A short time ago Seb and I completed Route 125 and the our last of 125 adventures across the UK by going free running through the capital. From the Lizard in Cornwall to Unst in the Shetland islands every adventure has been different. We have been wild swimming in waterfalls, gliding over Yorkshire, tracking lots of animals and sleeping in all kinds of strange places. The purpose of the project was to celebrate National Geographic’s 125th anniversary and hopefully inspire a few people to try some of what we have done. It would not have been possible without our Toyota RAV4 that not only powered our massive journey, but protected us from rain, snow, hale, midges, sun and cold.
I will be writing a number of blog posts over coming weeks that include tales and lessons from our time travelling around the United Kingdom together, but on the day that we completed our ‘family expedition’ I wanted to share two videos.
The first is of Seb and I going cliff climbing in Pembrokeshire. With the guidance of Jon Haylock, an inspirational leader who is Head of Adventure at TYF, Seb needed to abseil off a cliff down to the sea and climb back up again. Then aged 9, Seb was very nervous and had declared that he was very afraid of heights. It took a great deal of courage for him to step backwards off that cliff.
Over the following weeks I slowly introduced him to bigger challenges, sometimes getting it wrong but mostly getting it right. A few months after this climb and a couple of weeks after his 10th birthday I took Seb and one of his friends to Zip World in Wales. Perhaps more of a controlled ride than an exploration, this adventure involved zipping down a 1 mile cable at speeds of nearly 100mph some 500ft in the air. This second video includes the sound of Seb shouting with joy as he zoomed down the line. A massive achievement for someone who was afraid of heights earlier that year. I am very proud of him.
Over the last 6 months our relationship has strengthened massively and seeing Seb grow in so many ways has been highly rewarding. Very few people are able to see as much of our country as we have and we both feel very fortunate for having been able to enjoy it together. I am now looking forward to our next adventure…
Over the last few months I have visited all fifteen of the UK’s National Parks. Together they include mountains, meadows, moorlands, woods and wetlands, but as someone who lives and works in London I think there is a crucial habitat missing… an urban habitat.
What if London was the world’s first Urban National Park?
Britain’s built-up area physically covers around 13% of land and is home to a diverse range of (wild)life. The London Biodiversity Partnership has identified 15 different habitats in Greater London and more than 1,300 sites have been identified as being of value to wildlife (though I am sure there are many more). Casting a spot-light on amphibians and reptiles alone, nine of the thirteen species (common frogs, common toads, smooth newts, palmate newts, great crested newts, slow-worms, common lizards, grass snakes and adders) can be found within the M25. The Central London RSPB group has a list of 132 species of bird that you can find in London and if you know where to look you can find brown hares, otters and dormice too. Of course there is also an eclectic range of humans who together speak over 300 different languages along with their domestic pets and those less popular creatures including foxes, rats and pigeons.
London itself is very much a land of parks. At least 3,000 public parks, woodlands and gardens cover 140sqkm of London, but when you include private gardens and other green areas London’s total green space covers 628 sqkm or 40% of the city. In comparison to current UK National Parks at 1,572 sqkm London would be the 5th largest after the Lake District (2,292 sqkm), Snowdonia Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri (2,142 sqkm), the Yorkshire Dales (1,769 sqkm) and the South Downs (1,641 sqkm). Compared to its 628 sqkm of green space London would still be the 11th biggest.
National Parks in the UK are administered by their own National Park authorities. These are independent bodies that are funded by central government to:
- conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and
- promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of National Parks by the public.
There are a number of pan-London organisations working to improve the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the city and there are also organisations working hard to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of London, but I do not think they achieve what a National Parks status would. By rethinking, reframing and replanning itself as a National Park I can imagine a wide range of possible benefits for London. These could include improvements to biodiversity, architecture, green-ways, outdoor education, accessibility, how the city markets itself to the outside world and crucially, how the city sees itself.
By reframing itself as a National Park there could be a major shift in how London and Londoners think of themselves and how those outside London imagine the city. These include London as being a:
- large archipelago of green spaces
- wild destination to be proud of… right on (y)our doorstep
- space where you have the right to roam, explore, play and learn
- place where humans are recognised as animals and part of the world’s ecosystem
- place where buildings and systems are seen as an urban habitat that is shared with other life
- city that embraces domestic and feral animals as part of a city’s innate and historic ecology
- city where large number of inhabitants recognise and enjoy their own great outdoors
In the city such an effort could change the way that the next generation thinks of and values their urban park and what can be discovered inside it. Who knows what seeing (y)our entire city as a National Park could do for its and our development, psyche and outlook.
