Collect or explore? Is it time for a rethink about how we share our outdoor spaces?

Could you geotag that photo please?

Get outside! It’s a great message and one that I have been proud to share across various roles and careers. However, as an outdoor writer and online influencer, I am becoming more and more aware of the negative impact that some styles of sharing, in particular geotagging, is having on some of our outdoor spaces.

The whole thing is a bit of a conundrum. I am certainly not an elitist and genuinely believe that everyone has equal need of our green and blue outdoor spaces. Not only that, I believe and evidence is starting to uphold, that the more people experience being outdoors, the more they will want to look after it in the future.

‘People who have access to nature or urban green spaces are much more likely to behave in environmentally friendly ways.’

Natural England

Is social media to blame?

Instagrammers are often criticised for their place-collecting mentality but surely ‘sharing a lovely photo from the summit’ is as relevant a reason for setting off on a walk as ‘visiting all of the mountains over 3,000 feet’? We are, it would appear, a nation of collectors. Be it Munroes, Wainrights, trig points, or more recently, Instashots, we are encouraged outside by the notion of gathering. This is surely a good thing, if we can tap further into the idea of collecting, perhaps we can encourage more people to enjoy the benefits of being outdoors.

The issue of course with the precise and easy-to-follow place naming that accompanies social media is that it encourages more people into exactly the same location. Sometimes more people than that location can cope with. Take Dartmoor National Park as an example. We have been blessed with 365 square miles, much of which (but not all) is available for wild camping, yet year after year particular areas suffer because they have been popularised through social media and misinformation.

What exactly do we want?

I for one don’t want to stop encouraging people to get outside, and I believe that a key element (but not the whole part) of this is suggesting places that people might want to visit. It is no use telling a visitor to, ‘Go for a walk on Dartmoor’. For lots of reasons this is intimidating. Most people want to know the answers to questions before they visit places. Questions that might be tricky to answer such as, ‘Am I allowed to go there?’ ‘Will I be safe there?’ and even ‘Is this place really for people like me?’

However by suggesting a specific location to visit, I am, if my audience is large enough, risking putting pressure on that location. There must be ways to balance both the needs of people to be outside and the protection of the outdoor spaces that they need to visit. Here are a few I have considered trialling in my role as an outdoor writer:

  • Encouraging the general exploration of areas instead of designating specific routes or locations
  • Using geotagging for useful information, toilets, car parking etc but not specific landmarks
  • Building the skills of exploration, navigation, hill safety etc.
  • Taking more conservation considerations into account when picking locations
  • Encouraging local exploration by writing more about urban green spaces

‘Over the last decade, the total number of visits taken within a mile has increased, while visits of other distances have remained relatively constant.’

Monitor of engagement with the natural environment – The national survey of people and the natural environment (2019)

But what about the search engines?

Of course, not all of the above sits well with current SEO trends and audience expectations. Local search is important to businesses (commerce is the reason behind most outdoor writing), Instagram posts with geotags are likely to reach more people than those without, and Google wants us to provide as much ‘useful’ information as possible to populate Google Maps. If you pay attention you will start to notice this. There’s a reason writers trying to discourage overcrowding on Snowdon use the word in their titles, search terms rule the marketing world.

An outdoor writing revolution?

I will be the first to put my hands up and say I have been guilty in the past of not thinking enough about the impact on our environments of my outdoor writing. Perhaps there is a revolution out there waiting to happen. Maybe there is a place for hashtags like #exploremore #findyourplace and #nogeotag after all. And maybe we will all start ignoring the thousands of ‘Ten wild places and exactly how to get to them’ articles out there and look for something with a bit more knowledge, integrity and substance instead. As balancing acts go, this one is set for plenty of wobbles!

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