Breaking in and sneaking over: why placehacking is risk intelligent

Would you illegally climb the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, currently unfinished, just for fun? Maybe that’s not your idea of amusement. But what if you were itching to leap over a walkway, sneak past the security guard, sprint up the Shard’s seventy internal flights of stairs and then scale an external crane ladder to possibly the best night views of London… and just couldn’t let yourself?

Would you walk past the Shard each day on your way to work and regret it forever? Blame society for making you too fearful and law-abiding? Or would you conclude that your abstaining from such behaviour was for the best? After all, scaling a ladder-like structure at the top of a crane blowing in the wind at great height with no ropes, crampons or climbing aids is not risk intelligent, right?

Or is it? Dr Bradley Garrett, urban explorer, anthropologist and geographer, scratched that itch some weeks ago and survived. While he agrees there were obvious elements of physical and legal danger, he understood the risks involved perhaps better than anyone else, for he is a professional ‘placehacker’: someone who physically trains and mentally prepares to sneak into forbidden public spaces. He is more than a tourist, however – he is an academic (his PhD thesis is titled ‘Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration’) and a social campaigner. His aim, by scaling the Shard, is to demonstrate that we live in a risk-averse society under a nanny state obsessed with safety – as demonstrated by our shocked reactions. Dr Garrett argues that our natural desire to explore and wander our own neighbourhood, if not the entire world, is suppressed. The other message he can’t help but send is that the ‘most secure site outside of the Olympic Park’ is, or was, incredibly easy to break into. It makes you wonder what we are in store for with the Olympics.

Of course not everyone should take on the Shard or even something smaller. Knowing your personal limits is part of having good risk intelligence. It’s worth observing that while Dr Garrett displays formidable risk intelligence, the risks he takes are directly physical, unlike, for example, the risk of choosing which stock to buy or whether to trust a new nanny with your child. A directly physical risk carries the challenge that no matter how much analysis you’ve put in, when it comes to the actual moment of placing your body onto the single ladder at the top of the Shard, you might face instant death due to a whim in the weather or a momentary glitch in your own bodily instincts. This is a very different risk outcome from the instant ruin of your business or the death of someone close. You might go through hell and back rebuilding your business or suffer great stress through grief but we still live in an era where medicine is unlikely to save you if you fall from the Shard. If you fall, that is most probably the end of your risk-taking.

So what place do directly physical risks have in the realm of risk intelligence? Is placehacking worth potentially dying or suffering major injuries for? Our preconceptions of placehackers, Dr Garrett argues, are usually prejudiced, like the way homeless people are often taken for scavenging drunks or the way the Beat writers were considered mad for going ‘on the road’. The urban explorer is usually perceived as an angry, off-grid anarchist rebel who sees the world as a playground and life as expendable. But an intelligent and dedicated placehacker such as Dr Garrett (and he is far from being the only one) will consider whether it’s worth dying for their profession the same way a firefighter, a soldier posted to a warzone or certain types of athlete would consider it. Young US recruits who can’t afford a college education often see being drafted into the army as a career-saver. They are thinking ‘it is unlikely to happen to me’. Not only is that statistically true, it allows them to get on with the job and worry instead about making the rent, supporting their families and all the other day to day things most people worry about.

Like people who work in warzones or burning buildings, Dr Garrett’s preparation for his place-hacking is tantamount to being ‘trained’. His whole life, whether he planned it or not, has lead up to his ‘Shard moment’. Before climbing it he had broken in to the Barcelona subway system, spent five years on archaeological digs in thirteen different countries and spent three years working for the US Bureau of Land Management. Add to that his teenage skateboarding (which he pursued so fully it became a business before he sold up and switched to academia) and you have a man who is highly attuned to buildings and the societies that govern them from a viscerally anthropological perspective. He is physically embodying his intellectual ideas. We need more Garretts in the world, not less. We might not climb the Shard at night ourselves, but it’s good for our risk intelligence to know that a skater-turned-PhD can do it, survive, and have a blast. We all have our Shards.