The Guerilla Geographer

Daniel Raven-Ellison was a 2012 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and is now leading the campaign to make London the world’s first National Park City. Friday, 10 November

By Jonathan Manning

Being an explorer is about "being ferociously curious and tenacious, and not letting something go," says Daniel Raven-Ellison, whose work focuses on combining creative exploration, geography and communication to tackle social and environmental challenges.

What's your current area of exploration?

I’m working on a couple of different things at the moment. One is campaigning for London to become the world’s first National Park City. The other is doing creative exploration work; I am currently planning a 100 metre expedition to communicate the complexity of habitats in the UK.

Isn’t exploration about heading off into remote, hostile environments? 

When people think about National Geographic and exploration, they will at first be thinking about epic, famous explorers who do these extraordinary long term or long distance adventures. But actually, I think what is really fascinating is people who do really small scale things but in great detail. I am interested in how exploration and intervention can be used to create stories to communicate big, complex ideas, and to rethink some of the biggest challenges we face as a society. The National Park City is one articulation of that.

What is a National Park City?

The campaign has three goals: to connect more people to nature and the outdoors; to create high quality green space in London; and to connect all of the capital’s children to nature.

How is the campaign going?

Right now, about 270 ward teams across 31 London boroughs have declared their support and we need another 60-something. We are planning for it to be declared that London can become a national park city in spring 2018 and then launch it in spring 2019. We have the mayor of London’s support.

Why is green space so important in urban areas?

Last year I did this project with Cisco, where I walked across all the national parks and cities wearing a wearing an emotive EEG headset, effectively a mind reading device, that was able to record the activity within my brain.

I mapped out about 3 million points of data across 1,600km of walking  –  about half in national parks and half in cities. Out of 12 different types of land use, the place where my brain had the greatest level of interest, excitement and relaxation was when I was in deciduous woodland. And the greatest difference was when I was in deciduous woodland in cities rather than national parks. Even just small areas of woodland in cities would have a greater uplift for me than in national parks, which is really interesting when you think about childhood development. So while wild, big and complex nature is really important to the world, if you’re 18 months old and the neurons are forming in your brain, maybe a single oak tree will give you the childhood development benefit that people may want for their children.

What was your introduction to National Geographic?

Growing up as a kid I would always enjoy the photography and the magazine. When I became a geography teacher, National Geographic’s resources were really important to me.

Then I started this project called Mission Explore, with some other geography teachers, which was a guerrilla geography project to celebrate and champion how awesome geography is and at the same time tackle this growing issue of cottonwool parenting, with children not playing outdoors enough. We reached out to Nat Geo in 2010 and started doing some collaboration with them on how we tackle this issue.

How has National Geographic helped you?

When you become an Emerging Explorer you get a grant for $10,000, and I shared that with my other guerrilla geography colleagues. We produced some illustrated books that inspired children to get outdoors more, and we went on tours of schools and music festivals in the UK, engaging people with geography. Plus there is a network of other explorers and grantees to collaborate with and share ideas. And the endorsement and moral support of National Geographic for the work I have been doing, is really valuable.

Last year I got another grant for $10,000, which I used to create these films to get London designated as a National Park City.

How can aspiring explorers follow in your footsteps?

I did a degree in geography and, without a doubt, qualifications that can help you to do research and tell a story are really valuable. But I think it’s more about characteristics – about being ferociously curious and tenacious, and not letting something go. Become really fanatic about something and investigate it in great detail. When you look at National Geographic explorers, these are people who think slightly differently to others. They are prepared to go further than other people in distance or time or detail. And with National Geographic, having a strong sense of social and environmental justice really helps as well.

Have you ever felt scared or in danger?

Yes, climbing up an extinct volcano, Pico de São Tomé, in Principe in the gulf of Guinea, and there was a ridge there that was very hairy. There was a particularly big sheer drop, accompanied by crumbly earth. I wished I’d had ropes and something more substantial on than welly boots. My son was very young at the time and I was annoyed with myself for deciding to go up.

And I remember walking across Mexico City with some friends when some women came out and warned us that if we walked down a particular alleyway we would definitely lose our clothes and we might lose our lives. So we went another way - my story from Mexico City is that nothing happened!

How do you relax?

I walk and watch boxsets – currently Mindhunter on Netflix.

Where in the world would you choose to be right now?

I would just like to be out walking with my family, maybe on a beach by some rainforest, but I’d be equally happy to be up in the hills in the Lake District.

Where’s your favourite walk in the UK?

A really interesting walk is to catch a train to Crystal Palace and then walk north to the Thames, taking in as many green spaces as possible. You can go through Sydenham Hill Wood nature reserve, past the Horniman Museum, then Nunhead Cemetery, before you go down to Burgess Park and on towards the Thames.

What’s your favourite British beach?

There are too many places – you can’t ask a geographer that question. Oh, it’s probably Sandwood Bay in Sutherland on the far north-west of Scotland. It’s one of the most remote and beautiful beaches in the UK. I have really good memories of camping there with my son, jumping off dunes, pitching our tent and thinking it would be ok, but then the wind picked up...

What’s your essential piece of kit?

My walking boots. And my mobile phone is awesome because I have my maps on it, I can take photos with it, and, of course, talk to people.

Any luxuries when you walk?

Marzipan! It’s an energy source and a treat. I’m vegan and I was really delighted when I discovered most marzipan is vegan

What music do you listen to?


What’s your favourite book?

Mis-guide to Anywhere [produced by Wrights & Sites, mis-guide.com]

If you could put together the perfect walking party, who would you invite?

I'd like to have at least Theresa May, Michael Gove, Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, Prince Charles, David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Fiona Reynolds, Robert Macfarlane and Dame Ellen MacArthur for a very interesting conversation.