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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Infrastructure and sustainable communities

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also called the New Silk Road, is the largest single infrastructure project since the Marshall Plan, and perhaps the most ambitious in human history. To date, over 140 countries have signed memorandums of understanding with China expressing their willingness to be involved in the initiative, either in their own territory or in other countries along its route. BRI projects are hugely varied and can involve almost anything: from railways, airports, ports, pipelines, industrial parks, special economic zones, real estate and commercial projects, to free trade agreements and treaties to boost foreign investment and market liberalisation.

The goal of this project is to explore the links between infrastructure-led development, socio-spatial and socio-ecological transformation, and inequality in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By drawing on the fields of human geography and political ecology, and by conducting social science research in selected case studies (including cases in Greece, Nepal, the UK and Sri Lanka), this project has the potential to unravel the ways in which the BRI may reinforce a socially and geographically uneven production of nature and space, transforming places and livelihoods and open pathways towards designing alternative policies that would support socio-ecological sustainability and justice.


Applications in practice

  • Measures, targets and disclosure
  • Culture, capacity and leadership
  • Social and political change

Contribution to CISL’s core research themes

Protection of natureProtection of nature

Inclusive and resilient societiesInclusive and resilient societies

About the project

The overarching aim of this project is to explore how BRI-driven urban transformation may reconfigure the patterns of social, spatial and environmental inequality and (in)justice. Specific research aims include: 

  1. To explore the social and environmental impacts of selected BRI projects and investigate to what extent these impacts are factored into the planning and design of these projects.

  2. To analyse how different actors influence and shape final outcomes. Emphasis will be given to the role of power relations, geopolitics and the politics of scale. 

  3. To investigate issues of social, spatial and environmental change and inequality in terms of the (unequal) distribution of social, economic and environmental costs and benefits, access to public space, nature resources and land, and changes in space, livelihoods and social relations. 

  4. To consider how differing socio-economic, political and cultural contexts affect the implementation of BRI projects across the Global South and North. 

  5. To offer policy recommendations supporting sustainability and justice with an emphasis at the local level. 

Impact and relevance

Scientists, policymakers and communities increasingly emphasise that involved countries should urgently consider the profound socio-spatial and socio-ecological transformation being driven by China’s BRI. Although much has been discussed about its economic and geopolitical implications, the way the initiative may reinforce social, spatial and environmental inequality has yet to be considered. This project will offer one of the first analyses of the links between socio-spatial and socio-ecological change, inequality and justice for selected BRI projects across the Global South and North and the ways these transform places and livelihoods. Particular emphasis is given to the ways in which BRI projects transform urban geographies across the world, an aspect of the BRI that remains fundamentally underexplored. The project thus addresses some of the leading sustainability challenges of the 21st century; namely, how to support socio-ecological sustainability and justice under conditions of a historically unparalleled infrastructure rush and construction boom, especially at the local level. Its goal is not only to inform decision-makers but also to empower local communities whose livelihoods are being fundamentally transformed by the New Silk Road.


By drawing on theories and methods from human geography, urban studies, political economy and political ecology, and by conducting an extensive literature review alongside both on the ground and virtual ethnographic research, this project has developed a set of ground-breaking empirical data to create a high-impact science-policy and science-society interface. Specific activities have included:

  1. An extensive desk study/review of the policy, scientific and grey literature on the BRI from all relevant actors and institutions. 

  2. Ethnographic research on emblematic cases capturing people’s experience of loss and transformation of places and natures. Case studies included two cases in Asia (Nepal, Sri Lanka), two in Europe (Greece, UK) and one in Latin America (Peru). The selection of cases spanning three continents has allowed the project to explore how implementation of BRI projects can correspond or differ to those in other contexts.  

  3. Key actor interviews across governance scales. This has involved semi-structured interviews with policymakers, regulators, local governments and planning authorities, businesses and academics. 

  4. Collaborative research with community groups and key participants in BRI projects to promote links between universities and civil society, thereby achieving the highest level of impact at the local level and empowering local communities. 


University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). (2022). China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Sustainability in the New Silk Road. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Apostolopoulou, E., Pant, H. “Silk road here we come”: Post-disaster politics, speculative infrastructures, and the shifting urban geographies of Nepal. Manuscript.  

Apostolopoulou, E. 2021. A novel geographical research agenda on Silk Road Urbanization. The Geographical Journal,

Apostolopoulou, E. 2021. How China’s Belt and Road Initiative is changing cities and threatening communities. The Conversation UK,

Apostolopoulou, E. 2021. Αστικός κοινωνικo-χωρικός μετασχηματισμός και ανισότητα στο νέο Δρόμο του Μεταξιού: Αλλάζοντας την κοινωνική γεωγραφία των πόλεων (Urban socio-spatial transformation and inequality in the New Silk Road: Changing the social geography of cities). Γεωγραφίες 38 (Geographies). [in Greek] 

Apostolopoulou, E. 2020. Tracing the links between infrastructure-led development, urban transformation and inequality in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Antipode 83, 831-858. 

Apostolopoulou, E. and Pant, H. (2020). Research summary: Tracing the links between infrastructure-led development, urban transformation and inequality in China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Exploring pathways towards social-environmental sustainability and justice

Apostolopoulou, E. (2020, September 22-25). The uneven geographies of China’s Belt and Road Initiative [Conference presentation]. POLLEN2020, Virtual. 

Collaborators and funding

This work is supported by a philanthropic gift from Equal Opportunities Foundation.

Research Team

Hitesh Pant, Research Assistant

Hitesh Pant contributed in the Fellowship by exploring BRI projects in Asia and Africa. He is  currently pursuing a PhD in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. His project seeks to reconstruct the history of seed sovereignty within the Via Campesina, the International Peasants Movement. He is deeply interested in better understanding the conflicts erupting within conservation governance. He has previously worked to build community resilience against large infrastructure projects in Nepal, and also advised conservation organisations on alternative pathways for inclusive research and action.

Alejandra Pizarro, Research Assistant

Alejandra is interested in exploring human-nature relationships in capitalist societies and the potential for radical post-capitalism alternatives. She is a Research Assistant supporting BRI research through desk study and ethnography on case studies around the world, particularly in Peru and with local actors and communities. She holds an MPhil in Conservation Leadership from the University of Cambridge and is currently a PhD student in Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St. Andrews.

Additional sources of funding

Cambridge Humanities Research Grant 2020 entitled “Exploring the links between social-environmental change and inequality in the New Silk Road”.

Dr Elia Apostolopoulou

The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellow in Infrastructure and Sustainable Communities, supported by the Equal Opportunities Foundation

“Conducting research on an initiative that has been characterised as a geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-cultural project that can reshape the world and drive socio-spatial and socio-ecological transformation reconfiguring global political economy, trade, transportation, resource and energy security, poverty and broader human development pathways with major impacts for social, spatial and environmental inequality is what attracted me in this Fellowship.”

Dr Elia Apostolopoulou

“The Equal Opportunities Foundation is committed to supporting a sustainable future for our planet. We are therefore delighted to be a supporter of the Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellowship Programme. Through its research into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, we will be able to identify how this most ambitious infrastructure project could better represent the voices of local communities, minimise its environmental impact and improve social inclusion. I have been impressed by the care taken by the Cambridge team to identify a world-class researcher to undertake this programme with potentially far-reaching implications.”

Marcus Lee, Founder of Equal Opportunities Foundation