Forbidden places


 is an ethnographer’s account of his time as a member of a loose group of urban explorers, based in London but making forays into Paris and the US. Urban exploration means going into places you’re meant to keep out of – ruined buildings boarded up at the tame end, through construction sites, the roofs of skyscrapers, and the Underground and sewers at the more dangerous end. And it is dangerous. A few people die. There are arrests – especially in London, where surveillance is so extensive and official paranoia runs far higher than elsewhere. (This closure of urban space is the subject of Anna Minton’s

Now, there is nothing I’d like to do less than climbing out onto the arm of a crane at the top of a building like the Shard while it’s under construction – I am, after all, a middle aged economist with vertigo, not a young urban explorer. However, I found this book very interesting and understand the itch the activists have to ‘hack’ these forbidden places. It’s partly the comtrariness aroused by being told not to do something, partly the serious politics of challenging the authoritarian tendencies that have been installing CCTV all over and privatising urban public space.

The pictures in the book are amazing – vertigo-inducing in themselves, the socisl science jargon that creeps in only mildly irritating. Urban explorers are obviously people whose politics and experiences put them in a minority – which makes it all the more interesting to have a window into their attitudes and experiences. And it’s well worth reflecting on what the shutting away of so much space is going to do to our cities over the years.

As a fan of Victorian infrastructure, I especially enjoyed reading about the forays into Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers. The book claims the cost was equivalent to £234 billion now. I haven’t checked, but if true, it’s hard to believe they would get built these days.

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