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Psychogeographical Exploration of Petite Ceinture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Geography
Wordcount: 4183 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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                       (Watson, 2017)


For my dissertation, I aim to explore the Petite Ceinture[1] using some of the research methodologies made available through the practices of Psychogeography[2], Urban Exploration[3] and Sensuous Geography[4]. Through using these three practices I aim to lead and document a more sensuous geographical exploration similar to those employed during the early 1900’s by the flaneur[5].

“Psychogeography thrives as an interrogation of space and history; it compels us to abandon – at least temporarily – our ordinary conceptions of the face value of a location, so that we may question its mercurial history”.

(The Conversation, 2018)


In anticipation of the next stage of my dissertation research, this essay will explore what I consider to be one of the key issues when adopting this Psychogeograpical/Urban explorer approach for gaining geographical knowledge – that is the issue of how to access key sites of interest without obtaining a fine or at the extreme end getting arrested.

Psychogeography is a relatively new geographical practice with its roots stemming from the Humanist[6] and Situationist[7] geographical movements of the 1970s and their perceived view of the world and how it should be explored and documented. The theory and practice of Psychogeography combines how we experience the environment we are in with more traditional geographical explorational theories such as those used by the Humanist Geographers and more recently it has been a method used to explore the Urban Environment and how we interact with our Urban Cities and lifestyles. Psychogeography may be defined by the following statement:

 “The practice of exploring the urban environment while being led by curiosity and a paused sense of time and place…. Discovering a city from an unpredictable manner which can include exploring those areas out of bounds.”

(Urban Dictionary, 2018)

One of the central practices used by Psychogeographers for gaining Geographical knowledge  is through the drift or as Guy Debord named it the derive[8]and as a group of practitioners / researchers Psychogeographers have been one of the central proponents’ for highlighting the importance of the flaneur methods in seeing the true city.

One strand of modern day Psychogeography is often referred to as Urban Exploration. During the 1990’s the term was introduced by the Canadian Urban Explorer Jeff Chapman aka Ninjalicious (Infiltration.org, 2018). Urban Explorers have been pivotal in uncovering many forgotten buildings including derelict movie theatres, and old hospitals, documenting their finds using photography and blogs. Whilst both Psychogeography and Urban Exploring look at the emotional connections we have with the urban environment the former are usually  unplanned experiences, whilst due to the nature of urban exploration it is almost always necessary to plan and research thoroughly for example to find access points.

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The contemporary appeal of the Urban Explorer can even be found referenced in popular culture such as in Assassins Creed[9]. Based on fact the narrative arc of the game included the death of Philibert Aspairt. Aspairt in 1782 was believed to be the world’s first urban explorer he was  based in Paris he explored the underground catacombs by candlelight eventually dying there after being trapped (Assassin’s Creed Wiki, 2018).


A Central Issue in gaining Geographical knowledge using these Geographical methods

You may ask why anyone would want to traipse over derelict and unloved sights in the name of gaining geographical knowledge but hidden underneath all the graffiti and rubbish are pieces of a city’s make-up. For myself the appeal of the Petite Ceinture is that of exploring an untraveled place and standing and experiencing the silence within this space in an otherwise busy and noisy city, as well as the thrill of exploring an old industrial site that was held in  high importance in the past by the Parisians.

There are legitimate reasons for not going somewhere that clearly states no entry as there are always elements of both anticipated and unanticipated risk involved in restricted access sites. This can take many forms from electrocution, flooding, inhalation of toxic substances, running into other people, physical injury, and of course ultimately arrest or death. Sometimes as well they are places that are also inhabited by those that are up to more criminal goings on, and the buildings themselves have not been regularly checked or maintained leading to them often being structurally unsafe.

One of the main issues in trying to document a place that has been forgotten about and fallen into disrepair is that it often is on valuable real estate in the city and are therefore normally fenced off with limited or no access available for those wandering around the city.

Due to the issues around access as an Urban Explorer you can easily become reliant on material already collected and online. This sometimes can be hard to authenticate and reference correctly as many explorers applying these methods to their research use aliases or operate in groups that have a closed membership, because independently putting anything online always has the danger of being traced back to an individual.

