Shifting Sands: Unearthing cities of sand in West Africa.

Lead Research Organisation: London School of Economics & Pol Sci
Department Name: Geography and Environment


In a landmark paper, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) positioned sand and gravels as the 'unrecognised foundational material of our economies' (UNEP, 2019:2). More specifically, transformed into roads, buildings and digital infrastructure, sand forms the scaffolding of the world's expanding cities. Yet limited academic work has engaged with sand. This is problematic, given that the widespread extraction of sand and gravels is increasingly recognised as 'one of the major sustainability challenges of the 21st century' (UNEP, 2019:2,9). The research takes this understudied material as a way of engaging with the city in all its complexity.

The research draws on fourteen-months of data collection in the growing West African city of Accra, where, like many cities across the world, sand is mixed with cement and water and transformed into concrete foundations of the urban. The research draws on extensive ethnographic engagement with those working in the sand economy, as well as drawing on interviews with politicians, community elders, policy makers and government officials. By engaging with the lives of sand prior to its materialisation as concrete structure, the thesis writes of the ante-lives - or the before lives - of urban form.

More specifically, looking to sand extraction processes, the thesis argues that the unearthing of sand - and thus the making of the city - cannot be understood without recourse to underlying geological conditions, shifting ecological processes, evolving socio-technical practices and significantly, a contested politics of land which remains embedded in the legacies of British colonial policy. Set in a context of limited job opportunities, the thesis also detailed the various claims made upon the values embedded in sand as it moves across the city from extraction zones to points of consumption, offering a critical meditation on the contemporary livelihoods and the future of work in African cities. Finally, the research points to the anxieties that undergird the urbanisation of sand, including the limited longevity of low-quality building blocks, environmental degradation, the widespread loss of farmland to sand extraction, the displacement of vulnerable groups from the peri-urban, as well as illegal sand mining. Together, the research brings into dialogue otherwise disparate literatures, offering up original contributions at the intersection of urban political ecology (UPE), geosocial analyses, extractivism, [African] urbanism, postcolonialism and the practices and politics of urban labour. Moreover, while the research opens up new ways of theorising contemporary cities, it also generates space for engaging with critical debates surrounding socio-natural sustainability.

The fellowship will consolidate this existing work through an ambitious, yet achievable range of publications, a book proposal and a series of conference panels and presentations. Moreover, through the production and dissemination of a collaborative documentary and the delivery of an arts-based educational programme, the fellowship seeks to share the research through visual arts, establishing a strong social science-arts researcher profile. Finally, the fellowship will extend the existing theoretical, empirical and methodological contributions of the existing research to Monrovia, Liberia, with a view to secure funding from the British Academy. This will focus on the peninsula settlement of West Point, which offers a compelling case to consider the many relationships between sand and city - including the historical role of coasts and beaches in the production of cities, the construction of harbours, coastal sand mining and the contemporary threats to cities posed by climate change (Hoffman, 2017, 2016; Kauffman, 2011;, 2016). Together, the multiple relationships between sand and city in West Point provide a dynamic case to further theorise the sandy foundations of past, present and future urban forms.


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