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Cities of Sand: Unearthing the connections

Podcast series

This podcast series engages with researchers, activists and policy-makers, to unearth the dynamic relationships between urbanisation and sand

Every week, 3 million people migrate to cities (UN-Habitat 2015). Underpinning these diverse spaces – host to many futures all at once – is one shared material: sand.

Sand forms the fabric of roads, buildings, glass and land itself and is extracted at such vast scales, that, with gravels, it constitutes the largest volume of solid material extracted on the planet (UNEP, 2014). In this very real way, our cities – big or small – are to a large degree, built on sand.

This podcast series engages with researchers, activists and policy-makers, to unearth the dynamic relationships between urbanisation and sand. Excavating issues of ecological damage and community displacement in the context of the present need and desire for concrete development – with its many health, social and economic benefits – the series gets to the core of the complex relationships embedded in cities of sand.

The podcast ends with a call to look beyond sand to more alternative, more inclusive materials – and ultimately just ways of inhabiting our urbanising planet.  

Podcast host and producer: Kate Dawson

This podcast is hosted and produced by Dr Kate Dawson. Kate is a Visiting Fellow at LSE. Kate’s work examines socio-natural issues surrounding urbanisation in and beyond Ghana. This work has centred on sand - an overused, under-recognised material at the heart of cities and economies globally. She is currently working on a documentary, ‘City of Sand’ - which looks at the city of Accra through the prism of sand. You can also see her interdisciplinary work 'rare_earth' here


Series one

Cities built on sand

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In this first episode, I speak with pioneering journalist Vince Beiser, innovative policy maker Dr Louise Gallagher and eminent storyteller and changemaker, Kiran Pereira. We draw out some of the relationships between sand and cities, thinking about concrete, glass and paints; discuss some of the implications of this vast extraction; unpick the value of storytelling and trace out some of the biggest shifts surrounding sand and sustainability in the sphere of global policy.

In order of appearance:

Vince Beiser 

vince_beiser (1)
"Sand is the most important solid substance in the world. It is the thing that our cities are literally built out of".

Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist and author based in Canada. His first book, The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization was a finalist for a PEN/E.O. Wilson Award and a California Book Award.  “Stunning,” says NPR; “impassioned and alarming,” says the Washington Post. Vince has reported from over 100 countries, states, provinces, kingdoms, occupied territories, liberated areas, no man’s lands and disaster zones. He has exposed conditions in California’s harshest prisons, trained with troops bound for Iraq, ridden with first responders to disasters in Haiti and Nepal, scouted the radioactive ruins of Fukushima, and hunted down many other stories for publications including Wired, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Guardian, The Nation, Mother Jones, Playboy, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.

Dr Louise Gallagher

louise gallagher
"Sand is a strategic resource that we don’t treat strategically…we really need to mainstream sand into existing policies and standards".

Dr. Louise Gallagher is the environmental governance lead for UNEP/GRID-Geneva’s Global Sand Observatory initiative. Louise has worked at the nexus of sustainable development themes over the past fifteen years in various roles at UN Environment, WWF, and the University of Geneva, among other organisations. She holds a PhD from University College Dublin, specialising in environmental policy analysis.  Louise worked with UNEP/GRID-Geneva in 2018 to lead the production of the UNEP (2019) report on Sand and Sustainability. She rejoined to coordinate research and governance activities under UNEP/GRID-Geneva’s Global Sand Observatory initiative in 2020. She continues to publish on themes of water-energy-food nexus governance, complexity-informed policy evaluation, and the design and implementation of participatory and transdisciplinary research processes in sustainability transformations.

Kiran Pereira

kiran pereira sand
"There has to be a sense of hope, a sense of agency, a feeling that we can do something"

Kiran Pereira is the author of the book Sand Stories: Surprising Truths about the Global Sand Crisis and the Quest for Sustainable Solutions and the Founder of She works as a social entrepreneur to find and promote solutions to the global sand crisis. Her work has been featured in the award-winning documentary Sand Wars and media such as The Economist, BBC Radio5, Al Jazeera, Financial Times, ZDF Magazin Royale, CNBC digital among others. Kiran lives in London.

