Up, on, or over the fence? – urban exploration and premises security

I’ve been working on a presentation to public sector facilities managers recently. This talk will examine their legal duties towards trespassers and suggest proportionate responses. A key feature of my talk will be trying to map the breadth of trespass that they are likely to face. I am expecting that these hospital, college and local government premises managers will have beleaguered tales to tell of arson, vandalism, metal theft and bomb scares. They may also want to discuss urban exploration…

Whilst I’m resolutely against terrorism, arson, vandalism and metal theft, my position on urban exploration (and other forms of recreational trespass) is more complicated. I ‘get it’, but I also have a concern that to see such exploration as a ‘right’ (as in human right) to go any place you please is rather asserting individual curiosity over communal benefit. Some incursion to these premises will cause anxiety, genuine security panics and considerable cost to these cash-strapped managers. For, how are they to know that the intruder is an urban explorer wishing to ‘take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints’?

Intriguingly, at least one high profile group of US urban explorers (those collaborating as urbex fanzine Jinx) felt the need to broach this moral dilemma almost a decade ago. Jinx announced their retirement from exploration (in the US at least) with the following communiqué in April 2003:

“Jinx has ceased its unlawful trespassing activities for the duration of the present period of war and heightened alert in the United States; though neither odious nor evil, the activities of urban exploration create the hazard of false alarms and could potentially divert police resources from serious matters. Obedience of just laws is not a private matter. Every crime undermines our safety by making the staggering task of law enforcement harder in this period of terrorism and war” quoted in the frontispiece to Deyo & Leibowitz (2003).

In my talk, I will attempt something even-handed. I will outline the duties imposed by civil and criminal law upon occupiers as regards their trespassers (which are not always as onerous as some occupiers’ fear), and then I will try to highlight the logics and mission of urban exploration, thereby setting it somewhat apart from arson, burglary and vandalism.

But urbex cannot stand completely alone as a benign special case. At the end of the day whilst the motives and aims may be different, arson, burglary, vandalism and urbex all share the same methodology: incursion.  This can be foregrounded if we consider one of the roots of contemporary urban exploration :  1970s College based infrastructural and subterranean exploration. Schneier (2000) recounts his acquaintance with these ‘key freaks’ at his US college in the 1970s, highlighting their ‘go where you are not supposed to’ place-hacking ethos thus:

“they wanted access, and their goal was to have a key to every lock on campus. They would study lock-picking and learn new techniques, trade maps of steam tunnels and where they led…a locked door was a challenge, a personal affront to their ability. These people weren’t out to do damage – stealing wasn’t their objective – although they certainly could have. Their power was to go anywhere they wanted to.” (44)

And I have heard of similar clandestine clubs operating (under threat of instant expulsion) within at least one college of the University of London in the mid 1980s.

In pulling my presentation together I’ve been thinking in particular about trespass and premises management of school and college buildings. I have kids of school age and have noticed the increasing fortification of their school premises. Having looked a little into the law and policy background, I’ve found that this isn’t a particularly new trend – its roots lie in the rise of ‘security by design’ methodologies, originating with Oscar Newman’s work on ‘defensible space’ in public housing in the late 1960s (Newman 1996). UK Government school security guidance published in 1996 (DFEE) rather shockingly talks of treating the visiting public as “intruders” unless clocked in through a designated access control point. It asserts a war against ‘permeability’ and whole-perimeter fencing is encouraged. This guidance remains extant, and is now supported by Police (ACPO 2010) and planning guidance backed ‘secured by design’ accreditation for new schools which requires such fencing. This trend appears to both create and reflect anxiety about the need to render schools as defensible private space. A UK Government funded study (Lloyd & Ching, 2003) found anxieties about intrusion to be the second most highly ranked security concerns for schools after the physical safety of staff and students. A quick web search shows how this fortification drive is well served by rather a large number of specialist school security contractors.

But, fencing around schools is nothing new – the wave of late Victorian municipal school building saw the construction of schools that looked like forts, replete with sturdy wrought iron stockades. In memory and literature ‘the school gates’ were a focal point for a transition space between two worlds – one of being ‘let out of school’ at home time. Fencing thus in that era seemed to be about keeping people in (with echoes of institutional discipline in a Foucaultian sense, as ably explored for example by Markus, 1993).

