Relational Boundaries, Landscape-Architectural-Urban As Mediator, Producer Of Network Ecologies

Last Monday, the BBC has posted a series of pictures of uncontrolled sand mining activities in Sierra Leone, in West Africa. A post-conflict country confronted with a set of intertwined complex realities, including lack of economic opportunities, political instability, inequalities, destruction of infrastructure (due partly by a ten-year of civil war), rampant urbanization, population growth, housing shortage… To this list, we must add natural resources shortage and growing ecological issues.
Sand mining in Sierra Leone | photo © Tommy Trenchard
Originally appeared on BBC
"Once synonymous with a brutal civil war, Sierra Leone was forecast to be one of the world's fastest growing countries in 2012. On the back of the rapid economic growth, it is enjoying a construction boom, with new roads and buildings springing up in and around the major towns." BBC, January 2013.
These complex realities can be the cause of growing uncontrolled sand mining activities.
Mining sand provides materials for construction or industrial uses. The reasons to high exploitation of not only sand, but mangrove forests, estuaries and seagrass beds, are mainly due to urban growth and concentration of human activities along the coasts. With a population of 5,245,695, and 41,7 % being under 15, Sierra Leone is hit by a high unemployment rate of around 70%, as the BBC reported.  The miners justify the act of sand mining as a response to a lack of jobs offers:

The onus is on the government to provide them with jobs, otherwise they will have to continue digging sand.wrote the BBC. Sand mining, then, becomes a source of funding, a lucrative option not only for the local workforce but also for the construction industry.Sand mining in Sierra Leone | Photo © Tommy Trenchard
Originally appeared on BBC.
"The coast, stripped of its natural protection, is now being eroded at a rate of up to 6m (yards) per year in places, according to Kolleh Bangura, director of Environmental Protection Agency" BBC, January 2013.
What consequences will be resulted from exploitation of coastal sand? Now that I have presented the starting point to this post, let me enlarge the discussion into four points closely related to the the issue of sand mining in Sierra Leone (this being an example of the focal point of this post). First, coastlines all over the world concentrate 60% of the world's population now or within 100km of the seashore. The relationship between environmental systems and human activities have always been conflictual since here the landscape-architectural-urban, the economic, the political, the social, the cultural, and, there, the geological and the ecological have been envisaged as mutually exclusive entities, the one dominating the other. The consequences to this critical relationship can be summarized into 10 issues: land use and land ownership competition, rapid coastal erosion, climate warming, sea-level rise, air and water pollution by manmade waste (industrial, agricultural wastes), landscape degradation, forest loss, wetlands and wildlife habitat destruction, natural resource shortage, and destruction of coastal communities.As the BBC reported:
In the village of Lakka on the Freetown peninsular, crumbling ruins dot the shoreline. This building was destroyed by coastal erosion in 2004, a year after the village's pristine golden beach became the site of intensive sand mining operation.
Sand mining in Sierra Leone | Photo © Tommy Trenchard
Originally appeared on BBC.

