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Guest author: Sara Özogul (University of Amsterdam)
Interdisciplinary research is always a challenging undertaking. Planning researchers focusing on real estate, however, face a unique set of difficulties. While real estate investment and development are key processes that shape contemporary cities, as a sub-field, these dynamics are not well established in planning studies. Alarming knowledge gaps exist in the discipline, and planning scholars face difficulties integrating the more technical real estate literature and real estate data in their analyses. Close collaboration with real estate practitioners is rare and even frowned upon, and interdisciplinary and inter-professional knowledge exchange and networking opportunities are limited.
“Necessity is the mother of innovation” is a well-known proverb. Speaking from my own experience, and my work with a group of PhD students integrating planning and property market perspectives as part of the research network UGoveRN, I can say that these challenges hold particularly true for early career scholars. However, we took matters into our own hands. Together with a great team, I am now working on addressing multiple knowledge gaps in global urban real estate research by establishing a strong network of planning and real estate scholars, practitioners and network organisations (including the AESOP YA Network) into a project called Connect21. Collaboratively, we develop four public webinars and two early career seminars over the course of 2021, to support a new generation of planning scholars who can skillfully bridge interdisciplinary divides.
Knowledge gaps in planning studies
The key players of real estate investment and development – investors, developers, planners, and policymakers – received heightened attention in planning studies in recent years. Global investments into built environments and especially the financialisation of urban development are addressed across various contexts in the global North and South (Robinson et al. 2020). Nonetheless, the discipline continues to grapple with the complexity and fast-paced nature of the real estate industry. Planning, and the wider urban studies literature, has been criticized for its limited empirical base (Crosby and Henneberry 2016), its poor differentiation between types of developers (Ballard and Butcher 2019) and investors (Özogul and Tasan-Kok 2020), and its oversimplification of investment decisions by private sector actors (Raco et al. 2019).
Meanwhile, entrepreneurial governance strategies increasingly occur through financial means and actors (Aalbers 2020). Public and private finance collides in development projects (Pike et al. 2019). And complex relationships exist between real estate markets, public sector regulation and investor behaviour (Mallach 2014). Therefore, planning scholars need to better understand the diversity and roles of real estate actors in urban development, and their social and environmental impact on society at large. For instance, financial institutions involved in real estate are changing business practices to avoid reputational risks (Banhalmi-Zakar 2016), and developers engage in knowledge coalitions and community building to ensure smooth project development (Brill and Robin 2020). These insights are extremely useful for planning practitioners, and planning scholars should support practitioners in developing innovative policy and planning instruments in market-driven conditions (Wargent and Tasan-Kok 2020; Kady 2020).
Developing a common language
Real estate literature sheds light on the differentiated and nuanced interests of property industry actors and their behaviour. Yet, many planning scholars do not possess the skills to adequately include these insights into their research. Real estate literature can be very technical, and only through meaningful engagement between academics from both disciplines can we translate terminologies, methods, to develop a common language. The potential for interdisciplinary knowledge exchange is enormous, and it is in fact a two-way stream. Not only can planning scholars benefit from understanding technical details, discussions, rationales from the real estate field; real estate literature can profit from concrete links to critical planning analyses and influential local planning practices.
Furthermore, the rich empirical data and knowledge of the real estate industry itself is often either inaccessible or overlooked by planning scholars. Planning scholars tend to lack an overview of available data sources, as well as the expertise to understand and mobilise real estate data in their research endeavours. Through new networks and collaborations, previously inaccessible data can be made accessible and analysed jointly.
Fundamentally, bridging knowledge gaps in urban real estate research requires interaction with practitioners. For planning researchers, this means establishing closer ties to real estate industry actors. The generalisations of these actors that much planning literature to date conveys is quickly dismantled when talking to practitioners: Real state actors will easily paint a complex picture of the diversity and subtle differences between investors, developers, branches, niches, companies, departments, job profiles, and so forth. Scholars will also come across many professional researchers who work in the real estate industry. Many of them have academic planning degrees. Their expertise should not be overlooked and can enrich academic research as well.
