Daniel Raven-Ellison

Guerrilla Geographer

Emerging Explorer

Photo: Daniel Raven-Ellison

Photograph by Darren Moore

Could you cross a forest without touching the ground? What would you see if you walked through your entire city taking a photo every eight steps? How would it feel to locate a missing cat and return it to its owner? How far could you walk sucking on the same mint? This is geography Daniel Raven-Ellison style. He's using films, books, websites, and walks to take geography far beyond memorizing dots on a map, challenging children and adults to experience every aspect of the world around them in a more meaningful, surprising way.

"The Internet makes us feel the world is becoming smaller and more available," he says, "but at the same time, many real, lived experiences are shrinking. For children, outdoor exploration improves mental and physical health, expands learning through risk taking, spurs innovative problem solving, and encourages empathy by meeting different people, yet too few children are allowed to play outdoors. As adults, although we share our cities with millions of other people, we're in many ways more disconnected than ever before, moving from the island of our home to the island of our car to the island of our office. Adventure has become something we watch on TV. In fact, there are amazing adventures to be had right outside our doors."

For Raven-Ellison, the road to adventure is "guerrilla geography": daring people to challenge preconceptions about places; engage in social and environmental justice; and form deeper, more active community connections.

His "Urban Earth" films demonstrate guerrilla geography in action. He created them by walking across Mumbai, Mexico City, London, and ten other U.K. and U.S. cities from one extreme edge to the other while photographing whatever lay directly in front of him every eight steps. All photos, edited together, become a film portrait of each city.

"Travel shows and guidebooks prescreen and select what they want you to see," he says. "My films give you an unaltered look at the reality of a city as a whole. Someone remarked that anyone who runs for mayor of Mexico City should take a walk like this. When you're not protected by the speed or armory of a car, you see what's actually happening neighborhood by neighborhood."

With more than half of the world's people living in urban areas, Raven-Ellison hopes the films will break down boundaries that isolate communities. "We need to engage with each other to reduce conflict and bind communities together, instead of being afraid to explore certain neighborhoods."

Raven-Ellison's films have inspired innovative walks for groups that he is quick to say he facilitates rather than leads. "I start by handing the map to someone else." The walks probe unconventional themes. One took a group into the area of London that suffers from the highest rate of depression and suicide. "Green spaces were completely fenced off," he recalls. "Doors had gates with razor wire, and even though it was a school holiday, no children were to be seen."

Another walk launched ten teams of people from different points outside London. All headed toward the city center, converging at a pub where they compared experiences and shared ideas about how to improve Britain's neighborhoods. A series of Ecological Footprint walks covers the land required to support a city's current lifestyle. "An urban area's footprint may only be two kilometers," he explains, "but the area needed to support the city may encompass another 25 kilometers. The act of actually walking that distance and experiencing that space gives you a different, more tangible perspective of our environmental impact."

Guerrilla geography springs to life for children through "Mission:Explore," a project rooted in the belief that play is deeply linked to geography. The idea was the result of collaboration across a network of more than 35 geography teachers, academics, explorers, and artists called The Geography Collective. Together they have developed a website and a series of books that feature hundreds of challenges aiming to show kids geography's fun side, including mini-field trips, neighborhood explorations, creative science experiments, reconnecting with nature, artistic expression, and stretching analytical thinking. "Many seem fun and simple, but actually require quite high-level thinking," Raven-Ellison remarks. "We're building learning skills within a hands-on format that's very accessible and inviting to kids."

One challenge suggests kids conduct a survey to see how friendly their community is, write their local politicians with the findings, and offer ways the community could be improved for children. Another proposes you blindfold yourself and get a friend to help you explore by using your other senses. Yet another sends kids searching for things that are "hard, soft, sticky, crumbly, brown, tiny, mean, smelly."

Some charm by silliness: Place a piece of bread where you are, ask someone on the opposite side of the planet to place a piece of bread where they are, and turn the whole Earth into a sandwich. Others reveal serious geographical concepts, such as topocide (death of places due to industrial expansion): Photograph a place that's being destroyed and in so doing, keep it alive forever.

The former geography teacher says, "Memorizing things for pop quizzes isn't enough. Children need skills for interpretation, analysis, and understanding. Education can't be based only on how much you know, but must also be measured by how creative and innovative you can be. Kids today have shorter recesses and less freedom to roam and be creative. Giving them time and space to explore the outdoors allows moments to happen that will be crucial to tackling issues like climate change, water shortages, and other problems that require empathy with the environment."

When asked what one skill he would give his own son, Raven-Ellison chose empathy. "That's what geography is all about—getting outside your comfort zone and experiencing the wider world, even if it's only a block away. It's why one of our challenges asks children to defend something that is defenseless, and why our adult walks delve into what life is like for other people."

As Mission:Explore invites, "Practice your ‘ings:' observing, reading, drawing, digging, mapping, climbing, conversing, comparing, photographing, testing, seeking, peeking, clucking, barking, graphing, and searching."

For Raven-Ellison, "that kind of discovery-based geography gives you the power to see places, people, and your world in entirely new ways."

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In Their Words

Geography is about curiosity, exploration, and discovery. It gives you the power to see places in new ways, search for your own answers, challenge things as they are, and make sense of the world.

—Daniel Raven-Ellison



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    Guerrilla Geography

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