I am currently working with the Mission:Explore team on a new Mission:Explore Water eBook. The free download follows our series of outdoor activity books Mission:Explore, Mission:Explore Camping, Mission:Explore on the Road and Mission:Explore Food and numerous free publications including Mission:Explore John Muir (which is available in English, Welsh and Gaelic) and Mission:Explore RSPB Big Wild Sleepout. The water book includes over 50 illustrated missions that playfully challenge children to think about water in curious, creative and critical ways. Alan Parkinson has been working on a set of supporting resources for schools, Helen Steer has been producing the book and the illustrations are by Tom Morgan-Jones. Made in partnership with some fantastic organisations, we’ll be making full announcements about how to download the book soon(ish).
I love this mission illustration as it gives you a great idea of what guerrilla geography and the book is all about. It’s also a great and affordable mission to do on your own, with children or with friends. Do you recognise the artist that we are giving a nod to?
Join The Great Nature Project – See an #animal or #plant > take a picture > share it with #GreatNaturePosted: 29 August, 2013
The Great Nature Project is a truly awesome project to explore nature and to share our discoveries, may they be microscopic or massive.
“The Great Nature Project is a worldwide celebration of the planet and its wonders. People of all ages are invited to appreciate nature by taking pictures of plants and animals in their worlds, and then sharing those pictures with the whole world. Together we’ll create a global snapshot of the Earth’s incredible biodiversity—and try for a Guinness World Records® Title for the largest-ever online album of animal photos!
The Great Nature Project is one of the largest initiatives National Geographic has ever created, but we need your help to pull it off. So get outside, explore, and connect, and join us for a project as big as the world itself.” The Great Nature Project
In my last post I described how “tech time” and “wild time” do not have to conflict, but can compliment and converge with each other. For parents, teachers and carers wanting to excite and enthuse young people about the natural world, The Great Nature Project is an incredible opportunity to inspire outdoor exploration and learning through technology. The project is not just about finding and photographing wildlife, but coming together with thousands of other people in a collaborative and social exploration of our planet that is bringing us together within a common cause. As a National Geographic ambassador for the project, I will be delighted if you decide to take part and share it with your friends and community.
Taking part is very easy.
- Spot an animal or plant
- Photograph it
- Upload and share it on a photo-sharing site with the hashtag #GreatNature
I have just uploaded a bunch of pictures that I have taken while on Route 125 to my Instagram and will be sharing lots more over coming days. I am looking forward to sharing lots of pigeons, crows and more familiar wildlife that sometimes get a little less love but are just as wild as some of the more charismatic of creatures.
To find out more about the project visit The Great Nature Project website.
I have just returned from an 18-day trip with my 10 year old son in which we completed nearly 30 adventures. From Cumbria to the Shetland Islands, we have climbed mountains, jumped down gorges, slept on wild beaches and rescued a stranded sheep by sea kayak – all part of our Route 125 project with National Geographic and Toyota. Despite the wild nature of our explorations technology played a significant role in shaping our experiences – for both good and bad.
As a parent and educator (I make the distinction, but all parents are educators) I always struggled with finding the right balance between my son’s screen time vs other activities. While some children are deprived of ‘wild time’ connected to nature, so too are some children deprived of important ‘screen time’ to technology. Wild and screen time are often pitched against each other in a simplistic and dichotomised way, but the reality is far more complex.
Nature and technology can conflict, complement, supplement and/or converge in a multitude of different ways. During our micro-expedition, Minecraft on our iPad definitely distracted Seb to his detriment on a number of occasions. He had to be asked not to play while on ferries between Scottish islands in order to be forced to notice castles and wildlife, something he enjoyed but needed help to experience. While I am a great supporter of Minecraft and can see a wide range of creative possibilities for its use in the wild, my experience was that it often conflicted with the many alternative opportunities around us.
We also took a laptop with us that included a range of software. Seb used it to write stories, many of which were influenced by the people we met and places we visited. When we climbed Slieve Donnard (the highest mountain in Northern Ireland) we loaded up GarageBand, a piece of software for composing music. Inspired by the cold winds, menacing clouds and deep quarries we collaboratively created a piece of dark dance music. Both storytelling and musical composition have helped Seb to tune into places in a deeper way, helping him to think through, sense and make sense of the places we have explored. Without a doubt, these complimentary uses of technology have been highly rewarding.