The second point focuses on the population-environment nexus. The landscape-architectural-urban should account for the complexity of the population-environment nexus when problem-addressing such areas. Coastal areas having their own complexities, their own geological characteristics, their own ecological features. An area where two systems attempt to co-exist: the ecological system and the engineering system. Population expansion in coastlines has led to growing demands for housing and activities as well as ecological disequilibrium. Back to Sierra Leone, but also other countries in West Africa were the question of sand mining is particularly sensitive, agricultural change should be added to the list of critical causes. A large number of observers has put on the table that the population-environment nexus has contributed to waste as well as environmental degradation.
Sand mining in Sierra Leone | Photo © Tommy Trenchard
Originally appeared on BBC.
"On Hamilton beach the scale of the operation is staggering. Sand is mined here two days a week, during which up to 40 trucks can be working simultaneously, each with a team of diggers." BBC, January 2013.
The third point, closely related to the second, concerns the question of boundary, which is occupying a central place in landscape-architecture-urbanism. There is a lot of literature on the topic of boundary, including ecological boundary, political boundary, urban boundary, moral boundary. What is a boundary? It seems to me that it is urgent to (re-)interrogated boundary but in the landscape-architectural-urban matter.  Considering sand. Sand constitutes the boundary that separates water and land; it preserves land from rising sea level. More broadly, a boundary is a zone that separates the natural and the cultural, the ecological system and the engineering system. A boundary separates two or more elements. Many ecologists define boundary as human constructs, like a line that separates  countries, areas, disciplines. For example, a boundary that separates population and environment. A boundary can also be tangible structures identified in nature. Another approach is to consider boundary as the result of discontinuities between patches, namely consequential boundary (sand or rocks in coastal areas, forest, wetland) or as the cause of discontinuities between patches, namely causal boundary (a fence to protect a herd of cattle).
Yet, as said earlier, the division between here, the landscape-architectural-urban, the economic, the social, the cultural, the political, and, there, the geological and the ecological, along with population growth pressure, has caused critical issues. As this event in Sierra Leone has showed, an uncontrolled mining sand will impact the boundary that separates water and land having been destroyed by internal and external conditions as well as landscape patterns, coastal communities, and at a broader scale, all the levels of the society, including socio-economics, politics, and environment.
Sand mining in Sierra Leone | Photo © Tommy Trenchard
Originally appeared on BBC.
"The mining is supposed to be restricted to just one beach as part of a rotation system designed to make the practice more sustainable, yet the ban is widely ignored, with intensive mining occurring in broad daylight on other beaches. Even when local bans are enforced, the mining simply goes ahead at night." BBC, January 2013.
Activities in coastal areas should be considered as infrastructural, self-reliant, non-linear. Considering another dimension of boundary. Boundary, in terms of ecology (but not only), could be a carrier of resilience, of network, of information; it could be relational (the relational is always information). Re-thinking the boundary between patches as been relational is to admit that the natural system is itself relational, that it is information (I particularly appreciate the idea of the infrastructure space as being information, as Keller Easterling has pointed and consider informative and precious to apply her idea here). The landscape-architectural-urban can learn a lot from the natural system. Exchanges between ecological system and engineering system can be innovative for both as it can be multivalent and adaptable at various scales, from the smallest scale (the boundary) to the broadest scale (building in coastal areas). A boundary is a form as well as a result of exchanges between patches. It can also be a mediator, a producer between patches. Considering boundary as relational, mediator, as information, as a form and a product as well as producer of exchanges provides a better understanding of the ecological system, its function, its behavior in response to internal and external elements. In this context, it is urgent for the landscape-architectural-urban to foreground ecological systems (here boundary, there landscape, there again, natural resources), here, as relational, information, non-linear when problem-addressing ecological issues (landscape recalibration in coastal and non-coastal zones). But not only: the landscape-architectural-urban should reintroduce ecological systems inside the definition of landscape-architecture/urbanism practices. In this instance, the stubborn behavior that consists in dividing the political, the economic, the cultural, the social, and the geological and the ecological could be replaced by an approach based on relational, on information, on a fusion of these spheres.

Suggested book
Keller Easterling | The Action is the Form ı Victor Hugo's TED Talk || Strelka Press, 2012

Four, we learnt from the BBC's article on sand mining that the human and non-human boundary result in natural-cultural network, or, namely, network ecologies. It is not too far from Bruno Latour's idea of ANT (for Actor-Network-Theory) which argues, if I put it simply, that socio-technical networks have been created by both human and non-human technologies. We particularly learnt from this article that the interplay between engineering systems and ecological systems should be central to the landscape-architectural-urban if we want to problem-address landscape restructuration, or when building coastal cities and towns (for example, wetlands in the North-Eastern Japan, the Tohoku, having being mostly swallowed against land use and land properties competition). Indeterminacy, for example, is bound to the concept of network. Better: it is what makes network functional and flexible. Allow me for importing here Keller Easterling's statement quoting Bruno Latour, and adapting it to our concern: To determinate the human and non-human boundary, to erase this boundary is to contradict it or to contribute to landscape destruction (another but interesting path, we can explore, is the relationship between landscape-architectural-urban and ecological boundary mediated by the concept of accountability).
This relationship can provide new instruments, new toolkits, as well as new modes of operation, new modes of representation, new forms of landscape-architecture and urbanism. Envisaging the human and non-human boundary as relational is to envisage it as active, self-sufficient, indeterminate, multivalent, and responsive as network.
Sand mining in Sierra Leone | Photo © Tommy Trenchard
Originally appeared on BBC.
"[T]he construction brings with it increasing demand for sand, an essential building material, and much of this sand is coming from the country's beautiful beaches." BBC, January 2013.
And we are back to the translation of boundary (that served us to understand the cause-effect of sand mining in Sierra Leone's coastal landscape, but that we partly interrogated): a boundary is also an indeterminate zone between patches, here between land and water…
This indeterminate zone and the engineering matter, then, should be articulated as unified. The landscape-architectural-urban can help achieve the unification of boundary, ecological system and engineering system providing that it, at a first but fundamental stage, re-interrogates itself, thus, plays the role of mediator, of interface…

Source: BBC News