Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Understanding international students beyond studentification: A new class of transnational urban consumers. The example of Erasmus students in Lisbon (Portugal)

Daniel Malet Calvo

The growing presence of international students in the city of Lisbon attracted my attention ten years ago, when I started my PhD on the occupation by different social groups of the most emblematic central square in Lisbon: Praça do Rossio. As a foreigner, I shared several apartments with international students, at a time when the city of Lisbon was not renowned as a tourist or student destination. I got to know a group of exchange students that had developed a particular alternative lifestyle in the patio where they lived. They organized several meals outside and installed improvised benches to spend time in the patio, as well as sharing a communitarian style of living with their Portuguese neighbours. Next year, when the students left, the next-door Hostel bought those apartments and converted them into suites for tourists. Replicating the students, they installed permanent benches and even imitated their new-age tastes in the decoration. In other words, the hostel reproduced the students’ creative ways, making products for tourists. When I started to study Erasmus students back in 2013, I borrowed the term ‘studentification’ to assess the significance and impact of those populations in Lisbon. However, as an anthropologist, it was unsettling for me to isolate the housing question from the wide variety of practices and relations that students established within Lisbon’s urban processes.
In the present article I discuss the applicability of the studentification literature to other geographies other than UK’s, stressing that the main effects on the urban form (spatial concentration, segregation and density of student populations) are missing in the case of Lisbon. Taking the study of Francis Collins about South Korean international students in Auckland, I started to use ‘studentification’ in a wider sense, considering the agency of students and their ability to reproduce their own cultural practices when abroad. In this sense, my idea was to present three different cultures of Erasmus students (the most significant population of international students in Lisbon) to understand their role and involvement in different processes of urban change.
First, I identify the party-centred practices of the so-called ‘typical’ Erasmus students, and their participation -along with young tourists- in the production and consumption of Lisbon’s tourism gentrification. Then, I recognize that a group of ‘alternative’ Erasmus students who rejected a ‘typical’ Erasmus life are working as marginal gentrifiers, whose political and aesthetic orientations lead them to the discovery of new urban territories for consumption. Finally, there are the ‘scholar’ or hard-working Erasmus students, who seem to be engaged with entrepreneurial activities, echoing the emphasis on the knowledge-economy that prevails in today’s urban policies of European capital cities.
To summarize, international students could be considered a new class of transnational urban consumers that express collectively a diversified repertory of practices, cultures and lifestyles. Wealthier than the average of college students, they are relevant consumers (and occasionally clever producers) in the travel economy (as foreigners), in lthe eisure economy (as youth), and in the knowledge economy (as students). Therefore, they become central actors at the core of the cognitive-cultural, visitor-centred system of production in contemporary cities.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Temporary use of space: Urban processes between flexibility, opportunity and precarity

Ali Madanipour

From popup shops and restaurants to container buildings and gardens, there has been a growing trend in the temporary use of urban space. This trend is celebrated by many observers, who see it as novel, progressive and exciting, making the underused space available for activities that would otherwise be unable to flourish, while adding colour, vitality and spontaneity to the urban environment. Such flexibilities in the use of space may open a door to new possibilities, but I wanted to go beyond the apparent aesthetic excitement and understand the trend more fully, to see where it fits within the broader context of urban processes and how it can be critically analysed.
Empty spaces are the outcome of fluctuations and crises in capitalism, which have reached unprecedented dimensions through globalization, and the associated technological and economic changes, as reflected in large numbers of empty shops, offices, and housing units in different parts of the world. The temporary use of space has been one of the key responses to this crisis of overproduction, introducing flexibilities in the control and use of land and property, which go past the traditional ways of rent adjustment. As I once discussed with Kira Cochrane of the Guardian newspaper[1], temporary spaces can be understood in contrasting ways: on the one hand making productive use of empty spaces for a variety of locally useful activities, and on the other hand a disguise for consumerism. Their flexibility offers new opportunities to creative entrepreneurs as well as civil society groups and local activities, but also normalizes the sense of precarity for these users, while it is being transmuted into a cultural instrument of branding and marketing, which is used profitably by large companies.
Elsewhere, I have investigated temporary parks and gardens that turn the city into an ephemeral event[2]. My focus in this article is on the temporary use of private space. I have used the example of Chesterfield House in Wembley, London, which provided the opportunity for temporary use of space offered at low cost to creative entrepreneurs, facilitated by the authorities and welcomed by the local media and community groups. By locating the temporary use within the longer period of property development, however, we gain a fuller picture of the initiative. In a project of converting an empty office space to high density housing, the other face of the temporary use of space becomes visible: an interim measure for reducing the costs and improving the local acceptability of the impending development. It is through this wider, mobile lens that we can see the different sides of temporary urbanism.
The ancient Greeks called a moment that captures many possibilities Kairos, a particular concept of time. I was interested in understanding whether the temporary use of space reflects a broader change in the concepts and character of time in urban society today. This is a subject I explored in a book, Cities in Time [3](Published by Bloomsbury in 2017), in which I have studied temporary urbanism in the context of the philosophy of time, at the intersection of instrumental, existential and experimental concepts of time.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Not just the super-rich: The role of the middle-classes in transforming London