A major struggle for planning scholars is to move beyond the widespread assumptions and stereotypes attached to real estate actors in planning studies. Dooming scenarios of investors conquering today’s cities are omnipresent, and these negative imaginaries hamper fruitful relationships with real estate practitioners. The intention is neither to disregard that contemporary planning practice is facing challenges in a world frequently driven by financial incentives, nor to disregard the lived experiences of people affected by rising property prices etcetera. But simply blaming one actor group – currently mostly real estate investors – in urban development disregards the complexity at hand (Tasan-Kok and Özogul 2019). It is an easy way out, and not a solution. What is needed instead is fair and thorough empirical evidence.
Dealing with criticism
Unfortunately, just by taking a more nuanced stance, planning scholars can face criticism of playing into the hands of the property industry that purely follows financial incentives with negative effects on cities and citizens. Being confronted with this sort of accusations, and being criticised for not being critical enough, can be especially hard on early career scholars. However, wanting to explore something in-depth and highlight not only the shortcomings but also potential opportunities, does not simply turn research un-critical. On the contrary: knowledge is power.
Campbell et al. (2014: 47) famously argued that the “critical appraisal of the inadequacies of policy initiatives is of course important, and perhaps a prerequisite for progressive change. However, there are intellectual and practical dangers if failure, immutable constraints, and a narrowing of aspiration become the assumed norm.” Furthermore, they specifically underscore the social construction of real estate markets. This perspective allows for new imaginations on how to shape these markets through public policy priorities (ibid.). Creating an open space for new voices and novel perspectives to be shared and discussed and establishing a strong support network for early career scholars, becomes indispensable in pushing existing knowledge frontiers on real estate in planning studies. Planning thought is not something fixed but is and should be constantly evolving (Haselsberger 2017).
Tackling the limited opportunities for early career scholars
To fill the void of opportunities for early career scholars wrestling with the challenges of conducting research at the intersection of planning and real estate studies, the Connect21 project will hold two online seminars (the first one on June 22, and the second one in November 2021). The seminars target PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, aiming to provide both tailored support and networking opportunities. By linking early career scholars with established scholars from both planning and real estate disciplines (and with each another) selected participants can receive high-quality feedback for their work, share knowledge, build capacity, and expand their global networks in both academia and practice.
The early career seminars are developed in close collaboration with the Association of European Schools of Planning Young Academics Network (AESOP YA), the PhD network of the European Real Estate Society (ERES PhD Network), and the Future Leaders of the African Real Estate Society (FLAfRES). For more information, please visit the website and if interested in participating, submit an online application. The deadline is May 16, 2021.
Aalbers, Manuel B. 2020. ‘Financial Geography III: The Financialization of the City’. Progress in Human Geography 44 (3): 595–607.
Ballard, Richard, and Siân Butcher. 2019. ‘Comparing the Relational Work of Developers’. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, December, https://doi.org/10.1177/0308518X19893684.
Banhalmi-Zakar, Zsuzsa. 2016. ‘The Impact of Bank Lending on the Environmental Outcomes of Urban Development’. Australian Planner 53 (3): 221–31.
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Robinson, Jennifer, Philip Harrison, Jie Shen, and Fulong Wu. 2020. ‘Financing Urban Development, Three Business Models: Johannesburg, Shanghai and London’. Progress in Planning, October, 100513. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.progress.2020.100513.
Tasan-Kok, Tuna, and Sara Özogul. 2019. Property investors as new public enemies? – The dangers of scapegoating in urban knowledge frontiers. Retrieved from Centre for Urban Studies blog. Available online: t.ly/0hY8
Wargent, Matthew, and Tasan-Kok, Tuna. 2020. ‘The Future of the Planning Profession: Searching for a Better Place.’ Planning Theory and Practice 21 (3): 453–480.
About the author
Sara Özogul is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Her research is embedded within the framework of the international research project What is Governed in Cities? and focuses on the relationship between planning regulation and investment flows into Amsterdam’s property market. Furthermore, she is leading the Connect21 project, is the head of research of the newly established research network UGoveRN, and the coordinator of the UGoveRN Planning+Property Chapter.You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.