The shifting sands of Southeast Asia 

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In this second episode, I speak with Dr Will Jamieson, Jean Yves, Dr Chris Hackney and WWF’s Marc Goichot. They share their research on sand extraction, urbanisation and natural resilience across the vast region of Southeast Asia, discussing the growth of Singapore, extraction in the Mekong Delta, river system thresholds, urban sustainability and the use of technology to better understand these complex dynamics.  

In order of appearance:

william jamieson

Dr William Jamieson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His work is concerned with the integration of political geography and literary theory through critical-creative writing methods to understand how space is “read” and “written” by capital. His research explores land reclamation, sand extraction, and Singapore's subsurface expansion. His fiction pamphlet, Thirst for Sand, was published by Goldsmiths Press in 2019.


Jean-Yves Mertenat is a Policy Officer for the Centre Party in Switzerland, where he focuses on foreign, security, science and education policy. Looking for an under researched issue for his Master dissertation, he was fascinated by the journey sand takes to transform Singapore’s economy, security and development and the shaping geopolitics of sand in the world. After graduating with his MSc. from Royal Holloway he has worked for the Swiss Embassy in Chile, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Munich Security Conference. 


Dr Chris Hackney is a NUAcT fellow in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. Chris researches sediment and water transport through river and delta systems, particularly in South East Asian deltas such as the Mekong, Red and Irrawaddy systems. He is interested in the way that humans are impacting natural fluvial processes, with a particular focus on sand mining, and how these impacts ultimately affect the populations and communities which make deltaic regions their home.


Marc Goichot is a geographer specialised in the management of large rivers with a specific interest in sediments management and fluvial geomorphology. Marc currently leads WWF’s Water Initiative in the Greater Mekong. He was recently involved in assessments of the impacts of sand mining in the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers.

Sand Security and Sustainability 

In this episode, I speak with an interdisciplinary group of researchers and practitioners whose work engages with the multiple connections between sand, cities and various forms of in/security. With contributors offering rich insights from Morocco, Brazil, Kenya, Ghana and Nepal, this episode offers a comparative view of the many forms of social, ecological and political in/security manifesting at the intersection of sand extraction and urbanisation. 

Contributors in order of appearance:

abdelkader abderrahmane Cropped

Abdelkader Abderrahmane is a Senior Researcher with the ENACT programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) where he works on transnational security in North-West Africa. Abdelkader Abderrahmane is also a non-resident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, where he focuses primarily on peace and security in North Africa. Abderrahmane has also worked as a consultant for different firms in the fields of research, political risk and due diligence. Abderrahmane has published extensively and his articles and analyses have been published in Le Monde, Mail and Guardian, the Institute for Security Studies, the Atlantic Council and many others.

Among his writings, he also authored ‘Understanding Algeria’s Foreign Policy in the Sahel’, in The Politics of Algeria (Ed., Y. H. Zoubir, Routledge, 2019) and ‘Political, Economic, and Security Challenges in North Africa (ISPI, 2021).He speaks English, French and Arabic.’

halinishi yusuf

Halinishi Yusuf is the Managing Director of the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority, the principal agency of the Government of Makueni County Government in Kenya in charge of all matters of sand conservation and sustainable utilization. She has been in charge of sand matters in the County for four years now. She has a wealth of experience in natural resource management including forestry, fisheries, water, sand and cross cutting issues of climate change.