Hang Kei Ho, Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University

Rowland Atkinson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield

How do we make sense of the current housing crisis in London? Existing academic research and the popular press tends to tell us two things. Frist, the introduction of the Right to Buy scheme in the 1980s by the Conservative government that allowed council tenants to purchase their homes from the state at a heavily subsidised rate created a shortage in public housing. Coupled with the lack of political will to build more residential properties in the last three decades as well as the high demand from the national and international workers and students the rental market and property prices have been pushed to record high levels. Second, global cities like London have long been a playground for the wealthy. Subsequently, the super-rich from Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and most recently, mainland China have been purchasing luxury residential properties in prime locations such as Kingsbridge for capital growth or to store assets in property which can be released when it is needed.

Cranes on London's skyline. Photo: Hang Kei Ho 

While both of these observations are important they tend to neglect the role of middle-class investors. In cities like Hong Kong many middle-income households have been buying properties in the UK for more than quarter of a century. Here financial literacy combined with high savings rates and increasing anxieties about the future are driving these capital flows.
Our research approach has been to follow the money – examining capital investments and motives via interviews, attending property fairs, and visiting development sites in Hong Kong, London, Aberdeen and Liverpool. Our informants included investors, real estate directors, brokers, property developers; regional government strategists and town planners. We also analysed marketing and housing related materials published in both Chinese and English. Here a grounded and linguistic insider position enabled us to learn much about these flows and understand more about Hongkongers’ social status, anxieties and investment strategies.
We suggest that there have been three broad waves of investment from Hong Kong to UK’s housing market. The first wave, which we call the ‘pre-handover migration wave’ or the buy-to-live trend, began in the late 1980s when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was about to be transferred back to mainland China in 1997. Based on the uncertain politics of Hong Kong, citizens relocated to countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. However, the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square in particular triggered emigration to the UK with around 50,000 families granted British citizenship under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act of 1990. During this period some Hong Kong citizens bought properties, mostly in London, with the intention of relocating. However, the reality was that many remained in Hong Kong, with some parents buying properties for housing their children while at university.
The second wave of investment which we identify as a process of buying to ‘fry’. We choose this term, based on a Hong Kong colloquialism, to describe the way in which investors speculated off-plan properties to generate a quick profit (the frying) and the impact this made on housing pressures in London alongside with those generated by the global super-rich. These processes began in the early 2000s where wealthy middle class Hongkongers sought alternative investment vehicles at the time when local banks offer almost zero interest rates on money deposited.
The ‘post-London investment wave’, which we introduce as the third investment pattern, started when property prices rose in London after the credit crunch in 2009. Investors explored buy-to-let options in northern cities including Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham with a significant rental yield of up to 8%.
From our work we suggest that there are two important reasons as to why Hongkongers continue to invest in global real estate. First, experienced through waves of financial crises and that the state pension in Hong Kong being insignificant, they understand financial insecurity is generated via transnational instabilities and is, to some extent, unavoidable. Thinking like the super-rich, buying properties is a secure way to safeguard the possible depreciation of their cash, outperform close to zero bank interest rates on deposits and generate a regular rental income. More surprisingly perhaps, some investors are not as wealthy as the popular media suggest, they save hard and access loans to invest for long-term growth, sometimes with friends and family members in ways that resemble Confucian capitalism which intergrades the notions of familial and intergenerational loyalty, thrift and an ethic of hard work.
The second key factor relates to the geopolitical uncertainties surrounding Hong Kong itself and which has been impacted by mainland China. Here we see renewed debates on issues of emigration rights and the potential role of off-shore residential properties which may offer buyers a sense of political stability should the political context deteriorate.
Perhaps it is also important to acknowledge here that the current housing crisis in London is deepened by the UK government’s inability to implement a strategy to build more affordable housing and the avoidance of creating policies to deter non-UK citizens from buying properties. However, not all investments lead to financial rewards as around 1,000 investors from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan and Malaysia who have invested with a total of HK$500 million (US$64 million, £52 million) have seen their properties fail to complete or remain unbuilt.
Finally, despite Britain’s plans to leave the European Union that has appeared to reduce investment from other countries, capital from Hong Kong and mainland China continues to flow into London’s real estate market. Hong Kong investors alone have around £4.5bn of live equity which is aimed at London. These indicators suggest that long-term flows of capital between Hong Kong and London are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon despite the questions that these and related forms of investment raise about what is good for the wider population of the destination of such investment.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Differing House Price Linkages Across UK Regions: A Multi-Dimensional Recursive Ripple Model

