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Department of Geography Social Geography and Urban Studies

MSc Topics

Master students interested in writing their Master thesis with the Social Geography and Urban Studies 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, as well as responsibility 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.

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Understanding the Housing Crisis

A. Reactionary housing protest: Tracing organized interest against emancipatory housing policy

In the last decade the rampant housing crisis of European cities has fostered increasing protest and, in some places, legislations that restricts the profit driven development of housing. Cities such as (most prominently) Basel, Geneva, Berlin and Barcelona have reregulated housing construction and rent following decades of deregulation in the rental market. In this course, these cities have also witnessed renewed resistance by institutional investors, homeowner associations and other property interests   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 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 Swiss  or international policy measures that restrict rent increases or strengthen regulatory power.

Betreuung: Hanna Hilbrandt

B. Housing struggles in Europe: emancipatory social movements, policy and the political imaginaries of housing
The outbreak of subsequent global crises over the last decade has brought into the spotlight the long-established housing affordability problems affecting cities in Europe (Wetzstein, 2017). Rooted in decades of deregulation and financialization of European housing regimes, the rising house prices and household costs jeopardize access to housing for more significant parts of the population. As housing exclusion and insecurity have become a reality for many people living in cities, tenants’ mobilizations and initiatives are on the rise reformulating timely claims to housing justice, tenure protection, affordability, and decommodification (Coquelin et al. 2022; Di Feliciantonio 2017). In response to these challenges, policies and social movements problematize the housing challenge and propose reforms to the regulatory framework organizing housing.
This master thesis pursues a comparative analysis of the claims and strategies addressing the affordability challenge in European cities. It asks how different urban actors politicize these processes, how different housing regimes respond to these crises. What kinds of claims and policies are promoted and implemented at different levels (e.g., rent controls; tax cuts and incentives to landlords; protections against eviction and moratoria, etc.)? What are the interplays (convergences/contestations) between the claims and actions of housing movements and policies? What are the emerging political imaginaries of housing mobilized by grassroots initiatives and policy actors?
Di Feliciantonio C. (2017). Social Movements and Alternative Housing Models: Practicing the “Politics of Possibilities” in Spain, Housing, Theory and Society, 34(1), 38-56
Coquelin, S., Kusiak, J., Palomera, J., Stein, S., Baker, R., Belotti, E., Can, A., Noterman, E. (2022). Housing justice, mobilization, and financialization: A conversation from the Antipode Institute for Geographies of Justice. Radical Housing, 4(2), pp. 157-169.
Wetzstein, S. (2017). The global urban housing affordability crisis. Urban Studies, 54(14), 3159-3177.

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. 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 analyzes 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 here
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (2019) Funding Climate Protection. Available here

WBF, SECO, UVEK,  BAFU,  EDA and DEZA (2019) Konzept zur verstärkten Mobilisierung des Privatsektors für klimafreundliche Investitionen in Entwicklungsländern.

Betreuung: Hanna Hilbrandt; Fritz-Julius Grafe

B. 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. Available here
Floater, G., Dowling, D., Chan, D., Ulterino, M., Braunstein, J. and McMinn, T. (2017a.) Financing the Urban Transition: Policymakers’ Summary. Coalition for Urban Transitions. Available here
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.

Betreuung: Hanna Hilbrandt; Fritz-Julius Grafe

C. 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.
McKinsey & Company (2020) Climate Change and P&C insurance, threat and opportunity.
Swiss Re (2020) Natural catastrophe resilience remains low as climate risks increase
Taylor, Z.J. (2020) The real estate risk fix: Residential insurance-linked securitization in the Florida metropolis. Environment and Planning A 73, 0308518X1989657.

Betreuung: Hanna Hilbrandt; Fritz-Julius Grafe

Precarious Urbanisms

A. Negotiating property through temporary use
Temporary use involves the short-term repurposing and reactivation of often overlooked urban spaces for various ends, encompassing diverse projects and actors (e.g., cultural spaces, pop-ups, community initiatives, activist endeavors, small businesses, or housing projects) (Ferreri, 2021). Temporary use is considered an exception in the life cycle of property, instrumentalizing the use values of space and embedding them in processes of property revaluation. While existing research focuses on the effects of temporary use, particularly its depoliticizing effects on urban transformations (Dadusc, 2019), limited attention has been given to how the spaces of temporary use become integral to urban politics (Ferreri et al, 2017). For instance, when owners, be they public or private actors, negotiate terms of use, temporariness, and conditions of exchange with various interested parties; or when groups with explicit political commitments engage in this property arrangements to gain access, space and visibility in the city.
A Master theses within this theme delves into the power relations inherent in negotiations and contestations between parties involved in temporary use. It could explore the short-term and long-term goals of property owners (such as city administrations or real estate actors) and non-owning actors in temporary use projects; examine the terms of exchange and the diverse resources mobilized by different parties to implement these projects or the contested understandings of value that emerge in practice. Masters projects could also investigate the specific practices and experiences of groups or individuals engaged in temporary use, examining their perspectives on the role of temporariness in their everyday operations and broader social and political engagements. Or how this condition shapes the positionalities of these groups influencing their capacities to negotiate or contest property relations.
Ferreri, M. (2021). The Permanence of Temporary Urbanism: Normalising Precarity in Austerity London. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Dadusc, D. (2019). Enclosing autonomy, City, 23(2), 170-188.
Ferreri, M., Dawson, G. and Vasudevan, A. (2017), Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 42, 246-259.

