Urban Earth: Photo-mapping urban spaces

A Geography enthusiast at The Geography Collective (image by The Geography Collective)

The Urban Earth project by The Geography Collective aims at representing humanity’s habitat by walking across some of earth’s biggest urban areas. The motivation is critical of media and their portrayal of our living environments:

The media distorts the way we see our world(s) with stereotypical images highlighting the most extremes of places. Urban Earth aims to expose what our cities really look like away from the bias and spin of commercial agendas.

(This reminds me a bit of the distorted body image in the media and, for example, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. For an ever-astounding short film [1:15 mins] click here. End of short side-track.)

The Rules

The recipe of Urban Earth is very simple: Walk across a city taking a photograph every 8 steps (roughly) and put them together sequentially into a movie. Photographs are always taken looking forward, without focusing on specific landmarks or ‘nice’ parts of the cityscape. The thing about an Urban Earth walk is that it tries to find normality within each city:

Geography is more important than many people think. A random route across a city may expose many things, but an Urban Earth walk is special because it attempts to reveal what a city is like for the people who live in it. Urban Earth is not about following the tourist trail or tracking down the most extreme places… it is about finding normality.

The walk is adjusted such that it features deprived areas proportionally to their abundance in a city. Also, the walk tries to cover areas where many people live and, through the 8 steps rule, the length of the walk becomes proportional to the size of the city.


So far, the Urban Earth project has covered the following cities:

I found Mexico City (obviously a huge city, which I have not yet visited) most interesting and striking with the low buildings in the outskirts of the city. It looks like a big sort of carpet of low buildings, over wide stretches very colourful, housing millions in total.

Also London was interesting. Having not yet been to London either I have seen some areas which I obviously do not know from the media coverage. Also, there are some rather green patches in the sub-urbs. It is then striking to realise the large prelude you have watched until suddenly, for one or two frames only, you see a landmark which you do know from the general media (for example, the Gherkin building). How do such landmarks deserve the tremendously, vastly bigger media coverage over other neighbourhoods and habitats in London (which actually house people)?

I will include the Mumbai walk here for your curiosity:

From the media we tend to know some hotspots in global cities, which, if you map them, make up only a teeny-tiny part of the footprint of said city! Here, Urban Earth sets a nice counter-point.

The People behind the Project

Urban Earth was started by Daniel Raven-Ellison of The Geography Collective based in the UK. The Geography Collective is a team of some ten “Geography activists, teachers, academics, artists and guerrillas” with the aim to “encourage (young) people to see our world in new ways”. Another interesting project of The Geography Collective which I had stumbled across before learning about Urban Earth is Mission:Explore.

Addendum: Mission:Explore

Mission:Explore has been a book (subtitle: “Warning: This book is dangerous.”), now it has grown into a small series of books which challenge (primarily) kids to fulfill missions in their neighbourhood (or ‘habitat’ ;). The book series is accompanied by a website. Example missions are:

  • Go on an urban safari
    Get on a bus and go on a wildlife safari in the urban jungle. Photograph any animals you see. They can be real, named or imagined.
  • Sniff it
    Using that thing in the middle of your face, sniff your way around your neighbourhood. Make a map to show the results of your explorations.
  • Map your feelings
    Find and explore the 7 July memorial [in London]. Take time to create a map of your emotions inspired by the memorial. Be as scientific or as artistic as you want.
  • Look up
    Stand in different parts of Covent Garden [in London] and look up. What’s the greatest number of people that you can get looking up at any one time?
  • Measure in rolls
    How square is the green in Parliament Square [in London]? Measure it out using forward rolls, sideways rolls or cartwheels.

Mission:Explore: An example mission as it is presented in the book

I think both Urban Earth and Mission:Explore are fantastic projects. If you’re based in London and have a kiddo of appropriate age, I’d recommend you check out the Mission:Explore book on Amazon. Already the illustrations and the writing style make it a lot of fun :)

Mission:Explore: First aid instructions


2 thoughts on “Urban Earth: Photo-mapping urban spaces

  1. Anonymous

    “The walk is adjusted such that it features deprived areas proportionally to their abundance in a city. Also, the walk tries to cover areas where many people live and, through the 8 steps rule, the length of the walk becomes proportional to the size of the city.”

    i am preparing to embark on an urban earth walk in a historic american city. can you please describe your methodology in featuring areas proportionally to their abundance.


  2. Ralph Post author

    Hi Anonymous
    thanks for your question. I must admit, I haven’t embarked on an Urban Earth walk myself yet. I’ve just found their idea nice and blogged about it.
    For starters, if you choose your route in a representative way, then the 8 steps rule ensures that all areas covered by your walk will show up proportionally to their abundance. However, of course the trick is to put your path in such manner that you cover the relevant areas proportionally. I think for that there is no fix rule but your knowledge of the place and maybe a set of good thematic maps (think, sociological or demographic categories) should do you good service.
    Hope this helps just a little bit and that you’ll have fun on your endeavour!


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