By Chris Hudson, John Hudson and Bruce Morley
Link to paper

The dynamics of the UK housing market have become increasingly topical following its role in the financial crisis of 2008. This study analyses the ripple effect across the UK’s regional housing market covering different housing types, whilst also incorporating any reverse effects back to the origin in London. This effect refers to the rippling out of changes in house prices in London to the surrounding regions and potentially also then reversing the ripple back to London. This ripple effect is important to the UK housing market as a whole, as movements in house prices usually originate in London, and recently London’s house prices have risen substantially after capital inflows from overseas were directed at the capital’s housing market. This has made the London market more volatile and thus more risky for investment purposes, but it is important to determine how this volatility in London could affect the rest of the UK housing market. 

The 2008 financial crisis initially started in the housing market when assets backed by the sub-prime housing sector collapsed in price, undermining the solvency of the international banking sector. As a result all central banks now monitor the relationship between financial stability and the housing market more closely, especially through macroprudential policies which are specifically targeted at housing, such as the loan to house value ratios. This also requires some idea about how house prices are likely to evolve over the near future, which is why the understanding of house price dynamics and the ripple effect have become so important.

House prices across types and regions

We can see in the Figure that the three types of house prices tend to move together, but there are differences. In particular in the period between 1990 and 2008, old and modern house prices caught up the new house prices. The Figure also shows the trend in old prices as we move north from London. Again there are similarities between the curves, but also substantial differences. For example, as we move northwards, and compared to London, the decline in prices in the early 1990s tended to be delayed and more muted, but the slowdown was then more prolonged. This gives plausibility to the hypothesis that shocks emanate in London and then spread out through the country. But our analysis suggests it is not that simple. Firstly, if there is some shock in another part of the country, we would anticipate it also rippling outwards including towards London and the South East. But secondly for the shock that does begin in London, as it ripples outwards so there will also be a recursive ripple back to London itself. The analogy can be made to a stone which is thrown into a pool of water. Waves will ripple outwards, but once they meet an obstacle they will begin to ripple back again.

This is complex enough, but our analysis, and this is one of its main contributions to the literature, suggests it is more complex still. It is as if there are three interconnected pools of water, with ripples from one impacting on the other two. A regional shock to new house prices will impact mostly on new prices in neighbouring regions and thence their neighbours. But there will also be some interaction between old, and in particular, modern house prices, both in the same region and neighbouring ones. A similar analysis applies to shocks to old and modern house prices.