What seems to have shifted is the focal point of this ‘defence’ instinct. Instead of a preoccupation with keeping order (and bodies) within the school, and controlling where they go, the focus now seems to have shifted to an attention towards exterior threat. Whilst statistically negligible, the haunting memories of school incursion by murderous gunmen at Dunblane (1996), Colombine (1999), Virginia Tech (2007) and Utoya (2011) cannot be discounted as a continuing spur towards re-fortification of the school perimeter. And then there’s the very real threat of arson and metal theft to school buildings. Figures obtained for the period 2007-09 showed 2,702 arson incidents in the UK involving police attendance (Lipsett, 2009). That’s over three a day. Meanwhile the fondness for bays, castellation and dormer sections in Victorian school roof profiles require a high proportion of lead flashing, all ripe for the metal thief.

Such fortification is ugly, makes schools look like prison camps and embodies what Furedi (1997) has labelled a “culture of fear”. But these pressures – and their consequent defensive urges cannot be ignored. They are real because they arise from the materiality and mobility of things and people. They are not simply ‘imagined’ anxieties which will disappear if we close our eyes ever so tightly shut and wish for a time when people and places were more open.

We are dealing here with competing worlds of under- and over-reaction. Everyone must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions both for themselves and for the communities they inhabit. That includes recreational trespassers and it also includes place managers closing off recreational access to public spaces where that action is out of proportion to risks actually faced.

At bit more understanding on both sides would be a good thing. I don’t want to see, for example, people abandon all geo-caching because of the risk of occasionally causing a bomb scare. But to pretend that there are no potential down-sides to trespass or to lurking around secreting small packages within the built environment is irresponsible, as recent events have shown in the English town of Wetherby in July 2011 where a geo-cache placed under a town centre rubbish bin caused a bomb scare, evacuation and cache destruction via a controlled explosion (BBC News, 2011). City centre litter bins were a favourite location for IRA mainland bomb laying in their early 1990s campaign (McGladdery, 2006) and thus are best avoided as cache points.

The worlds of the place-hacker and the place-manager need to be brought closer together. Hopefully my talk will make a small contribution to that convergence.

NOTE:  My  subsequent blog-essay ‘Riding the ripples: railway suicides and the infrastructural imperative’ (at http://wp.me/p2dJQ2-6K) takes some of the above points, develops them further and applies them to the specific incursion vs infrastructure tensions inherent in railway trespass.


Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) (2010) Secured by design- school’s application form and checklist, www.securedbydesign.com

BBC News (2011) ‘Internet treasure hunt causes bomb scare’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14042170

Deyo, L.B. & Leibowitz, D.L. (2003) Invisible Frontier – exploring the tunnels, ruins and rooftops of hidden New York, Three Rivers Press, New York.

Department for Education & Employment (DFEE) (1996) Managing School Facilities, Guide 4: Improving Security in Schools, DFEE, London.

Furedi, F. (1997) Culture of fear – risk taking and the morality of low expectation, Cassell, London.

Lipsett, A. (2009) ‘nearly 3,000 school arson attacks in two years’ The Guardian, 22 May.

Lloyd, R. & Ching, C. (2003) School Security Concerns – Research Report R419, Department for Education & Skills, London.

Markus, T. (1993) Buildings and power: freedom and control in the origin of modern buildings, Routledge, London.

McGladdery, G. (2006) The Provisional IRA in England – the bombing campaign 1973-1997, Irish Academic Press, Dublin.

Newman, O. (1996) Creating Defensible Space, U.S. Dept of Housing & Urban Development, Washington DC.

Schneier, B. (2000) Secrets & Lies: digital security in a networked world, Wiley, New York.


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to Up, on, or over the fence? – urban exploration and premises security

  1. Ok thats great.. you are absolutely right. i am also know Advantages of fencing in uk. the main benifits are non-violently appeal to their sense of playchannel their physicality into sport.promote self discipline, self assurance, and responsibility.help them learn good sportsmanship .provide a fun way to stay or get fit .develop coordination, speed, agility and strength.provide positive interaction with other children and adults.help them learn to compete individually as well as for a team.

  2. UrbanX says:

    Fantastically written piece sir!

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