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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.  

Series one

Cities built on sand

Listen here

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 

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"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.