Guerrilla geographer and creative explorer Dan Raven-Ellison talks to Ben Willis about the importance of wild cities and his campaign to make London the world’s first national park city
The history of exploration may be brimming with stories of exotic places and superhuman feats of endurance, but for geographer Dan Raven-Ellison the starting point for adventure lies much closer to home. Raven-Ellison is a self-proclaimed practitioner of so-called guerrilla geography and creative exploration. He’s travelled the world but his real interest is in the discoveries that are there to be made right under our noses, particularly in the urban environment.
“I absolutely love walking in mountains and moorlands and deserts,” Raven-Ellison says. “But actually there’s so much change and so many things in cities, that even going on a short walk in your neighbourhood, or walking 100km around the Capital Ring in London or whatever, the sheer density – 300 languages spoken, an incredible amount of heritage, 15,000 species of life – means it’s pretty hard to get bored exploring in urban environments like London or New York.”
A former geography teacher, Raven-Ellison became frustrated with the way geography was taught in schools, which he says was often “boring” in the way it was presented. He felt that geography, a vital subject, was missing an opportunity to shed its rather dry image and bring itself to life in the public consciousness by failing to make explicit its link to adventure and exploration, subjects that most people find inspiring.
“Geography is just such an important way for thinking about and making sense of the world,” he says. “Unfortunately a lot of key stage 4 GCSE geography is quite boring and not what it could be. But for me exploration is the physical manifestation of geography, it’s ‘doing’ geography. And I don’t think people necessarily make those connections in their heads. So if you visit a science museum or you do an experiment, you know you’re ‘doing’ science. And you visit a museum or dig up an old pot you know you’re ‘doing’ history. I don’t think that geography has quite that same narrative and relationship with travel and exploration.”
These frustrations led Raven-Ellison to become somewhat “fanatical” and “radical” in his passion for popularising geography. He eventually left teaching and has since carved out a career that in many ways embodies these beliefs. Along with some other frustrated geographers, he invented the concept of “guerrilla geography”, a practice that seeks to draw attention to an issue through mischievous public “provocations”, designed to cast a particular issue in a new, unexpected light. Guerrilla geography is closely linked to Raven-Ellison’s other main badge – creative exploration – which he also practises as a means of highlighting issues in colourful and interesting new ways.
“Guerrilla geography is radical, alternative, creative, surprising, unusual geographies, normally done in public spaces and really in order to challenge people to think differently about the world, and normally on social or environmental issues,” he explains. “And the creative explorer bit is just about thinking about exploring in really creative ways, in ways that people wouldn’t necessarily normally think about getting around. So it’s about non-traditional ways of exploring, really.”
'Along with some other frustrated geographers, he invented the concept of “guerrilla geography”, a practice that seeks to draw attention to an issue through mischievous public “provocations'
These two threads run throughout Raven-Ellison’s current work as a popular geographer, working with big names, such as National Geographic and Ordnance Survey, and as a writer, campaigner and speaker. The projects he has completed over the years are many and varied: Step Up London, in which he climbed the equivalent height of Mount Everest by only using stairs in London’s buildings; the UK in 100 Seconds, a project with Friends of the Earth that filmed the UK from the air, with each one second of film representing 1% of what the UK looks like from the air; and Wild Cities, in which he walked across 69 UK cities wearing a headset that detected and mapped his moods in the various urban landscapes through which he trekked.
This latter project encompasses what is arguably Raven-Ellison’s defining theme as a geographer and campaigner – the importance of the city environment. Back in 2008, to mark the moment when the global population shifted from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban, Raven-Ellison instigated a project called Urban Earth. This involved walking across cities, but following routes that highlighted social issues such as deprivation, violence, depression or poor health. “Instead of following what people would normally think with geographers or explorers, following the height and shape of landforms, [these routes] were exploring the ridges and valleys and peaks of these different social issues,” Raven-Ellison explains.
It’s a theme to which he has returned on numerous occasions, through some of the projects outlined previously, and many more besides. What is it about the urban environment that is so important to him?
“I think the future of humanity, the environment, ecosystems is actually phenomenally dependent on what plays out in cities,” he says. “Not just because of the footprint of cities themselves – urban areas have a footprint of 2-3% of the planet – but because of what cities are consuming, literally, and in terms of climate change, in terms of the efficiency of distributing products, resources and services. It really makes sense to have a large number of people in cities as well rather being dispersed over much larger areas.
