Master students interested in writing their Master thesis with the Social and Cultural Geography unit are invited to approach us with their suggestions for topics. Students interested in writing a thesis with our team should familiarize themselves with our research and individual areas of expertise. We particularly welcome Master theses on: housing precarity, comparative urbanism, urban climate finance, the urban effects of the Covid pandemic, as well as art and the city. Please contact us with a suggestion in mind that we can jointly develop into a more concrete master thesis topic.
Please also read the most recent version of our Guidelines for Master students.
Understanding the Housing Crisis
A. Protesting a Politics of Social Housing
In the last decade the rampant housing crisis of most European cities has led to an increase in protest and, in some places, to legislations that restricts the profit driven development of housing. Cities such as (most prominently) Berlin and Barcelona have enhanced the regulation of the housing sector following decades of deregulation in the rental market. In this course, these cities have also been witnessing renewed resistance by institutional investors against rent policies that put a halt on the profit driven development of urban housing.
This Master Thesis investigates the housing industries’ attempt to influence housing policies through discursive strategies, lobbying, and open political protest: What narratives and strategies does the housing industry use to counter policy attempts to hinder unfettered profit making in the housing sector? The thesis project could pursue a discourse analysis of how the housing crisis is framed in this protest or analyse the multifold strategies that investors pursue to circumvent legislation. The analysis could focus on Berlin’s “rent cap” or other international policy measures that restrict rent increases.
Betreuung: Hanna Hilbrandt
B. European Rent Struggles and Policies During a Pandemic
The outbreak of COVID-19 significantly impacts rent relations at the global scale. Despite an anticipated decline of house prices in the long-run and a global economic downturn, the effects of the pandemic in real estate markets are slow and the rent prices may remain relatively steady. At the same time widespread income losses, unemployment and insecurity have exacerbated indebtedness, rent delays and the threat of evictions (Rogers & Power, 2020) for a growing number of people. Moreover, the Covid-19 crisis has triggered a renewed wave of mobilizations and tenants initiatives reformulating longstanding claims to housing justice, tenure protection, affordability and decommodification (i.e. rent strikes) (Vilenica et al. 2020). As a political response to the Covid-19 crisis, the national or municipal levels of some states have introduced temporary measures and mid-term reforms of the regulatory framework organizing relations within the rental market.
This master thesis pursues a comparative (policy) analysis of different governance strategies addressing the rental challenge in European cities. It asks how different housing regimes have responded to this crisis. What kind of policies have been implemented at different levels? What are their policy rationales and goals? What are interplays (convergences/contestations) between the claims and actions of covid-induced housing movements (and tenants organizing) and covid-rent policies? Foci of interest are short and mid-term policy responses including but not limited to: rent reliefs for tenants or specific income groups; subsidies to small and larger businesses; tax-cuts to landlords and airbnb entrepreneurs; protections against eviction and moratoria; and the varied grassroots actions focused on tenants struggles during the pandemic.
Rogers, D., Power, E. 2020. Housing policy and the COVID-19pandemic: the importance of housing research during this health emergency, International Journal of Housing Policy, 20(2), pp. 177-183.
Vilenica, A. McElroy E., Ferreri, M. Fernández Arrigoitia, M., García-Lamarca, M. Lancione, M. 2020. Covid-19 and housing struggles: The (re)makings of austerity, disaster capitalism, and the no return to normal. Radical Housing Journal, 2(1), pp. 9-28
Betreuung: Ifigenia Dimitrakou; Hanna Hilbrandt
The Urbanization of Global Climate Finance
In the past decade, research on the financialization of climate and nature has documented how climate agendas centered on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate risks have strengthened the role of finance in the ‘global fight against climate change.’ In a related development, cities in the so-called ‘global South’ are increasingly tasked to meet the challenges of the climate crisis. With the growing importance of financial actors and strategies, climate and development policies in Southern cities have increasingly been met through private finance. Particularly for cities that are dependent on infrastructure investment, this change in funding provision has implied an adaption to market-based strategies.
