Using a variety of methodological perspectives, the work of the Social and Cultural Geography team centers around three entangled urban research strands concerned with:

(1) Marginality and exclusion in housing and urban development;

(2) Processes of financialization and their socio-spatial effects, particularly in the context of Global Climate Finance;

(3) Southern theories, comparative urban methods and related questions of Eurocentrism in academic knowledge production.

We incorporate different regional foci (including Basel, Athens, Mexico City, Taipei, Dakar, Zurich and Berlin) and employ a variety of  approaches (including postcolonial, feminist, and critical urban theories).

Current research projects

The urbanization of Global Climate Finance: Power shifts in the municipal restructuring of Mexican and Indian cities

Hanna Hilbrandt, Fritz-Julius Grafe, Thilo van der Haegen

Cities in the global South are increasingly tasked to meet the challenges of the climate crisis. Particularly since the 2015 adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), International Financial Institutions (IFIs) have participated in this task through so-called Global Climate Finance (GCF): financing in accordance with the United Nations 48 Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In linking ecological sustainability with agendas of financialization and financial market expansion, IFIs and other international agencies have put forth a number of initiatives that support municipalities in fundamental governance reform that aims not only to build an investment-friendly policy regime but also to enhance a city’s own financial performance. The research project investigates these processes of urbanizing GCF and the power shifts these processes entail. It asks how Southern cities are impacted by GCF as these initiatives are translated to the urban scale, how GCF shapes global geographies and modalities of green investment and how it advances municipal reform.


Urban Studies Foundation Seminar Series: Decentering urban climate finance: relational comparison in theory and practice

Host institution: University of Zurich, Durham University, University of Sheffield (UK)

Hanna Hilbrandt, Sarah Knuth, Enora Robin, Fritz Julius Grafe, Zac Taylor, Emma Colven, and Sage Ponder

Within the context of the unfolding ecological crisis, financial agendas centering on the ‘global fight against climate change’ have increasingly turned to cities and urban re/development projects as ideal candidates for investment. This turn has generated a proliferation of finance-driven resilience, retrofitting and decarbonisation projects around the world. Yet research documenting the resulting financialisation of urban climate and nature remains primarily concerned with cities in which consolidated financial markets are already the norm, or with case studies that conceptualise ‘climate finance’ in relatively narrow terms (frequently, financial instruments created by market actors for the express purpose of ‘impact’ investing). This seminar series proposes both to provincialise these imagined geographies of climate finance and to decenter notions of the ‘financial’, advancing a theorisation of ‘ordinary’ urban climate finance: the heterogeneous financial practices and articulations that are coming to characterise climate finance (Robin and Castán Broto, 2021) in ordinary cities (Robinson 2006). Bringing debates on urban climate finance and more expansive lenses into urban financing and provisioning together will allow us to read the impacts of climate finance on cities more relationally and engage in comparative theory-building across varying geographical foci. This collective discussion will push beyond ‘smart’ techno-capitalist and financialised urban fantasies to develop a more nuanced understanding of climate-adapted urban futures.


Scrutinizing Crisis: The Fraught Significations of Contemporary Biennials

Julie Ren, Charlotte Matter, Ifigeneia Dimitrakou

The symposium on “Scrutinizing Crisis: The Fraught Significations of Contemporary Biennials” proposes an intensive exchange about how to understand crisis through a reading of the art and architecture biennials across contexts and disciplines. We scrutinize crisis in multiple senses, in terms of the biennial in crisis, its crisis of meaning and the crises of representation (Cf. Verhagen, 2012; Oguibe, 2004; Dimitrikaki, 2012) as well as the context of crises, the distances that crisis creates in terms of the translation of reality in creative production (Cramerotti and Mele, 2021) or the normalization of crisis as an unending precariousness haunting everyday life (Battacharyya, 2015; Hall, 2019). As a field-configuring event, proliferating in cities around the world from Kampala to Kobe, the biennial offers a particular lens through which to analyze these different senses of crisis. Biennials often represent a cultural frontier, featuring work not yet acquired by any museum, often specially commissioned and curated for each setting with intensive scrutiny. At times, they champion socio-political issues like indigenous rights, climate change, and economic and political crises, and increasingly they are eagerly redressing problems of cultural representation (Filipovic, Ovstebo and Van Hal, 2010). Nonetheless, the attempt to inspire political debate is coupled with the struggle to reconcile political aims of these events with the political economy of elite circuits of curators, artists/architects, and writers that in turn breed the creative and financial capital necessary to sustain their cultural value. These events inspire anticipation, speculation and disdain, and new actors must constantly pursue questions of their own relevance (Wah, 2021). The inflation of capital involved in these markets is also coupled with exploitative practices employing precarious labor, and often form convenient alliances with tourism and real estate industries.

Funded by the Graduate Research Campus, University of Zurich


New Perspectives on Housing Dispossession: Introducing Political Alienation in Housing Dispossession

Luisa Gehriger

The research project would like to understand displacement processes in swiss core cities, focusing on mass terminations of rental contracts in Basel. Goal is not only to gain knowledge of the extent and different forms of such mass terminations, but to understand and theoretically frame the variety of experiences of displacement from the perspective of the tenants affected. Of interest are associated processes of subjectivation, as well as the extent to which these translate into group perceptions and group affiliations. The proposed project introduces the reinterpretation of alienation theory by Rahel Jaeggi (2016) and Paul Sörensen (2016) to urban studies by framing political alienation as an entry point to think about our understanding of housing dispossession. It is the inability of residents to relate to others in similar positions and not merely the destruction of original identities or habitat, which adds to our understanding of housing dispossession in the field of urban studies.


Hanna Hilbrandt, Ifigeneia Dimitrakou

From spectacular housing catastrophes to the hidden everyday precarity tenants’ experience globally, the post-2008 financial crisis years have brought housing dispossession and its politics into the spotlight of urban research and policy debates. In European rental systems, property speculation, divestment, material neglect and displacement shape the lived realities of housing financialization and jeopardize tenants’ rights and housing security. These developments raise questions about how local governance deals with the effects of housing financialization on the life and livelihood of vulnerable communities.

The research project explores processes and modalities of housing dispossession involved in the governance of property neglect and forced eviction at the lower end of the financialized rental sector. To understand these dynamics of domestic injustice, it brings legal geographies of property, theories of responsibility and material geographies of home under a common framework. Our case study draws on the eviction of  Hannibal II (Germany, Dortmund), a housing complex “evacuated” due to serious fire concerns after two decades of speculative disinvestment. The project examines the relations of (ir)responsibility governing rental and property regimes and how these shape tenants’ experiences of home (un)making.