Thus, a positive shock to new houses in London and Outer Metropolitan, will first impact on the South East and thence on the South West, the West and East Midlands and East Anglia. There will then be further knock on effects on e.g. the North West, all with differing speeds. Initially the largest impacts will be on other house types in London and new houses in adjacent regions. But the impact will eventually spread across all house types and regions. There will then be ripples, or echoes, back, from these regions to new, and other, house types in London. Hence the ripple acts recursively on at least two dimensions, firstly the spatial dimension and secondly the house vintage dimension. In effect there are multi-dimensional recursive ripples between different house types both within the same region and between regions.

There are lessons for policy makers in this. For example, if they introduce a policy which impacts on new houses, either across the UK or in a single region. Then there will be repercussions across all regions and all house types and it will take several years before the full effects have worked their way through the system. Policy makers should be aware of these repercussions and not just focus their attention on the new housing market or one particular region. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Autonomy Centres

Dr John Crossan , University of Strathclyde

Last month The Guardian newspaper ran an article entitled ‘How Punk Changed Cities – and Vice Versa’. The article, while focusing upon Punk music from the mid-1970s until the present, expands the idea of Punk beyond the riffs of Suburban Disease, Crass and the like, to include a wealth of socio-cultural and political activities that make up what has been termed D.I.Y. Counterculture. One such activity is setting up and running ‘autonomy centres’. Sometimes referred to as social centres, these D.I.Y. spaces are nodal points of creativity for this decentralised and diverse scene. (I use the term scene to capture a range of cultural tropes that link this collection of groups and individuals). According to the Guardian article, these centres are beginning to emerge as important places for those whose politics stands in direct opposition to the extremes of the far-right and the post-politics of the mainstream party system.  

Autonomy centres have sprung up all over Europe and the US over the last century or so and each centre has its own story, very much related to the towns and cities they are found in. What follows is a very short history and geography of European autonomy centres and the autonomous scene in Europe more widely (for further insight see Chatterton, 2008 and Miguel Angel Martinez Lopez, 2016). Three waves of autonomy centre activity preceded the latest centres mentioned in the Guardian article. Understanding the political dynamic within today’s centres and what purpose they might serve is made easier through understanding their history. 


 The first wave: socialism from below:

Today’s autonomy centres are the descendants of a libertarian socialist current that utilized factory buildings, farmhouses, churches, bars, and schools, and that stretches across Europe and back to the early 20th century. Schmidt and van der Walt (2009: 185) write about the Libertarian Athenaeums in the early years of last century “that existed in every district and village of anarchist strength in Spain”. A type of anarchist community centre, the Athenaeums, with their plays, picnics, dances, language classes and more, were a critical component of the Spanish syndicalist unions. During the same period, the Bourses du Travails (labour exchanges) in France were used by revolutionary syndicalist Fernand Pelloutier (amongst others) as centres of radical libertarian counterculture.

It is important to understand these community spaces as one arm of a dual strategy employed by anarcho-syndicalists in Spain and France, the other arm operating in the workplace. This dual approach points towards recognition by anarchist-syndicalists of the importance of struggles taking place outside the factories in the sphere of reproduction. For Rocker (2004 [1937]) it was here the ongoing “educational work […] directed toward the development of independent thought and action” would make “clear to the workers the intrinsic connections among social problems”. While the content and aims of each space differed in line with the political context of the participants (consider for example the different terrains of struggle of the industrial worker and the rural peasant), these early examples were very much rooted in a culture of mass participatory democracy and community self-determination. Alongside the strike, sabotage and the printed word, these early examples of autonomy centres formed the weaponry of those no longer willing to accept their lot under conditions set by an industrial bourgeoisie protected by the liberal state.