But while this turn to the ‘urbanization’ of development in the context of climate change is beginning to be documented, we lack context specific knowledge on a) the local transformations in the targeted cities b) specific policy agendas driving these changes; and c) the resultant socio-spatial transformations; d) the role of (re)insurance in Urban Climate Finance.
A. Local negotiation strategies
This Master Thesis seeks to bring insights from development studies and the financialization of climate and nature (Bracking 2015) into conversation with an understanding of the local bureaucratic processes through which global Climate Finance Strategies are adapted in urban-scale institutions. Preliminary research suggests that GCF initiatives foster governance reform aiming, in particular, at financial and fiscal municipal reform. This may imply restructuring accounting standards, financial (data) management systems, own-source revenue structures or intergovernmental fiscal and institutional framework, amongst others.
Based on an analysis of one or two selected case-cities (i.e. their municipal bureaucracies) the thesis aims to analyse how subnational authorities engage with Global Climate Finance: What strategies and mechanisms do local authorities use to deal with “urban structural adjustment” (Bigger and Webber 2020)? How have they implemented policy reforms? And how have they shaped and adapted policies targeting them?
Bigger, P. and S. Webber (2020) Green Structural Adjustment in the World Bank’s Resilient City. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 1-16.
Bracking, S. (2015) The Anti-Politics of Climate Finance: The Creation and Performativity of the Green Climate Fund, Antipode, 47(2), pp. 281–302
B. Swiss Climate Finance Policy
In line with the climate policies of other European states, Switzerland has committed itself to mobilizing 450-600 Mio. USD investment annually in resilience and mitigation policies in the global South. In concert with international trends, Swiss policy aims predominantly to mobilize this investment via private finance (WBF et al. 2019). This Master Thesis analyses Swiss climate and development policy regarding the advancement of its national climate finance strategy, focussing in particular on policy engagement in cities in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Through interviews with relevant experts in the National Development Cooperation and a document analysis of recent policy programs in this field (see for example SDC 2020 or 2DII 2020), it traces the engagement of Switzerland in global Urban Climate Finance.
2DII (2020) Bridging the Gap: Measuring Progress on the Climate Goal Alignment and Climate Actions of Swiss Financial Institutions. Available at: https://www.bafu.admin.ch/bafu/de/home/themen/klima/fachinformationen/klima-und-finanzmarkt.html
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (2019) Funding Climate Protection. Available at:
https://www.eda.admin.ch/deza/en/home/themes-sdc/climate-change/finanzierung-des-klimaschutzes.html, accessed 16.12.2020
WBF, SECO, UVEK, BAFU, EDA and DEZA (2019) Konzept zur verstärkten Mobilisierung des Privatsektors für klimafreundliche Investitionen in Entwicklungsländern. Available at:
https://www.seco-cooperation.admin.ch/dam/secocoop/de/dokumente/themen/klima/Executive%20Summary%20Mobilisierung%20privater%20Mittel%20in%20der%20internationalen%20Klimafinanzierung%20der%20Schweiz.pdf.download.pdf/executive-summary-mobilisierung-privater-mittel-klimafinanzierung-schweiz.pdf, accessed 16.12.2020
C. The Infrastructures of Urban Climate Finance
Global Climate finance deals particularly with the financing of public infrastructures, such as electricity networks, damns, roads or public toilet systems. In an array of recent reports produced to these ends, climate-finance practitioners have calculated the business case for investment in infrastructures – the so-called ‘sustainable infrastructure financing gap’, a global investment possibility seen in urban adaptation and mitigation projects – to be roughly US$2–3 trillion per year between 2015 and 2030 (Bhattacharya et al., 2015; Floater et al., 2017a.). The calculation of these largely fictitious number has real material effects: As climate finance partnerships (PPP) are transforming infrastructure from a public good into a ‘bankable’ financial asset that is attractive to private investors the selection, governance, and financial architecture of infrastructure projects that are financed crucially change (Pike et al., 2019).
This thesis thus asks: How are trends in infrastructure financing shifting the provisioning of public goods and services in Southern cities in the context of climate change? What are the socio-spatial implications; as well as the potentials and pitfalls of such investments?