As a result of an increasing number of civil actions being taken against Urban Explorers that were discovered accessing prohibited places or buildings there has been a demonization of these practices and of those that apply such methods. Urban Explorers have often by both journalists and academics been perceived and criticised leading to some being labelled as criminals rather than the geographers, simply attempting to gain knowledge about a derelict or unexplored area within the city. This has resulted in even more barriers and challenges being put in place when wishing to gain geographical knowledge by these means.

As an example of this demonization in 2012 a group of Urban Explorers which, included Bradley Garrett[10] were arrested and sub sequentially charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage, a case that took two years to be resolved and, in the end, resulted in them being given a conditional discharge. Bradley Garrett at the time stated that “They didn’t have any evidence that we had committed any criminal damage, so they charged us with a thought crime”. Upon reflection in his book he now realises “that the trauma we were subjected to was actually the point. What the British Transport police wanted to do was stop me from publishing photos [of the sites visited] and stop me from writing about this thing, because what we did undermined their narrative of security.” (Garrett, 2013 ch.7)

One of the negative results of this criminalisation is that their methods appeal to those seeking a thrill and who have then followed in their footsteps, but who often do not follow the basic Urbex rules of taking no souvenirs, documenting finds solely through photographs, and leaving nothing behind but footprints (Anon, 2018).

As Timothy James Scarlett [11] quoted “the practice of breaking in and visiting places can exacerbate the fear in local communities”. (CNN Travel, 2018)

One example of how this fear can materialise is that the modern-day Urban Explorer can sometimes be seen by communities they spend time with, in a similar manner as the early Empirical Explorers. Communities have been upset and have protested at how buildings are

or an area is depicted in photos, arguing that these can help to encourage or strengthen others stereotypical views of a certain place. This sentiment is increased when the photos or written articles are shared online around the world. A good example of this being those explorers that went to photograph Detroit as it fell into a derelict state. Also, communities can feel that without written explanation or description photos can only show the place as it is, and they fail to provide the personal emotional feelings gained from actually being in an area.

Further questions have been raised about the dangers of gaining information in this way and the potential risk  from particles found in the air when walking through old derelict sites. After the death of Ninjalicious from cancer at the age of 31 medics told his family that they felt his illness was triggered by coming into contact with carcinogens during his explorations (Infiltration.org, 2018). Many explorers now feel the need to wear protective face masks to help protect them from air born particles for example those that come off from asbestos coverings (Asbestos Justice, 2018). As Urban Explorers are not working for a company if they were to go on and develop a cancer related illness due to coming into contact with these particles it has proven difficult to prove liability of the building’s owner as the person did not have permission to be there.

Positive reasons for gaining Geographical Knowledge using these Geographical Practices

The Psychogeographer Will Self has defended urban exploration, writing in the Evening Standard: “I personally believe place-hackers (urban explorers) are performing a valuable service by reminding us that the city should, in principle, belong to its citizens, and should mostly – if not entirely – be accessible to them.”

In the planning stage of a trip many Urban Explorers will look to use the maps and historical documentation created by the post-colonial geographers as a means to see what is hidden from us all in our modern rapidly developing cities. Therefore, a positive reason for using these methods is that the Urban Explorer can often help to create links between the cities past and the modern day, uncovering forgotten buildings and old industrially important sites.

Another positive is the real sense of community that has been formed between Urban Explorers and with this their openness to share research and geographical knowledge gathered about a particular site. I have experienced this personally by other Explorers sharing their access points to the Petite Ceinture with me as well as information about their projects about the railway site. For this particular site this is important because it means it becomes non-trespassing if you gain access through an opening already there.

As I have witnessed on my visits the community of Urban Explorers that regularly visit the Petite Ceinture have been at the centre of starting several campaigns and initiatives involving the local community and they have helped to open up to a wider public several sections of the Petite Ceinture. How-ever on a down side  sometimes these sections have become too manicured and have lost the abundant wildlife and nature that can be found on the more remote sections.

There is a clear relation between our senses and how we perceive the world around us. In gaining Geographical knowledge through these methods we use all our senses and the translation of these experiences in our minds can help in the creating a fuller picture enhancing our geographical understanding of a place or space.