Betreuung: Ifigeneia Dimitrakou

B. Urban precarity and the housing trajectories of young adults
Housing unaffordability in cities poses a significant challenge for young adults, particularly those with flexibilized and uncertain employment or those at the early stages of their housing trajectories (Howard et al. 2023). To access housing, some might establish or prolong dependencies on family and other support networks and navigate through uncertain conditions in the housing market (Beer et al. 2011; Forrest & Yip, 2012). Consequently, they might be forced into flexibilized and overall precarious living arrangements (Mckee et al. 2017), including precarious tenures, temporary stays, frequent relocations, or lower living standards.
This thesis delves into the pressing problem of urban precarity by centering on the housing trajectories experienced by young adults in contemporary cities. Projects under this theme can explore the diverse strategies these urban actors establish in finding housing in the rental market (e.g. interim use, co-living, subletting, shared flats), considering factors that shape unequal housing outcomes. Considering an intersectional lens (Ortega-Alcázar & Wilkinson, 2021) into precarity, the projects could examine how class, race, gender, sexuality, among others, shape young adults’ mobilities, housing arrangements, social relations, outcomes, and aspirations. Moreover, paying particular attention to how urban development dynamics influence the access or the exclusion from specific segments of the housing market or neighborhoods. Projects could also take on a longitudinal view on housing trajectories, to explore how differentiated precarious housing experiences recast meanings of home and homemaking in the city.
Beer, A., Faulkner, D., Paris, C., & Clower, T. (2011). Housing transitions through the life course: Aspirations, needs and policy. Bristol: Bristol University Press.
Forrest, R., & Yip, N.-M. (Eds.). (2012). Young People and Housing: Transitions, Trajectories and Generational Fractures.London: Routledge.
Howard, A., Hochstenbach, C. & Ronald, R. (2023). Rental sector liberalization and the housing outcomes for young urban adults. Urban Geography, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2023.2279873
Mckee, K., Moore, T., Soaita, A. and Crawford, J. (2017). Generation Rent’ and The Fallacy of Choice. International Journal of Urban and Regional Studies, 41, 318-333.
Ortega-Alcázar, I. & Wilkinson, E. (2021) ‘I felt trapped’: young women’s experiences of shared housing in austerity Britain. Social & Cultural Geography, 22(9), 1291-1306

Betreuung: Ifigeneia Dimitrakou

The Responsible city

A. Responsible city: governing socio-ecological transitions
As cities grapple with the intersecting challenges of climate change, economic restructuring, and social inequalities, they are compelled to respond to these complexities. However, the implementation of sustainability transitions often accompanies the unequal distribution of benefits and harms, and responsibilities amongst urban actors and territories globally (Anguelovski et al. 2016). Therefore, resulting socio-ecological transformations become contentious and highly polarizing, raising challenging questions of justice and democratic governance (Swyngedouw & Heynen, 2003).
A Master’s thesis under this theme focuses on controversial socio-ecological urban transformation projects and related policies - e.g., the energetic renovation of housing stocks, plans for shifting to sustainable forms of mobility, densification-focused zoning and parsimonious land use, landscape preservation policies - with a particular focus on responsibility.
Questions to be addressed explore:
What are the politics of value - e.g. negotiations between environmental responsibility goals, imperatives for social justice, and calls for democratic transformation processes - undergird socio-ecological transitions in urban policy and media debates?
How do urban actors involved in governance, including residents, grassroots, policymakers, and institutions, perceive and negotiate their responsibilities amidst these socio-ecological challenges?
To what extent do uneven geographies of place, class, race, and gender, shape the distribution of responsibility and influence the outcomes of socio-ecological transitions?
This Master’s project is embedded in the SNSS-funded project “The responsible city”. More information:

Betreuung: Ifigeneia Dimitrakou; Hanna Hilbrandt

Anguelovski, I., Shi, L., Chu, E., Gallagher, D., Goh, K., Lamb, Z., Reeve, K., & Teicher, H. (2016). Equity Impacts of Urban Land Use Planning for Climate Adaptation: Critical Perspectives from the Global North and South. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 36(3), 333-348.
Swyngedouw, E., & Heynen, N. C. (2003). Urban political ecology, justice and the politics of scale. Antipode, 35(5), 898-918.

Weiterführende Informationen

Interdisciplinary Master's thesis topics

Interested in doing an interdisciplinary Master's thesis at the Department of Geography? Have a look at the list of currently available topics involving two or more research divisions of the Department of Geography. 

Please note

The MSc thesis can be written either in English or in German, depending on the agreement with the supervisor(s).

Master's Thesis and Exam

Guidelines for Master thesis in Human Geography