 The second wave: reclaiming the city

Influenced by the student and working-class revolts of 1968, we see a second wave of centres springing up across Europe in the 1970s. Many of the voices in the revolts of 1968 spoke out against not only the ‘rebirth’ of capitalism post-1945 but also the revolutionary torpor of political parties claiming to represent the working classes during this period. Political anti-establishmentarianism was somewhat mirrored in a renaissance of culture with political folk music and countercultural literature enjoying a wide audience. The OSCs (Occupied Social Centres) in Italy, for example, utilised empty buildings and public spaces as countercultural hubs in their struggle against the state, capital and the paternalism evident within the political left during the period.

Montagna (2006: 296) tells us that the OSC movement was rooted in the “antagonistic juvenile social movements” of this time in Italy. Disillusioned with ‘capitalist work’ and the socialist parties (which they felt had been de-radicalised by their pursuit of state power) “groups of young people started a process of ‘claiming the city’ through widespread squatting” (Ruggiero in Montagna 2006: 297). For Mudu, the Italian centres were part of a critical response to what was seen by many on the left as the development of both a crude workerism within the Italian communist movement and, supporting Montagna’s claim, “a drift towards more moderate institutional political programmes” (Mudu 2004: 919). For the mainstream left, the workplace and the high corridors of political power came before the sphere of reproduction as important arenas of struggle (Katsiaficas 2006). Unsurprisingly then, woman played a key role in challenging the paternalistic character of workplace and institutional politics. Silvia Federici’s (2009) paper ‘The reproduction of labour-power in the global economy, Marxist theory and the unfinished feminist revolution’ details the extent of women’s revolt throughout the 1970s. Autonomy centres became the conspicuous platform from which these voices of dissent were heard outside of the private sphere.

This second wave is when we first see the D.I.Y punk ethos establish itself within the autonomous scene. In the UK, key political struggles for centre participants revolved around the setting up of Claimants Unions, and organizing anti-fascist and animal liberation actions (Hodkinson and Chatterton 2006).


 The third wave: re-territorializing struggle

The late 1990s saw the much wider alter-globalisation movement informing a third wave of autonomous centres. The politically plural message behind terms like ‘one no, many yeses’ and the participatory democratic tools developed in the temporary autonomous zones of protest camps and mass mobilizations such as at the G8 summit in Seattle (1999) and Genoa (2001) achieved within autonomous centres a degree of stability in the streets of towns and cities.

The alter-globalization movement has, within its ever-shifting ranks, a vast array of political opinions on display. For example, the movement is populated with Marxist and Leninist groups as well as International NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. To this constellation of organizations and ideologies we can add numerous anarchist-influenced groups (e.g. anarchist-communists and anarchist-feminists). This last group has a longer history of association with autonomous centres but, in my experience all the above political sensibilities are active in influencing the direction of their particular centres. 

Routledge, Cumbers and Nativel (2008) argue that the ephemeral, transitory and to this we might add de-stratified role (‘belonging to no class’) of the alter-globalization activist fighting on the streets of Seattle and Genoa, defending the forests of Oregon and Ecuador, is a position open only to a privileged few. Juris (2005) suggests that an unintended effect of such actions is to de-territorialize struggle, positioning it in the ‘out-of-reach’ imagined geographies of the global. For most people struggling against capitalism, patriarchy, classism etc., the parameters of a stratified existence places limits on their geographical horizons. The third wave of autonomous centres, although influenced by the alter-globalization movement, is a critique of and response to these more exclusionary practices. These autonomous centres are firmly situated in territorial struggle – the territory in question being the city.


 A fourth wave …

Roberto Unger, writing about radical democratic potential, noted what he understood as “an astonishing gap between the alleged interest in alternatives and the lack of any tangible signs that this interest is real” (Unger in Harvey 2000: 188). The presence of newly formed autonomous centres such as those mentioned in the Guardian Article is heartening. This fourth wave is emerging because people – whose interest in alternatives is real – are working hard to make these alternatives visible and accessible. Struggling against 30 years of neoliberalisation has certainly made realizing alternatives extremely difficult. A far longer and arguably more banal history of top-down organisational structures has exacerbated this condition. The ability of communities to effect substantive change in their urban environments has long been undermined and prohibited by top-down command and control structures. Autonomous centres are important in this regard because they give us the opportunity to collectively define our urban lives through our active relationship in and with urban space.   