We have also used technology to supplement our time in the wild. WhatsApp is an application for sending messages, holding group conversations, sharing locations, photos and videos. Being able to communicate with friends and family may not be essential to have a ‘wild time’ but being connected helped us to feel secure and grounded in place, helping us take comfort from knowing we could reach out to those close to us. Enjoying nature does not have to mean feeling emotionally remote, even if we are physically remote. SMS and phone calls fit into this category too.
Finally, we have used technologies that converge with the wild, dovetailing into what I call a kind ‘wildware’ that has inspired or supported our enjoyment of nature and wild places. GeoCaching, Mission:Explore and Wild Time are just three examples of applications, services and games that not only inspire ways to engage with nature, but also link us to a wider network of users that can offer a sense of community even when we are remote from or do not even know each other. In some cases these technologies can even record data such as wildlife sightings that can help conservation programmes and so nature itself.
Exploring is often boring and gruelling. Waiting for ferries or even climbing a mountain for hours can become dull especially for an active and youthful mind. When Seb and I climbed Ben Nevis we were taking breaks every 20 minutes until we started playing word ‘association’ and ‘listing’ games. Once these games started we walked for 90 minutes uphill without a break. The game may not have been ‘screen time’ but it was definitely a distraction from our surroundings and a myriad of learning opportunities. Playing Minecraft while waiting for a ferry may also have had a distracting effect, but Seb’s overall experience was improved because his boredom had been dealt with.
Some of the moments I struggled with most were when camping. Some nights we played cards (traditional use of time when sheltering from rain and wind) and some of the time we played JetPack (a game on the iPhone that involves JetPacking through a maze of mean things that want to hurt you). While the traditionalist in me wanted us to play more cards, feeling that the JetPack screen time was somehow ‘wrong’, we were still engaged in collaborative and shared game-play even if the interface and skills were different.
As a geographer all of these issues fascinate me. How we use technology not only changes how we make sense of and record places but also how we create them, experience them and construct them in our minds. When we pick the technologies to research, navigate and share places this inevitably shapes and filters how we sense and process the places we are discovering. Just like people, places have much to offer us. By thinking about what we want from our relationships with places before we visit them and considering the technologies best suited to facilitate these, we are far more likely to have positive experiences that meet our expectations.
While nature and technology often compete for attention, the reality is that they can complement, supplement and converge in extremely positive ways. Like sweets though, its the responsibility of adults to moderate how much of different kinds of screen time that children get (until they have learnt do this for themselves). We give Seb 30 minutes screen time a day (if he has done his ‘homework’) unless he earns more (by doing good things) or is doing something creative. In my mind the answer in the wild time vs. screen time debate is clear; it’s all about picking appropriate technologies and using them in moderation. What is appropriate and moderate will be different for every person, place and situation, something I need to continue to remember as we keep exploring as a family.
I was delighted to be asked to speak at TEDxEHL last month at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne. I used my 15 minutes to argue that we are currently going through an Exploration Revolution, but that we’re not making the most of it… especially in schools. The talk takes place during the 125th anniversary of National Geographic, a year in which many people have been asking the society “what’s left to explore?“. This short video answers that question and more.
The latest edition of Ecological Urbanism is terrible doorstop. The first edition is 655 pages, smells good, weighs 2kg and keeps most of my other books in their place. Despite its strengths, it can’t do video… something the latest version on the book can do. The original hardback book by Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty features hundreds of photos that I took while walking across Mexico City, Mumbai and London for Urban Earth, a project in urban exploration that I started in 2008. Out today, the new version splits the book into digestible chapters and includes over 15,000 photographs within the 3 Urban Earth films that I made by taking pictures every 8 steps while crossing these massive cities. You’ll find the films in volume 2, Anticipate, and are accompanied by a short piece of text that Kye Askins and I wrote. I’m delighted to see the films come to life in the book. I hope you enjoy it.
The Ecological Urbanism project has a Facebook page that you can follow here.
