Workshop | Tracing the new Silk Roads: Urban fabric and infrastructural transformations along legal and illegal trade routes

20Sept2017 21Sept2017


Contemporary references to a ‘new Silk Road’ today tend to be associated with one of two things. The first is China’s trillion-dollar ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, aimed at bolstering Chinese geopolitical dominance through a series of overland routes and ports that concretely establish channels for economic exchange and political influence. The second is the ‘Silk Road’ online marketplace established in 2011, an ‘Ebay for drugs’ that became notorious as the world’s largest virtual platform for illicit trade. Both of these encapsulate something of the original Silk Road, however.

Silk Roads

This was a system of at-the-time unprecedented trans-regional exchange that between the 2nd century BC and the early 16th century AD fed a surging demand in both the East and the West for exotic products, both licit and illicit, and which also produced a particular configuration of land and maritime trade routes along which a number of major cities – and sometimes even nations – rose and fell. It is striking how the ‘new Silk Roads’ have generally been considered in a way that obscures something that was at the core of first iteration of the route, namely how a network of cities was made and reshaped by the social, economic, political, linguistic, religious, cultural, architectural, and ecological change that was generated by the emergence of a transnational pathway of diverse goods and people. These changes arguably played a critical role in shaping the contemporary world - but also shaped urban civilizations long since forgotten by mainstream history.

Joint Grant CUS – Sheffield Urban Studies

Thanks to a grant from the Centre for Urban Studies (UvA) and of Sheffield Urban Studies Collaboration Initiative, we have organised an international workshop that will take place in Sheffield on 20-21 September 2017 to explore not just the empirical reality of silk roads past and present, but to refocus on the idea of silk roads as a concept that transcends historical epochs and specific global regions.

New Framework

The idea is to identify a suitable framework for understanding the interaction of trade in physical goods, exchanges of geographical knowledge, urban and infrastructural transformation, and socio-cultural mutation. This conception of silk roads is fundamentally spatial and territorial but not necessarily linear, and certainly not centrally planned in the manner of ideas contained in terms like ‘Belt’ or ‘Road’. It is about routes of commerce, ideas, bodies, goods and social networks that may be uneven in the way that they distribute benefits and costs to urban centres along their paths. Such effects may be context-dependant and unpredictable in their wider consequences that may be ordering or beneficial, on the one hand, or disordering and variously damaging, on the other. Central also to this approach is the idea that identifiable trade paths are subject to change, often in quite dramatic and abrupt ways, and that this change is responsive to specific urban opportunities and constraints. In short, cities are not only shaped by silk routes, but actively shape and reshape them in complex interactions that operate ‘down’ or ‘up’ stream from one another. The value of re-appraising such paths lies particularly in an understanding of the more nuanced and variable effects of trades in licit and illicit goods and services that connect with advances in global political economy, criminology, sociology and political analyses capable of understanding the kinds of harm and benefit associated with informal modes of inter-nation and global trade networks.


The workshop will focus on understandings of the integrative and disintegrative social, economic and political impacts of the drug trade in its urban contexts, the trans-historical context of trade routes and urban contexts, mapping the complex linear geographies of trade of one drug from Latin America to Europe, assessing the complex costs and social benefits of routes at each type of staging post en route to their destination, evaluating the varying socially, political and economic negative/positive outcomes of the trade, and offering a critical analysis of the urban consequences of new illicit trade formations. It brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars: Rowland Atkinson (Sheffield); Tom Goodfellow (Sheffield); Dennis Rodgers (UvA); Tammy Ayres (Leicester University); Matthew Bishop (University of Sheffield); Jeff Garmany (King’s College, London); Jonathan Goodhand (SOAS, London); Alexandra Hall (Teeside University); Gosia Jakimow (University of Sheffield); Nicola Khan (Brighton University); Xinru Liu (The College of New Jersey); Jon Silver (University of Sheffield); AbdouMaliq Simone (Gottingen University); Henrik Vigh (University of Copenhagen); Simon Winlow (Teeside University).


University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

Published by  CUS