Ms. Yusuf holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from Kenyatta University and a Master of Arts in Development Studies, specializing in Environment and Sustainable Development from the International Institute of Social Studies- an Institute of the Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

frank müller

Frank Müller is an urban geographer and a research fellow in the EU’s Marie Sklodowska Curie Program, on a project titled: Weaponizing Social Housing in Rio de Janeiro and Medellín.  “My research focuses on housing and securitization in urban Latin America and beyond.  I explore emerging forms of governability in the urban peripheries of Medellin and Rio de Janeiro.  While my project is located at the  University of Amsterdam, I am Visiting Scholar in the Weatherhead Scholars Program at Harvard University, from 2021-23.”

saumya pandey

Saumya Pandey is a doctoral researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway and the University of Ghent, Belgium. She is ethnographically studying the geological history, politics, and economy of sandy sediments in the Himalayan river systems. Her research is funded by the Research Council of Norway.

kofi asare

Kofi Asare is a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. Kofi has more than 11 years working experience in Public Administration in the Ghana Civil Service since 2008. He has a strong passion for social work and advocacy for the vulnerable in rural and peri-urban Ghana.

katharina hemmler

Katharina Hemmler is a research associate at the faculty of Organic Agricultural sciences at the University of Kassel, Germany. Her work focusses on the interplay of resource extraction, urbanization and agriculture in West Africa. In the context of her PhD studies, she assesses the effects of sand mining on ecosystem services and agricultural practices in Accra, Ghana and Bamako, Mali.

To see the city in a grain of sand

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In this episode, I speak with Dr Jerry Zee, Dr Ben Mendelsohn and Dr Joana Gaspa de Freitas, in order to think through the conceptual potential of thinking sand and city together. Thinking across Beijing, Lagos and the coasts of the UK and Portugal, the speakers consider the historical, political and cultural dimensions of the relationship between urban life, urban space and sand – offering up intriguing ways of seeing the city through a grain of sand. 

Contributors in order of appearance:

jerry zee

Jerry Zee is assistant professor at Princeton University with a joint appointment in the Department of Anthropology and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. His recent book Continent in Dust: Experiments in a Chinese Weather System (2022) further explores dust as a geophysical and political matter in China and downwind.

ben mendelsohn

Ben Mendelsohn is a scholar-filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is currently Assistant Professor of Film and Digital Culture at Portland State University. Previously, he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) at the University of Pennsylvania. His article, Making the Urban Coast: A Geosocial Reading of Land, Sand, and Water in Lagos appears in the December 2018 issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and his public scholarship has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail and Public Books. His most recent film, As If Sand Were Stone, has screened at the Rockaway Film Festival, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, and Philadelphia's Vox Populi gallery.

joana gaspar

Joana Gaspar de Freitas is an environmental historian based in Portugal. She is the principal investigator of DUNES. Sea, Sand, People, a project funded by a European Research Council (ERC) grant. This 5-year interdisciplinary project aims to produce an environmental history of coastal dunes, analysing and connecting cases studies from different parts of the work: France, Portugal, UK, US, Brazil, Mozambique and New Zealand. Joana works at the Center for History of the University of Lisbon and she is co-editor of the new journal Coastal Studies and Society. She has published widely on these topics: environmental history of coastal zones, risks and vulnerabilities, extreme events, climate change adaptation, coastal management and ocean’s cultural heritage. Joana is preparing a book on global coastal sand dunes.

Cities Beyond Sand - Parts 1 and 2

Listen to Part One Here

Listen to Part Two Here

In this two-part episode, I welcome Kiran Pereira of Sand Stories back to the podcast as co-host. Kiran leads the way towards the end of Part 1 and takes the floor in Part 2. In Part 1, I speak with Dr Philip Oldfield and Dr Anna Mavrogiannia to critically consider the way we build our environments and the kinds of models that might enable us to do things differently. We then speak with Alia Bengana who spotlights alternative materials for construction and the challenges of shifting perceptions around natural material use. In Part 2, we welcome Craig White, Shriti Pandey, Jukka Nieminen and Dr Ralf Jung, who deliver fascinating insights into their ground-breaking approaches to construction and recycling – offering inspiring ways forward for building cities beyond sand.

Contributors in order of appearance:

Part One:


Dr Philip Oldfield is Head of School at UNSW Built Environment, Sydney. His research is focussed on the decarbonisation of architecture, with special interests in tall building design, embodied carbon and lifecycle thinking. Philip is a British Science Association Media Fellow, and has spent time working at The Guardian, writing for the Science and Environment teams. He has also written for Architecture Australia, The Architects’ Journal, Dezeen and many other publications.  


