site. Donahue continues, “Yes, it’s trespassing, and yes, somebody doesn’t want us in there, but our goal is always to get in and then get out without anyone knowing that we were there.” Like many urbex practitioners, the explorers that Jones and Donahue share resources with agree to the unwritten rule of “take nothing but pictures” and perform no acts of vandalism.

Urbex exists all over the world, but it also proliferates across the internet. While the practice predates TikTok, the thrill of urban exploration coheres with TikTok’s urge towards risky behavior with limited accountability. For Jones and Donahue, TikTok has brought a different culture of explorers that are looking for shock value and social media clout. TikTok content creators do not always adhere to the same rules regarding sharing locations, leaving sites as they find them, or not performing vandalism—more often than not disregarding the shared ethics of older, more seasoned explorers. Captions and voice overs also allow creators to editorialize, speculate, or fabricate information on a building’s condition or history without accuracy or accountability.

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Gary City Methodist Church Sanctuary, Gary, Indiana. © Nosedive.

It was accountability that repositioned Tyrell Anderson of the Decay Devils from “playing in abandoned buildings” in Gary, Indiana, to founding a thirteen-member nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about the historical and social importance of abandoned buildings. Decay Devils is the driving force behind an effort to reuse Gary’s Union Station, a legendary urbex site abandoned half a century ago, into a network operations center for fiber telecommunications equipment. Anderson found urbex while looking for unique locations for photo and music video shoots, and initially didn’t know about the practice until meeting other artists within other vacant buildings, like Gary’s City Methodist Church. “I was looking for places to shoot without a green screen,” shares Anderson. Abandoned buildings were free studio spaces, yet they also encouraged Tyrell to learn more about the history of the buildings he was shooting in. “For me, it’s just a different way of learning about your history. Most of the places I’ve been to, I didn’t know their historical significance until after I went to take pictures.”

Like Nosedive, the Decay Devils adhere to the golden rule “take nothing but pictures,” but Anderson began to consider how the income he produced on shoots was exploitive, shifting his thinking. Trips to historic cities like Savannah and New Orleans caused him to ponder what the Decay Devils could do at home in Gary, a city plagued with vacant yet historic buildings. Decay Devils began to focus on doing community cleanups and advocating for the adaptive reuse of closed high schools, but soon directed their attention to Gary’s Union Station. Events, workshops, and art installations at the station turned the Decay Devils from more informal urbex practitioners to advocates working to raise awareness of the potential for the building to serve a greater good and its ability to be a catalyst for broader development in the city. This advocacy work led to an opportunity to present a plan to renovate the building to Gary City Council, along with the assistance of a telecommunications development firm. The $8 million renovation broke ground in August 2023, and will include a technology training center and business incubator, with a section of the waiting room to be open to the public. The finished project will nod to the creativity that the Decay Devils deployed to keep the vision of reuse alive.

While decay may make a building seductive from an urbex standpoint, Donahue and Jones acknowledge that seeing buildings coming out of that state is the best-case scenario. “At the end of the day, it is great to see abandoned buildings being reused, and doing something good for the community they are in,” shares Donahue.

Anderson, Jones, and Donahue all acknowledge that their perspectives have changed around explorations. After being locked inside an abandoned building by other explorers, Jones and Donahue are understandably more cautious about their safety. Anderson, an admitted “adrenaline junky,” felt differently about urbex after the Decay Devils visited the site of the Chernobyl disaster. “Once we went to Chernobyl, a high school exploration just didn’t cut it.” Urbex exposes the rigidity of the built environment and all of its intentions and functionality by throwing it into absolute anarchy. The practice highlights the non-existence of a plan for development, management, and often care. This, in addition to its ethical dilemmas, causes planners, architects, and preservationists alike to take umbrage at the practice. Without debating whether the practice of urbex is morally good or correct, it exhibits a way in which a section of the public interfaces directly and creatively with a common predicament that buildings of all types and ages, absent of care, maintenance, and most importantly resources, may find themselves.

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School classroom, undisclosed location. © Nosedive.


The author would like to thank Kelly Donahue, Tonya Jones, and Tyrell Anderson for their interviews and assistance.

1 Pseudonyms are used to protect anonymity.