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This Guerrilla Geographer Treks To Change Perspectives

Adventure is in the eye of the beholder and for Guerrilla Geographer Dan Raven-Ellison everyday discoveries are just as exciting as far-flung explorations

When Christopher Columbus first laid eyes on The Americas in 1492, he set the standard for exploration: a word that has become synonymous with travel and grand discovery. Today’s hyper-connected world seems a lot smaller than it would have in Columbus’ day and you could be forgiven for thinking that the age of exploration is over. And yet, for Guerrilla Geographer Dan Raven-Ellison, exciting discoveries can be a daily occurence.

The former geography teacher, who recently spearheaded a successful campaign to turn London into the first ever National Park City, is passionate about encouraging people to think differently about their surroundings – but he doesn’t just talk the talk...

Getting from one place to another as quickly as possible is like fast-food walking

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You walked 1,686km across all the UK’s national parks and cities, and many of your other projects also involve long-distance walking; why is that?
‘At the heart of my work it’s really about challenging people to think differently about the world. It’s about how we think about places, how places are represented in the media and how we represent places to each other. Walking and exploration is a practice that challenges people to think about those things.’

‘In 2008 I set off on a project called Urban Earth, which involved walking across various cities around the world, but instead of just walking from one end to the other, the length of my walk represented the size of the urban footprint. I then started doing ‘polar explorations’, where instead of going to an ice cap or the polar regions, I would travel from the most violent place to the least violent place within a city – so the polar opposites. I’d do those walks with people and we would talk about what we saw during those journeys.’

Do you think we could all benefit from slowing down a little and taking time to walk, and engage with our environments?
‘Definitely. I’m really inspired by the late geographer Duncan Fuller, who had something called the My Walks Project. Duncan likened our obsession with getting from one place to another as quickly as possible as being like ‘fast-food walking’: it’s easy but it’s not necessarily the best thing for us.’

‘It’s so important to question things as you walk around, because that helps you tune into the landscape. What makes you get lost? What makes you forget where you’re going? What makes you take a B line or choose to go another way? As soon as you ask yourself those questions you begin to notice things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen.’

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The term ‘explorer’ is synonymous with travel and unknown lands, but most of your projects and explorations are very close to home; is that intentional?
‘I think it’s really interesting to consider the difference between adventure and exploration. Implicit within ‘adventure’ is a degree of risk: quite often the adventure community champions danger and the fact you might get hurt. But I think the other side of adventure, which for me is most exciting, is the risk that you might discover something new. For me exploration is about asking questions, searching for answers and experiencing new things. Clearly you can achieve all those things with adventure as well, but there’s a difference between setting out on an adventure because you want an adventurous experience, rather than your primary being to answer questions and explore new ideas.’

‘People are quite aware, I think, that images of the front covers of magazines can foster body image issues, but equally within the adventure and exploration community there’s an over-emphasis on people having painful experiences. I don’t think that’s a particularly good thing to champion for the aspirations of people wanting to get into adventure and exploration. For me, it’s about being equally celebratory about those everyday things that anyone can go and do.’

You’ve just led the successful campaign to turn London into a National Park City, so what motivated that?
‘I did a project five years ago that involved 125 micro-adventures around the UK with my son, who was 10 years old at the time. On that journey we visited all 15 of the UK’s national parks and I began to get quite confused as to why we didn’t have an urban habitat represented within our family of national parks.’

‘Around the world, national parks represent every type of landscape you can imagine – apart from urban. It’s my view that urban life and urban landscapes are worth no less than desert, or rainforest, or coral reef, or mooreland. A mooreland peregrine falcon is worth no more than a peregrine falcon flying around Tate Modern. Also, if we expect children to grow up and be interested in nature conservation, the message can’t be that nature conservation is done by some park manager in a distant place. It needs to be caring for wildlife and nature on our own doorsteps as well.’

So what happens between now and London gaining National Park City status?
‘London is going to become a National Park City in 2019. Now we need as many people as possible to hear that London is becoming a National Park City and to get involved by planting more in their gardens or by going outside and enjoying what the city’s canals and hilltops and parks have to offer. It’s as simple as that: if lots of people plant more stuff and get out and enjoy the city’s great outdoors, we can have some really big shifts in the resilience and the health of London as a whole. It’s all about a community of people working to make the city greener, healthier and wilder.’

Find out more about Dan’s work and the National Park City campaign at https://ravenellison.com

Words: Issac Williams

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