Dr Anna Mavrogianni trained as an architect engineer specialising in building physics and environmental design at the School of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and the Bartlett, UCL and has several years of experience in architectural design and environmental consultancy. She is an expert in indoor environmental quality, building energy retrofit and climate change adaptation of the built environment, focusing on heat vulnerability and air quality at the building and urban scale. She leads interdisciplinary research in building performance used by policymakers to evaluate impacts of energy efficiency, urban growth and climate change on energy use, carbon emissions, health and wellbeing. She has produced over 120 peer-reviewed publications to date and has contributed to policy reports, including the UK Government’s 2017 Climate Change Risk Assessment. She is a Co-Secretary of the International Building Performance Simulation Association-England (IBPSA-England) and an Associate Editor in the Energy and Buildings journal.


Alia Bengana is an architect, she studied at the School of Architecture of Paris-Belleville and at the Sapienza of Rome. She has been granted by the Delano & Aldrich American Institute of Architects scholarship. Since 2009 she opened her professional practice in Paris, and previously worked in Barcelona, New-York and Shanghai. For the past 10 years, she has specialized in the use of regenerative materials, especially focusing on earth and fibers. She has been teaching in Paris since 2015 and at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, and Haute école d'ingénierie et d'architecture de Fribourg in Switzerland since 2021. She is a contributor for the Swiss French media and the architectural swiss french magazine Tracès. She has published an investigation on sand and Concrete with Claude Baechtold «Concrete, the end of an era ? »  that they are turning into a comic book to be published in fall 2022. 

Part Two:


 Craig White is CEO at Agile Property and Homes. Agile was set-up to deliver safe, civil, low-carbon, affordable homes to those in housing need using low-carbon,Modern Methods of Construction, built and scaled at pace. Agile is helping to solve the housing crisis, using a land-supply that is new, free & hidden in plain sight. The climate emergency also drives Agile’s design and development of its products and services, to ensure that operational energy and embodied carbon is minimised and that only natural and renewable, carbon capturing materials are used in the fabric of its build systems.  


Shriti Pandey is Founder of Strawcture Eco, the first company in India to make homes and school using Compressed Agri-fiber panels which is a 100% green building material. Shriti has been selected for Forbes 30U30 Asia 2021, under Manufacturing Division and selected for the Circular Valley accelerator Program. Her initiative stops crop stubble burning which is leading cause of air pollution in North India . The panels are 100% Green alternative to Gypsum, Wood based panels for External & Internal built environment. The company promotes Circular Economy business model in Construction Industry one of the biggest emitter of GHGs. We made a 7000 sqft hospital for covid relief in Patna. Every m2 of our building material stores 30kg of Carbon dioxide and so far we have stopped 36,000 Tonne of Co2 from being emitted. She has a Master’s in Construction Management from New York University and B.Tech in Civil Engineering. She is a TedX Speaker, United Nations Social Impact Challenge Award Winner in August 2018 in New York City. The first pilot house build by Strawcture Eco won the “ GREEN BUILDING PROJECT AWARD “ by Smart Cities Expo in New Delhi in June 2019. Strawcture Eco is IIM Bangalore, Banasthali University and SELCO Foundation. Shriti is also Acumen & Echoing Green 2020 Fellow. 


Jukka Nieminen is a Director at Finn Recycling, Oy based in Finland. His expertise lies in setting up systems for the production and sales of specialized sands for industrial applications. He also has experience in the design and construction of sand washing & production plants for various industries.


Dr Ralf Jung is founder of Dr Jung Consulting GmbH, in Germany with 30 years of consulting experience. He is also an investor and an advisor to the board of several start-up companies in the Foundries, automotive, process industry in Europe. He has authored several publications for the foundry industry and also holds a patent on Technology Metals and Rare Earth Compounds from Industrial By-Products.