Bhattacharya, A., Oppenheim, J. and Stern, N. (2015) Driving sustainable development through better
infrastructure: Key elements of a transformation program: global economy & development working paper 91. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/07-sustainable-development-infrastructurev2. pdf. Accessed 22 March 2020.
Floater, G., Dowling, D., Chan, D., Ulterino, M., Braunstein, J. and McMinn, T. (2017a.) Financing the Urban Transition: Policymakers’ Summary. Coalition for Urban Transitions. https://newclimateeconomy.report/workingpapers/workingpaper/financing-the-urban-transitionpolicymakerssummary/. Accessed 24 January 2020.
Pike, A., O’Brien, P., Strickland, T., Thrower, G. and Tomaney, J. (2019) Financialising city statecraft and
infrastructure. Cheltenham, UK, Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing.
D. The Role of Insurance in Urban Climate Finance
A crucial aspect of climate finance relates to questions of insurance. Wildfires and coastal flooding feature prominently as consequences of climate change and affect cities well before the smoke rises or the waters begin to flood in. Government issued risk maps inform planning and zoning, as well as the calculation of insurance premiums, creating complex local politics that extensively shape future urban development (Koslov 2019; Taylor 2020). Rising insurance premiums may become unaffordable for many, potentially exposing them to forced migration or future material losses (Derickson 2014). Here, the role of large re-insurance companies such as Swiss Re become apparent. Their risk assessment practices have a significant impact on how climate change shapes our cities (see for example: McKinsey & Company 2020). This thesis aims to explore the impacts of these practices on cities with a particular focus on the initiatives of the swiss re-insurance sector (e.g. Swiss Re 2020). Students will draw on literature from the wider climate finance debate and examine the spatial impacts of evolving swiss re-insurance practices.
Derickson, K.D. (2014) The Racial Politics of Neoliberal Regulation in Post-Katrina Mississippi. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104, 889-902.
Koslov, L. (2019). How maps make time: temporal conflicts of life in the flood zone. City 23(4-5), pp. 658-672. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13604813.2019.1690337
McKinsey & Company (2020) Climate Change and P&C insurance, threat and opportunity. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/financial-services/our-insights/climate-change-and-p-and-c-insurance-the-threat-and-opportunity#
Swiss Re (2020) Natural catastrophe resilience remains low as climate risks increase https://www.swissre.com/institute/research/sigma-research/Economic-Insights/natural-catastrophe-resilience-remains-low-climate-risks-increase.html
Taylor, Z.J. (2020) The real estate risk fix: Residential insurance-linked securitization in the Florida metropolis. Environment and Planning A 73, 0308518X1989657.
Cities under Covid
A. Public Space
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, urbanites around the globe have experienced tremendous disruptions in their use of the city as a place of work and leisure. Spaces for conviviality, culture, and consumption have transformed and are experienced in new affective and bodily ways. While the lockdown of (most) urban lives and other accompanying measures to contain the pandemic not only displays the tremendous differences in the ways in which residents experience the city, but also different strategies of dealing with these shifting circumstances: How do residents of Zurich adapt their everyday lives? How do they alter their use of public space? With these questions we suggest a thesis project that explores qualitatively and/or quantitatively, how residents in the city adapted to the changing policies related to the pandemic, and what lingering effects this may have in a post-Covid world. In particular, it could investigate the experiences and strategies of particular groups, such as the urban homeless, essential workers, people in home office, retirees or children.
B. Covid Inequality
Rather than serving as an equalizer, the global pandemic has made more visible just how differently different professional and social groups are affected. Within cities, urban scholars highlight both new and old forms of exclusion that the pandemic implies for the urban majority (Bhan, Caldeira, Gillespie and Simone, 2020). While some urban dwellers are able to work from home and order delivery, others must do the delivering. How has the pandemic rendered urban inequalities more visible, more dire, more existentially threatening? How are the geographies of risk being transformed, or exacerbated (Madden, 2020)? At the inter-urban scale, how does the geographic imaginations of distant places impact local responses, in terms of accelerating certain responses or othering the virus (Meinhof, 2020)? What is the interplay of various lockdown, travel restrictions and the nation-state responses, and its geographic implications (Sparke and Anguelov, 2020)? How do these behaviors reflect discussions on commensurability (Robinson, 2011; Tuvikene, 2016) or the perennial postcolonial question of irreducible difference? In other words, how does the lens of lockdown policy offer insight about what kinds of places are comparable? How are lessons from some places worth learning, and others distrusted?
