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Urban exploration – Documenting the decay of man-made structures

September 2018

I’ve been involved in the hobby of urban exploration (UE), specifically abandoned structures, for over three decades.  The hobby is multifaceted, with some urban explorers (UEers) favouring things like storm drains, subway tunnels, utility tunnels, abandoned ships or areas of occupied buildings not open to the public. 

One aspect of UE is going where you’re not supposed to go, at least without permission. It is advisable to attempt to obtain permission before going on an abandoned property, as even in an abandoned state, it is still owned by someone or some corporation. However, the reality is that often it is very hard to contact the owner(s), let alone find out who they are, which is why many will just trespass and hope they don’t get caught.

Another aspect of UE is documenting the deterioration of man-made structures once they are abandoned and no longer maintained.

All photos were taken in Ontario, unless noted.

Ethical UEers live by the motto of “Take only photos; leave only footprints,” which basically means they only photograph what they are exploring and don’t damage, vandalize or steal anything.  Although UE does usually involve the offence of trespassing unless permission is obtained first, ethical UEers won’t use force to gain entry; they will go in through open doors or windows.

Some owners are sympathetic to UE and will even tell you stories about the former use of the structure.

Although there can be great risk in UE, there can be great rewards in regards to seeing unique architectural designs and documenting them before they are obliterated by deterioration or demolition.

It can also be used to document the deterioration of anything man-made, including things like vehicles, ships, clothing, artwork and documents, when they are no longer maintained or safeguarded; putting on full display how temporary even the best built structures can be if left to the natural forces of wind, water, plant growth and even vandalism, which can often hasten deterioration by weakening structural elements or expose them to the outside elements previously mentioned.

The History Channel TV series “Life After People” used this premise to show, “What would happen if every human on Earth disappeared? This isn’t the story of how we might vanish…it’s the story of what will happen to the world we leave behind.”(1)  The show, which began as a two-hour special, features interviews with scientists, mechanical engineers and other experts, who hypothesize what might happen to man-made structures and our environment that are left behind.  The experts use real-life examples of existing buildings and structures that are abandoned and left to deteriorate, along with natural environments that are allowed to return to their natural state when human intervention is removed, with Computer Generated Imagery used to illustrate what the experts predict.

It’s not just structures that will deteriorate if not properly maintained.  Flat surfaces such as roads, sidewalks and airport runways will deteriorate due to things like the growth of weeds, trees and other vegetation, along with water penetration into cracks that freezes in the winter and the formation of potholes.

On that point, some abandoned buildings are successfully restored to their former glory, even after decades of deterioration.  This is currently happening in Detroit, Michigan, a city that has a plethora of abandoned buildings due to economic devastation.  The former Michigan Central Station and Packard Auto Plant are currently being restored by new owners.  Despite several decades of abandonment, both buildings are still reasonably sound structurally.

So enjoy this fascinating hobby and happy trails.

Remember:  Do it safely, ethically and remember that trespassing is illegal.

Other places I explored:

The Granite Castle – a unique stone home

This was a stone home built by the Wrigley family in Oro Township, built from rocks taken from Lake Simcoe.  The home stayed in the Wrigley family for many decades, sometimes being used as a boarding house for their wealthy friends from the big cities in the summer.  It burned in a fire in the 1980s, leaving only the thick stone walls and front porch standing.

And finally, an  assorted collection:

(1)  Tagline from the History Channel TV show “Life After People”


Check out some of my other articles that also cover the topic of Urban Exploration, including:

Faded footsteps and empty windows – Documenting the decay of man-made structures


About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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