Renowned Urban Explorer Bradley Garret commented in an interview with Alastair Bonnett:


“Part of the emotional impetus within urban exploration and psychogeography is about discovering a sense of place [and the] essences or feelings of a particular intensity and connecting to them. They may be from your own past or they may be from somebody else’s past. But in the context of…this placelessness or placeless urban realm in which people find it very difficult to know where they are and where they are going…[it is] that sense of connecting to real places or real feelings or real memories has got this nostalgic content.” (Medium, 2018)

Psychogeograpical methods of exploration are able to feed into and resonate with, modern day concerns about how we plan and use our urban spaces. Their attention to the mood, ambience and the alternative uses have helped to create a critical understanding of our urban experience and life within the urban setting.

One of my personal favourite reasons for using these methods to gather Geographical Research is because you can see how nature has again taken back our unused man-made spaces that originally took away nature – on the Petite Ceinture it is easy to see how the balance of power has been equalled with trees growing through walls… flowers pushing their way up through the rails



                                                               (Bureau, P. 2018)



That although it is impossible to remove fully the risk of arrest or prosecution it is possible to limit the chances by thoroughly researching and speaking to others that have accessed the Petite Ceinture. As a number of online videos show it is possible to also gain controlled access through open days and events organised by the Syndicate mandated to look after the Petite Ceinture.

For the Urban Explorer one of the draws to this method is the link that can be found with the past and how the residents interacted within a city. When working in an ethical manner Psychogeographers and Urban Explorers can provide valuable material not just for geographers but for other professionals documenting our hidden cities including archaeologists and historians.

We must remember we are explorers first and avoid the temptation to vandalise these sites however much graffiti and rubbish is already there. I feel that accessing areas that have an increased risk of being stopped and questioned such as those along the Petite Ceinture is worth it for the gathering of important Geographical Knowledge. It is possible to further reduce the risk of being stopped by never breaking and entering and always using entrances that already exist, as this is regarded as trespassing which is a civil crime and not regarded as being an illegal action so therefore non-arrest able. Through my research I have discovered that there are numerous open points along the boundary walls of the Petite Ceinture in addition to those sections that are open to the public both year-round and during the summer months. Research has also informed me that if you find yourself approached by security and asked to leave then it is best to just go in a polite and peaceful manner. My opinion is that as long as Urban Explorers stick to a few unwritten rules and the motto ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’ (bhphotovideo, 2018).

Some explorers such as Vitality Raskalov[12] thrive on the fear of being caught … but for me it really is just wanting to explore a forgotten part of Paris and one of my key aims is not to get caught as don’t like the prospect of 6 months in prison and a large euro fine…!!

“Some people have the idea that urban explorers are generally troublemakers and ne’erdowells; on the contrary, I would say that urban explorers are generally better behaved, more considerate and more polite than the vast majority of the population, if perhaps slightly more inclined towards geekiness and social awkwardness. Inany meeting of a group of experienced explorers, the conversation is likely to frequently turn to ethics, since explorers care a great deal about these issues and feel it’s important to continually consider what is right and what is wrong”.

 (Ninjalicious, 2005 p.20)