A short time ago I set GeoEdChat.com live. It’s a new effort from a group of us in The Geography Collective that we hope will bring about new relationships, thinking, practices and initiatives that will improve geography education. The idea follows #UKedChat and other hashtag based Twitter conversations that bring together educators to talk on a specific theme. #GeoEdChat is especially for anyone interested in geography education and will take place every Wednesday. It does not matter what your specialism is or the age of the people you work with, if you have something to say or want to learn more about geography education then this new site should be useful for you.
All educators clearly have different experiences of geography. We all work in different settings and situations, often with different aims and objectives. That said, the world we occupy and the internet that reaches around it are shared between us and together we can use one to influence the other. #GeoEdChat is an international, new and focussed opportunity to develop and share ideas and practices in geography education. I do hope that you’ll join us.
I’m always fascinated to discover the reasons why explorers and adventurers do what they do. In November Ben Saunders (@PolarBen) gave a TED Talk in which he described his amazing solo trek across the Arctic (from Siberia to Canada) and explained his main reason for the journey.
“One of the magical things about this journey however is that because I’m walking over the sea, over this floating, drifting, shifting crust of ice that’s floating on the surface of the arctic ocean is that it’s an environment in a constant state of flux. The ice is always moving, breaking-up, drifting around, re-freezing.. so the scenery that I saw for nearly 3 months was unique to me. No one else will ever, could ever, possibly see the vistas that I saw for 10 weeks and that, I guess, is the finest argument for leaving the house.”
Ben’s story is inspirational and his reason for leaving the house is certainly captivating, but I’m not convinced that the exclusivity of experience or sole ownership of it are the best reasons to explore. No doubt taking such an extreme trek is geographically (in location, distance, scale, environment and human isolation) beyond what most people would do, but surely no one else will ever, could ever, possibly see the same vistas for any period of time? Growing trees, moving cars, changing window displays, rotating kebabs and dogs running in the park are all always changing and so are our gazes and our opinions. If the finest argument for leaving the house is to have a unique experience, all we have to do is be semi-conscious of the fact our experience is unique. We don’t have to travel to the ends of the Earth to have sole ownership of our experiences on it.
That said, I’m curious about the reasons why, as a tourist, traveller, explorer or simply someone bothering to leave the house, I enjoy a place or event because I’m the only one who has experienced it compared to experiences that are, to some degree, shared. When does sharing heighten, intensify or improve and when does it dilute, obstruct and corrupt? Clearly is depends entirely on the situation.
I enjoy the music festival scene in the UK and go to several major events each year. Something that’s often described is a tipping point where the festival organisers have sold too many tickets and the community feel of the event is lost. In the case of Glastonbury, the UK’s biggest festival, the organiser’s themselves have complained of there being an imbalance in the age of their audience… it’s ageing. Those who have been going to Glastonbury for sometime often complain that it’s become too big and too mainstream. That said, the feeling of being part of a massive drifting, shifting and moving crowd is often just as important as the band on stage. Everyone who is present creates the geography of the moment, the atmosphere that creates the place and so the destination that everyone has come for. Are these camping festival survivalists who brave the elements to enjoy this unique location any less an explorer because what they seek is music together rather than snow alone? I don’t think so.
We are all explorers, or as the poet Kate Tempest (@katetempest) would say, we are the Brand New Ancients.
I recently watched Step Up Revolution and was struck by what an awesome case study this film would make in geography classrooms. Some people may be fooled into thinking this is just a film about dance, but Step Up Revolution is a classic geographical (if fictional) study of people, place, power, planning and protest in cities. When a strip in Miami is threatened with topocide and gentrification “The Mob” fight back to protect their home. Guerrilla Geography is rife in this blockbuster, as the dancers move from ‘performance art’ to ‘ protest art’, intentionally occupying spaces to make their point and exert their power. It’s full of beautifully geography-based quotes too, as the characters debate identify, culture and more.
The love interest plot in the film revolves around Sean and Emily, two dancers who have fallen for each other but who are separated by their differences in wealth. To top that it’s Emily’s dad who is trying to redevelop the area and Sean is one of the leaders of the “Mob” that is uprising. Near the end of the film they dance together to the song “To Build a Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra, a beautiful song that with its use in this film draw parallels between finding a sense of home in both place and people… in this case, with each other through dance.
The film ends with Emily’s dad (the property developer) saying “Maybe there is a way to build-up this neighbourhood without tearing it down”. What a classic problem for any classroom of students try and tackle.