Chatterton, P. (2010). So What Does It Mean to be Anti-Capitalist? Conversations with Activists from Urban Social Centres, Urban Studies, 47, 6, 1205–24

Federici, S (2009) ‘The Reproduction of Labour-Power in the Global Economy, Marxist Theory and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution’. Paper presented at the seminar on the Crisis of Social Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, 27 January 2009, University of California, Santa Cruz . Available at: https://caringlabor.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/silvia-federici-the-reproduction-of-labour-power-in-the-global-economy-marxist-theory-and-the-unfinished-feminist-revolution/

Harvey, D. (2000). Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh Edinburgh University Press.

Hodkinson, S. & P. Chatterton (2006) Autonomy in the City. City, 10, 305-315.

Juris, J. (2005) Social forums and their Margins: networking Logics and the Cultural Politics of Autnomous Space, Ephemera, 5, 253-272.

Katsiaficas, G. (2006). The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Movements and the Decolonisation of Everyday Life, Edinburgh: AK Press.

López, M (2016) Squatters and migrants in Madrid: Interactions, contexts and cycles, Urban Studies, First published date: March-29-2016, 10.1177/0042098016639011

Montagna, N. (2006) The decommodification of urban space and the occupied social centres in Italy. City, 10, 3, 295-304.

Mudu, P. (2004) Resisting and Challenging Neoliberalism: The Development of Italian Social Centers, Antipode, 36, 917-941.

Rocker, R. (2004). Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. UK: AK Press.

Routledge, P., Cumbers, A., & Nativel, C. (2008) The entangled geographies of global justice networks, Progress in Human Geography, 32, 183-201.

Schmidt, M. & van der Walt, L. (2009) Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Counter-Power vol. 1), England: AK Press.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Home of last resort? Fighting over land in Kibera’s Slum

Emma Elfversson & Kristine Höglund


Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slum settlements, is not a pleasant place to live. Like many informal settlements in Kenya and elsewhere, it lacks access to basic services and infrastructure. Tiny, dilapidated shacks crowd together amidst narrow dirt alleys that turn to mud when rains come. Limited access to sanitation and garbage disposal result in an unhealthy environment. Yet, the legal rights to Kibera are intensely contested, both among the communities living there and on the national political agenda. In particular, the Nubian community, Kibera’s original inhabitants and today a shrinking minority within the slum, have for decades fought for the right to the land. Why is Kibera so important? How has the Nubian community’s struggle affected their relationship with other groups living in Kibera?
These questions led us to analyze the Nubian community’s pursuit of an ‘ethnic homeland’ in Kibera, Nairobi. Our analysis shows how the land question has over time become closely intertwined with claims to identity and citizenship. In turn, this has made the conflict more complex and difficult to manage. More broadly, our research contributes to an understanding of how identity-based groups compete for land and opportunities in urban slums, and how such conflicts interact with urban governance and politics. The developing world is rapidly urbanizing, and when this urbanization takes place in countries where group identities are strongly politicized, these questions become urgent and highly policy-relevant.  
The Nubian case highlights how, in countries such as Kenya, land is at the center of citizenship, belonging and political rights. The Nubian community, and their settlement Kibera, originates from Sudanese soldiers who came to Kenya in the service of the British during colonialism. Following Kenya’s independence, the Nubians adopted a narrative of being a distinct tribe with Kibera as their ethnic homeland. This made sense in the context of a political system closely connected with ethnic identity, and unlike other groups, the Nubians had no other place to call home within Kenya. In the words of one of our interviewees, it is their “home of last resort.”

