Seeing the difference, eight steps at a time

“Geography is about curiosity, exploration, and discovery, ” says  Daniel Raven-Ellison, one of the winners of the Emerging Explorers National Geographic prize.  A “guerrilla geographer,” he uses different techniques, such as walks and film making, to help encourage people to explore the world surrounding them. In his “urban earth” film of London he takes a picture every 8 steps.

The sped-up images, which quickly moved from forest to endless miles of concrete and cars left me feeling overwhelmed. I felt relieved to be back in the forest again eight minutes later.

Other than that visceral response, I wasn’t sure what to draw from it. I like trees better than endless expanses of concrete? I do like the idea of becoming an urban explorer though, and walking some unconventional routes through London.

“Green spaces were completely fenced off,” he says in his National Geographic biography, about one walk he took through an area of London with high levels of depression and suicides. “Doors had gates with razor wire, and even though it was a school holiday, no children were to be seen.”

Raven-Ellison’s film concept is akin to a transect survey, a great sampling tool to measure environmental change. Often used to survey the biodiversity of an area, this time he’s applied it to an urban setting. They’re often used in international participatory development projects, as a way of walking with local people through their community or farm, for example, to help understand their resources and constraints.

Imagine taking Raven-Ellison’s film concept and walking from the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf to Tower Hamlets. The walk would visually contrast the two areas, located within just seven square miles of each other in London, but worlds apart.

The child poverty statistics say it all really. An astounding 52% of the children living in Tower Hamlets were living in poverty in 2011, according to End Child poverty campaign study conducted by the Centre for Research in Social Policy.

(As an aside, my area, just up the road in Hackney doesn’t fare much better with 39% of all children living in poverty.)

It’s statistics like this that seriously call into question the idea that such areas of super-wealth somehow benefit us all. “The ludicrous nonsense of ‘trickle-down economics’ is exposed in Canary Wharf more than anywhere else in Europe,” says Owen Hatherley in his recent Guardian blog, pointing out that most jobs generated by it (other than the top-notch investment ones) are menial, and locals are being priced out of housing due to the “inflated” local house prices.

Liam Taylor, a teacher at Langdon Park School and an inequality campaigner, is now providing guided tours of Canary Wharf. In this video he outlines his route. “We try to link it a bit into the broader history of financial capitalism,” he says. “It’s not just a recent thing…We’re looking at 200 years of economic development. We talk about the way finance was linked to the empire and kind of represents the same alliance of gentlemanly capitalists who ran the Empire and still, unfortunately, seem to be running it today.”

I want to know why Taylor’s walk stops at Canary Wharf? Why not continue down the road from there to Tower Hamlets? And I think Raven-Ellison should film or photograph that walk every 8 steps to capture that progression from capitalist modernity to shabby council houses.

But, then, even if you stopped each 8 steps to really look around or take a picture, what conclusions would you draw? Sure, Tower Hamlets would look more tatty than Canary Wharf, but would the external infrastructure on show sufficiently convey the differences between them?

Maybe the tour needs to go a step further and get past the sidewalk and into someone’s house – a sort of x-ray version of street view of everyone’s sitting rooms – for the true reality of those contrasting extremes to really hit home.