Bhan, G., Caldeira, T., Gillespie, K., & Simone, A. (2020). The pandemic, southern urbanisms and collective life. Society+ Space.
David Madden (2020) The urban process under covid capitalism, City, 24(5-6), 677-680.
Meinhof, M. (2020). Othering the virus. Discover Society.
Robinson, J. (2011). Cities in a world of cities: The comparative gesture. International journal of urban and regional research, 35(1), 1-23.
Sparke, M., & Anguelov, D. (2020). Contextualising coronavirus geographically. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 45(3): 498-508.
Tuvikene, T. (2016). Strategies for comparative urbanism: post‐socialism as a de‐territorialized concept. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(1), 132-146.
Art and the City
The role of art, artists, art spaces and art events in cities continues to change and often reveal delicate complexities. Artists may be perceived as both pioneers of radical forms of living and working, as well as purveyors of exclusion and displacement. The influence of the creativity imperative (Peck, 2005; Florida, 2002) has elevated new actors in the realm of interurban contestations. Projects on this topic could take the instrumental, practical perspective, evaluating the value of investing in this art sector and its impact on tourism or city branding. What are the speculative assumptions of city administrations, cultural ministries, planners, or real estate developers when they invest in art institutions or when they launch art festivals? What is the changing role of art activism, what new forms is it taking that traverse the digital and analog urban street? Thesis projects could also look at the specific artistic practices, which have long disturbed relationships between art and space. How does the increasingly ephemeral, site-specific and performative nature of artistic practice disrupt the urban landscape? How are alternative imaginations of urban life embedded in these practices? To what extent do these visions include various publics, how are they manifested discursively or materially?
Florida, R. (2002). The rise of the creative class. New York: Basic books.
Peck, J. (2005). Struggling with the creative class. International journal of urban and regional research, 29(4), 740-770.
Luger, J. and J. Ren (2017) Art and the City: Worlding the Discussion Through a Critical Artscape. Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Comparative Urbanism & Translation
A lively debate within urban studies has been taking place about the limited nature of urban theory, its Euro-American biases and the attendant analyses about the nature of the epistemological problem, or simply: critically examining the geographies of urban studies (See e.g. Roy, 2009; Robinson, 2011; Jazeel, 2015). One question being raised is about the degree to which concepts can be/should be translated across different contexts and times. We invite thesis projects that are curious to analyze the degree to which various concepts from urban studies (segregation, gentrification, neighborhoods, informality, slums, ghettos, public space, etc.) might be applicable in different urban contexts. How can applicability be determined, and what are other measures to evaluate the translation or transplantation of ideas? For instance, how is the concept of the “ghetto” from Wirth’s writing about the Jewish ghetto in 1920s Chicago (which he also translated from medieval era enclaves) translated to apply in present day banlieus in Paris? How does the concept of gentrification, originating in Margaret Thatcher’s London, apply in ostensibly communist contexts like Kochi or Havana? How could these explorations address issues of directionality, commensurability or positionality? As these thesis projects deal with the question of conceptual translation, they are theoretical papers rooted in intense engagement with both empirical and theoretical literature.
Jazeel, T. (2016). Between area and discipline: Progress, knowledge production and the geographies of Geography. Progress in Human Geography, 40(5), 649-667.
Robinson, J. (2011). Cities in a world of cities: The comparative gesture. International journal of urban and regional research, 35(1), 1-23.
Roy, A. (2009). The 21st-century metropolis: New geographies of theory. Regional Studies, 43(6), 819-830.
Wirth, L. (1928) The Ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.