Figure 1. Kibera hosts the Nubians’ main burial site that increases its symbolic importance and it is used to reinforce the community’s claim to the land (Source: Emma Elfversson)

While the struggle for an ethnic homeland made sense in the context of Kenyan national politics, it had negative implications for the interactions with other communities living in Kibera. As other communities living in Kibera increased in size, and the settlement became an important electoral mobilizing ground, intergroup tensions grew and have erupted into intense violence on numerous occasions. At the same time, the land has become increasingly valuable, due to its location close to Nairobi’s center. However, for the Nubians, the value of the land is also symbolic for cultural and political reasons: the aspiration to a communal land title is intertwined with claims to be recognized as a community with a legitimate right to belong in Kenya.
Our analysis also shows how institutional uncertainty – the existence of numerous and overlapping formal and informal institutions to which people turn to manage conflicts and pursue claims – has complicated the conflict over time. Promises made by certain agencies may lack legal authority or contravene interests closer to the center of power. More profoundly, given the Nubian community’s minority status, their political weight is small. One interviewee referred to the Nubians as a ‘step child’ of political patrons, who will prioritize the interests of their own community first.
In summary, the Nubian case illustrates how urban land conflicts can become very salient and complex. Urban planners must consider the challenges of political, symbolic and identity-related aspects of land in order to achieve sustainable urban development and reduce the risks for conflict.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Home-ownership as a social norm and positional good: subjective well-being evidence from panel data

Watching TV the other night, the advert below came on. It reminded me of Craig Gurney’s (1999) paper on how the UK state (and society) has acted to normalise home-ownership in the UK through imbuing home-owners’ dwellings with warmth and security, associating home-ownership with a set of values that constitute a ‘good citizen’, and portraying home ownership as meeting a deep and natural desire for independent control. Almost two decades later, and despite declining rates of home-ownership, these discourses are still evident in the advert below: in the mother, happy at ‘being able to say “this is mine” as she paints her front door; and in the father, nodding proudly to his children, and to “their future”. One of the main purposes of our study was to quantitatively examine what this normalisation of home-ownership means for the subjective well-being of home-owners, and renters.

If home-ownership is a social norm, then being a home-owner will carry social status. Furthermore, the extent of this social status will depend on the strength of the home-ownership norm among one’s relevant others (which we defined as people of a similar age, education, and geographic region): if one’s friends/family attach a high value to home-ownership, then being a home-owner will bring more pride, self-esteem, praise or respect than if one’s relevant others were bohemian aesthetes who attach a low value to home-ownership. Using the British Household Panel Study (BHPS), we found that as relevant others’ home-ownership values strengthen over time, the subjective well-being (in terms of mental health and life satisfaction) of owners increases, while the subjective well-being of renters decreases. Similarly, the graph below shows that as the social norm of home-ownership strengthens among one’s relevant others, so the uplift in subjective well-being associated with becoming a home-owner – i.e. moving from renting (dark line) to owning (grey line) -  increases. All of the above suggests that home-ownership is a social norm, and that the normalisation process benefits owners at the expense of renters.

As well as ‘being/acting normal’, an individual’s social status is also likely to be affected by their relative wealth. Being able to purchase one’s own home requires a greater level of wealth than renting. Thus, becoming a home-owner signals an increase in relative wealth. However, as the proportion of the population who can access home-ownership increases, the relative wealth that home-ownership signals will decrease, and so will the social status that home-ownership carries. Consistent with this logic, we found that as home-ownership rates among one’s relevant others increase, the life satisfaction of existing home-owners decreases. Therefore, as well as being a social norm, our findings also suggest that home-ownership is a positional good’; a good whose subjective well-being (or ‘utility’) depends strongly on the consumption others.

In sum, our findings suggest that being a home-owner carries social status. This social status (as opposed to autonomy or security) may partly explain why some studies have found home-owners to have higher subjective well-being (e.g. Zumbro, 2014), ontological security (Saunders, 1990) and better educational outcomes (see Dietz and Haurin, 2003) than renters. It may also partly explain why home-ownership aspirations are so strong in the UK. Policymakers and researchers should explore (or at least account for) this social status pathway. Otherwise, they risk overlooking the possibility that some of the apparent benefits of home-ownership may in fact depend on the stigmatisation of others.