  • Anon, C. (2018). Urban Exploration for Beginners. 1st ed. London: Amazon, pp.14-15.
  • Asbestos Justice. (2018). Urban exploration, a risky hobby in more ways than one. [online] Available at: https://www.asbestosjustice.co.uk/urban-exploration-risky-hobby-ways/ [Accessed 20 Sep. 2018].
  • Assassin’s Creed Wiki. (2018). The Death of Philibert Aspairt. [online] Available at: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/The_Death_of_Philibert_Aspairt [Accessed 24 Oct. 2018].
  • bhphotovideo.com Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints | B&H Explora. [online] Available at: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/outdoors/tips-and-solutions/take-only-pictures-leave-only-footprints [Accessed 01 Nov. 2018].
  • Bureau, P. (2018). La petite ceinture – Paris tourist office. [online] en.parisinfo.com. Available at: https://en.parisinfo.com/paris-museum-monument/71366/La-petite-ceinture [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
  • CNN Travel. (2018). [online] Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/abandoned-buildings-irpt/index.html [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
  • Coverley, M. (2018). Psychogeography. 3rd ed. London: Old Castle Books.
  • Elkin, L. (2018). A tribute to female flâneurs: the women who reclaimed our city streets. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jul/29/female-flaneur-women-reclaim-streets [Accessed 4 Nov. 2018].
  • en.wikipedia.org Bradley Garrett – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradley_Garrett [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
  • Garrett, B. (2013). Explore Everything Place Hacking the City. London: Verso
  • Garrett, B. (2010). Urban Explorers: Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning. Geography Compass, 4(10), pp.1448-1461.
  • Gregory, D. 2009;2011; The dictionary of human geography, 5th;5. Aufl.; edn, Blackwell, Malden, MA. p.357-359
  • Medium. (2018). Urban Exploration – Journal of International Psychogeography – Medium. [online] Available at: https://medium.com/journal-of-international-psychogeography/urban-exploration-651d709f6024 [Accessed 10 Sep. 2018]
  • Ninjalicious. (2005) Urban Exploration- Access All Areas, Infiltration, NYC.
  • Pinder, D. 2005, “Arts of urban exploration”, Cultural Geographies, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 383-411
  • Rodaway, P. (2011). Sensuous geographies. London: Routledge.
  • Tate. (2018). Psychogeography – Art Term | Tate. [online] Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/psychogeography [Accessed 3 Sep. 2018].
  • The Conversation. (2018). Psychogeography: a way to delve into the soul of a city. [online] Available at: http://theconversation.com/psychogeography-a-way-to-delve-into-the-soul-of-a-city-78032 [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].
  • theguardian.com Politics, Thrills or Social Media: What Drives the New. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/nov/10/urbex-politics-thrills-social-media-new-breed-urban-explorer [Accessed 01 Oct. 2018]
  • Urban Dictionary. (2018). Urban Dictionary, November 9: BATMN. [online] Available at: https://www.urbandictionary.com [Accessed 10 Oct. 2018].

[1] The Petite Ceinture is a former railway line, which once encircled Paris inside the boulevards des Maréchaux. Disused since 1934, its tracks are now a haven for a rare biodiversity of wild flowers and fauna (Bureau, 2018)

[2] The term psychogeography was invented by the Marxist theorist Guy Debord in 1955. Debord suggested playful and inventive ways of navigating the urban environment in order to examine its architecture and spaces.” (Tate, 2018)

[3] Urban Exploration is the art of sneaking into abandoned or off-limits factors, aviation ‘ boneyards’, and other derelict ex-military or industrial centers to photograph abandoned holdings” (Paiva, Manaugh and Lappin, 2013 p.15-17)

[4] Sensuous Geography explores our sensuous experience of the world and includes using our four main senses touch, smell, hearing and sight. A person’s geographical experience can be affected by historical, cultural and technological factors. (Rodaway, 2011)

 [5] “The flâneur – the keen-eyed stroller who chronicles the minutiae of city life” (Elkin, 2018)

[6] Humanistic Geography “An approach that seeks to put humans at the centre of Geography.” (Gregory, 2011 p.357-359)

[7] Revolutionary alliance of European avant-garde artists, writers and poets formed at a conference in Italy in 1957. (Tate, 2018)

[8] Derive – “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of Urban Society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances”. (Coverley, 2018)

[9]Assassin’s Creed is a 2007 action-adventure-stealth video game developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft. The game was originally released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in November 2007” (Assassin’s Creed Wiki. 2018). 


[10] Bradley Garrett was born in 1981 in America and is known as a social/cultural geographer currently working at the University of Sydney in addition to being a regular columnist for The Guardian newspaper in the UK. He has researched at length the work of several Urban Explorers (Wikipedia, 2018).

[11] Associate Professor and Director of graduate studies in Industrial Heritage and Archaeology at Michigan Technological University (CNN Travel, 2018)

[12] Vitaly Raskalov is a photographing Urban Explorer sensation, who climbed the 650m Shanghai Tower and then became a YouTube phenome.


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