"So then the question is, how do we make cities as good as we possibly can? There’s this narrative around the idea that people in the UK would leave the city when they can afford to because the countryside is a better place to be: it’s somehow better to bring your children up in the countryside; it’s a healthier place to be. But we actually need to flip that so that people want to be in cities because that’s where there are more services and cities can also be better for wildlife than large parts of the British countryside.”
'I think the future of humanity, the environment, ecosystems is actually phenomenally dependent on what plays out in cities'
The national park city
This thinking explains why many of Raven-Ellison’s projects have focused on exploring the city and highlighting the many adventures that can be had within the urban environment. It also underpins arguably his biggest venture to date – the campaign to make London into the world’s first ‘national park city’.
The idea for this first occurred to Raven-Ellison a few years ago after visiting all of the UK’s national parks over a short period of time.
“It seemed something was missing,” Raven-Ellison says of his experience. “When you look at the national parks around the world you’ve got national parks that are desert, moorland, rainforest … but no major urban areas. And from a nature conservation angle I had a problem with that in three ways. First I don’t think urban life is worth less than rural life: an urban red fox is worth just as much as an arctic fox. Second, people in cities are animals too and we deserve a habitat which is as awesome as orangutans”. “So when people are worried about gorillas dying in Virunga, 9,000-plus homo sapiens are dying in London every year because of air pollution. We may suffer from a different threat, but that’s a threat too and if there are 9,000 people dying of air pollution, then who knows how many wild animals are dying?”
“And finally there’s this idea through that set of national parks that nature conservation is done by ‘experts’ in some distance place rather than by people where they live; whereas the really exciting thing about the urban environment is that are millions of people who have the power not just to protect life but to create it. My experience and the experience of many people of national parks in the UK will be one of a consumer going to consume that environment, contribute to soil erosion, have a beer, go for a hike but you’re not necessarily contributing towards that environment. Whereas in a city environment there are all these people who can contribute – which is, I think, really exciting.”
And so the idea of the national park city was born. Whereas a formal national park is all about top-down governance, bureaucracy and regulation, the idea of the national park city is one based on a bottom-up approach, a grassroots movement in which people are the chief actors in improving their local environments to the benefit of themselves and nature.
As a London resident, Raven-Ellison’s target for the first national park city has unsurprisingly been his hometown, and he already has the buy-in from the London mayor Sadiq Khan. A formal launch of the London National Park City is planned for July this year with the headline aim of making the capital “greener, healthier and wilder”. It will kick-off with a week-long festival and celebration of London’s wild side, after which it will over to individuals and communities to transform the city in whatever way they feel is best for their locality.
“What we said early in campaign was that we weren’t going to try to change legislation for London to become a traditional national park; rather than the mandate coming from central government instead we wanted to get the support of the majority of London’s elected ward teams, so over 1,000 local politicians, plus the mayor plus the majority of the London Assembly. So we’ve managed to secure all that support. But it’s really important to say that it’s actually an independent grassroots movement that is supported by the mayor and others; if we’re talking about people doing more stand-up paddleboarding on the Thames or making their garden a bit wilder, actually it’s the cumulative effect of lots of people just doing that for themselves and for their immediate neighbourhood; that’s where the change happens.”
'If we’re talking about people doing more stand-up paddleboarding on the Thames or making their garden a bit wilder, that’s where the change happens'
It's a concept that could apply to any city worldwide, and already plans are being drawn up to replicate the model elsewhere in the UK and further afield. As part of the launch, a national park city charter is being drawn up to enshrine the concept and give other cities around the world a blueprint to follow should they wish to become one.
For Raven-Ellison, the prize offered by the national park city model is that it gives the world’s increasingly urbanised population a chance to develop a better relationship with nature, both for our own benefit and for that of the planet.
“We need a better relationship with nature to improve people’s physical health, their mental health, their happiness, their wellbeing, opportunities for spirituality and for fun; better relationships with nature because massive ecological decline and collapse are taking place across the planet in a way that’s completely blindsiding the wider public; and also a better relationship with nature in terms of the resilience of cities and the planet, thinking about people’s behaviours and consumption patterns that are affecting climate change and hazards across the planet. So you can scale all those things down to really small things. You can reduce the chances of flooding and have more wildlife and more opportunities to enjoy nature all within your garden. If everyone does these things, that’s when you start to get quite serious change-making.”
The London National Park City will be launched on 22 July. More information is available at www.nationalparkcity.london
Photos: Jack Smith.