Socio-political Urbanism

In our research group, we study the socio-political urbanism at the intersection of land use planning, housing policy, and social policy. Land use planning is a public policy that regulates the allocation of land for different uses based on ecological, social, and economic standards. However, these standards are often negotiated, adapted, and readjusted based on national and local dynamics. By taking a new institutionalist approach, we explore the sustainability of care and housing provision in cities as the essential resources for social reproduction from one generation to another and within generations.

Our competences include policy analysis, actor analysis, and comparative qualitative case studies to provide policy relevant academic research while addressing the gaps in the scholarly debates in this highly topical field of social and political urbanism. Our field of expertise cover a broad set of national contexts including Switzerland, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Ghana.

Care is an essential resource to sustain life with an acceptable level of capability, safety, and comfort mentally and physically. Dependence on care changes across lifetime and includes key social functions such as raising children and supporting older adults as well as people with disabilities.

Feminist scholarship has defined a “crisis of care” as the transformation of the society that is less able and less willing to provide the caring labour. There is also a growing “care gap” that is between care needs and resources made available for the provision of care.

The overarching goal of this research agenda is to explore the role of local governance and the spatial organization of care provision in mitigating or exacerbating the care gap. We explore the reorganization of “spaces of care” along with broader social trends such as ageing, degraded care work and gendered division of care labour, and economic trends such as increasing costs for care, strained pension systems, and financialization of care as well as housing.

Having a home is a basic human need and an essential good. Its conditions of access, supply, management, distribution, and ownership structure need to be thought through to avoid conflicts and rivalries between competing uses (e.g., affordable housing or lofts for couples with double income and no kids or office space), which has consequences on its sustainability.

In our research group, we analyse the sustainability of housing from a new institutionalist perspective. The institutional resource regime (IRR) analysis refers to all formal rules in force within a specific area, which are grounded either in public policies, including use and protection policies, or property rights, including property titles, contracts, conventions, etc. These formal rules determine the use and transfer rights of a given resource, such as housing.

We explore these diverse mechanisms between public policy and property rights to analyse the sustainability of the housing resource. Our research on housing policy focuses on issues of social justice, (de)commodification of housing stocks, and power relations among public and private actors in the use and distribution of housing.

Ay, D. “How to plan for care-full densification? Social sustainability of densification where social policy meets land-use planning”, PLPR (International Association on Planning, Law and Property Rights) Annual Conference, Ghent, Belgium, July 2022

Ay, D. and Turker, K.A. (2022). Post-conflict Urban Renewal as an Ethnocratic Regime Practice: Racialized Governance of Redevelopment in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, 90.

Ay, D. (2021). Empowering Cities to Make Immigrant Integration Happen. in Migration, Equality, and Racisms edited by Ilke Adam, Nick Schuermans, Florian Trauner, VUB Press.

Ay, D. and Demires Ozkul, B. (2021). The Strange Case of Earthquake Risk Mitigation in Istanbul, City (1-2), 67-87.

Debrunner, G. (2020): «Wir müssen Verdichtung gezielter steuern», In: Mieten + Wohnen, Nr. 4 September 2020, 10-12.

Debrunner, G., T. Hartmann (2020): Strategic use of land policy instruments for affordable housing. Coping with social challenges under scarce land conditions in Swiss cities, 99. 

Debrunner, G., A. Hengstermann, J-D. Gerber (2020): Die Wohnungsfrage ist eine Bodenfrage: Bodenpolitische Instrumente zur Sicherstellung des preisgünstigen Wohnraums im Bestand in Schweizer Städten, In: Schönig, B.; Vollmer, L. (Hrsg.), Wohnungsfragen ohne Ende?!, Sammelband Universität Weimar: transcript Verlag 58-76.

Debrunner, G., A. Hengstermann, J-D. Gerber (2020): The Business of Densification. Distribution of Power, Wealth and Inequality in Swiss Policy Making, Town Planning Review, 91(3), 259-281.


Habilitation project, Dr. Deniz Ay: Spatial understanding of the care gap through densification, housing, and land-use planning

Duration January 2022-ongoing
Funding Funded by research unit

This project takes densification as a major intervention to the built environment that reorganizes the public space, private space, and, therefore, the spaces of care. Using the “care gap” as an indicator for social sustainability, we develop the following overarching hypothesis: If densification helps mitigate the care gap, it leads to socially sustainable residential arrangements in urban settlements. We ask how the densification of residents and uses affect the demand and the supply for care provision: What are the institutions, actors, and formal and informal arrangements that determine the relationship between the care gap and densification?

Involved persons Deniz Ay

Jean-David Gerber


ResiDENSE: Governance of Densification for Sustainable Housing Development in Swiss Municipalities under increasing Densification Pressure

Duration January 2017 - December 2020
Funding Funded by research unit
Description In 2018, the majority of the world’s population (55.3%) was living in cities. By 2030, this share will globally increase to 60% when one in every three people will live in urban areas (UN, 2018). This creates great challenges, but also opportunities in terms of tackling climate change, resource depletion, and environmental degradation (Dixon, 2011). Densification is assumed to play a decisive role in the fight against urban sprawl and the overuse of non-renewable resources (Burton, 2000; Dieleman & Wegener, 2003; Williams, 2004; Holman et al., 2015). Densification is defined as a process leading to higher use-density within existing borderlines of built-up areas (Saglie, 1998). In the built environment, densification strategies (e.g., conversions, subdivisions, modernization, infilling-projects) have been criticised for their socio-economic impacts. Densification can contribute to intensify gentrification, social exclusion, and polarisation processes due to higher rents after redevelopment. Consequently, densification threatens social sustainability dimensions such as housing affordability, residential stability, and neighbourhood cohesion (Lees et al., 2008; Bramley et al., 2009; Jenks & Jones, 2010; Barger, 2016; UN, 2016). Local residents’ resistance can prevent, block, or delay planned densification projects within urban areas. Social acceptance for a project is therefore a prerequisite for realising densification processes (Wexler, 1996; Vallance et al., 2005).

In ResiDENSE, we aim to analyse different local governance mechanisms that support the social acceptance of housing densification through comparative case study analyses. Our research outcomes will provide a detailed answer to the questions how municipalities plan differently for housing densification in the built environment and how they parallelly ensure social sustainability (e.g., housing affordability, access, living quality etc.) of housing development? Parallelly, winners and losers of the new rules of the game (densification) will be identified and the effectiveness and social justice issues related to the densification policies applied will be discussed.

Involved persons Gabriela Debrunner

Jean-David Gerber


Housing regimes and their impacts on affordable housing for the population

Project overview
Duration January 2014 - December 2017
Funding Funded by research unit
Description Tough housing markets and rising rents have led to the emergence of (new) housing policy demands in many Swiss cities. Strategies for an affordable supply of housing are thus moving back into the political limelight. In many municipalities, for example, local popular initiatives to develop and expand housing policy measures are being and have been discussed and decided upon. At cantonal and national level, too, debates on the adaptation of corresponding legal regulations have recently gained momentum.

Municipalities can influence the housing market through their actions. However, their actions are tied to appropriate cantonal and national framework conditions and depend on cooperation with housing market players. This research project investigates this local design and handling of housing policy and its contribution to affordable housing for the public.

Involved persons Ivo Balmer (former PhD student of the Unit)

Jean-David Gerber