Urban Explorers Think About Public Space Differently Than We Do

Author Moses Gates on what we should be able to access.

Urban planner-slash-explorer Moses Gates opens his new book with a story of climbing Notre Dame (in the rain). It's one of Gates' many anecdotes from his years of "extralegal" exploring. He has also walked on subway tracks, popped manhole covers, and scaled bridges.

In Hidden Cities, he outlines how his adventures help him understand places better.

"It really just stemmed from love of urban planning and cities in general," he says. "If you are a doctor, you spend all this time in the lab...I wanted to have a hands-on experience." (Watch this video of him inside the spire of the Chrysler Building.)

"Urban exploring" or "place hacking," is understandably controversial. In addition to the obvious legal concerns, federal officials worry that photos and videos of hard-to-reach places may inadvertently encourage or assist terrorists.

Gates's method of checking out city landmarks remains marginally legal, although that varies from city to city. In the book, he describes digging underneath a barrier surrounding the Tour Saint-Jaques:

If it were Midtown Manhattan instead of central Paris, we'd be in handcuffs by now. This is when I first learn different cities have vastly different cultures and approaches to the impromptu and unsantioned use of public space—and Paris's approach can basically be summed up as 'whatever.'

Gates argues that cities seem to vacillate between "one or two extremes" in their approach to public space. "This is America, so the only way you are going to trump following rules is money," he says. He notes what happened with New York City's High Line: "Instead of the city just making this accessible and just mow the grass and spruce it up a bit," he says, "No, we have to have an espresso bar."

Both in the book and in our conversation, he copped to the cool-factor of going someplace you aren't supposed to. But, he says, he toured the City Hall station in New York for the 100th anniversary of the subway. "I've never felt the need to sneak in there afterwards."

"We want to see stuff, and we will do it the easiest way possible," he says.

The George Washington Bridge in New York City.

All images courtesy of Tarcher/Penguin

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