The business of densification : coping with social challenges under scarce land use conditions in Swiss cities - PhDData

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The business of densification : coping with social challenges under scarce land use conditions in Swiss cities

The thesis was published by Debrunner, Gabriela, in September 2022, University of Bern.


In many cities globally, there has been renewed interest over the last 30 years in densification as part of wider efforts to combat urban sprawl. Densification is a process leading to an increase in the number of households within existing city boundaries. It is widely assumed to play a decisive role in the sustainable transformation of settlements as it prevents natural resources overuse.

However, in daily practice, the implementation of densification objectives proves to be a complex challenge: Within existing city boundaries, different use interests of actors involved, various rules and regulations, veto-rights controlled by power actors, as well as small-scale ownership structures clash at the very same location. The objectives and use interests of different public and private stakeholders are embedded in a tight web of already existing, diverse, and contradictory rights, claims, and duties.

For instance, in the urban housing sector on which this thesis focuses on, densification measures are more and more attained through redevelopment of existing housing stocks since free urban greenfield and brownfield areas are overbuilt already. Such an urban renewal process might lead to the loss of affordable living space since real estate stocks are rebuilt and modernized. The result is that lower-income residents living in these apartments are forced to leave the centre for cheaper suburban areas as they can no longer afford a dwelling in recently densified areas. Such a social exclusion scenario is considered highly unsustainable.

The point of departure of this thesis is that densification per se does not necessarily lead to sustainable outcomes e.g. in terms of residents’ social inclusion. Rather, how it is planned, implemented, and governed by the actors involved is what matters. The overarching objective is to politicize densification. The goal is to examine the different mechanisms that govern the implementation of densification objectives and its impact on housing uses, actor’s strategies, as well as the impact densification has on social sustainability in housing.

One overarching (RQ) and three analytical research questions (SQ) underlie this thesis: RQ: What governance mechanisms lead to socially sustainable housing development in a dense city? SQ1: How do institutional rules affect the outcomes of densification in terms of social sustainability in housing? SQ2: What strategies do actors (owners and non-owners) follow to contribute to socially sustainable housing in a dense city? SQ3: How does the implementation of densification objectives impact social sustainability in housing?

To answer these research questions, this thesis combines theories and concepts deriving from new institutionalism and policy ecology. It follows a particular neoinstitutional analysis approach – the one of the Institutional Resource Regime (IRR) – in order to analyse the implementation of densification objectives in depth. The IRR proves to be particularly suitable for joint use situations in which several different users find themselves as rivals (such as in dense urban environments). It also explicitly distinguishes between two main sources of formal rules – public polices and property rights – which simultaneously influence the use and disposal rights of resource use.

This thesis moreover follows a qualitative research design. Four Swiss cities are selected for comparative case study analysis as they are currently confronted with challenges of urban densification, urban land scarcity, and rising rents. Two urban core cities – Zurich and Basel – and two suburban cities – Köniz and Kloten.

Final results show that in market-based economies, economic, and environmental sustainability are achieved at the expense of the social wellbeing of the disadvantaged groups, even in more welfare-oriented societies such as Switzerland. The emergence of the ‘Business of Densification’ in Switzerland is related to a general shift towards the commodification of housing in many Western societies: the value of housing is more and more considered by its financial value at the expense of its use value.

Results demonstrate that to support social sustainability in housing, local governance mechanisms are to be improved by:

1. Counterbalancing the weakness of Swiss federal and cantonal policies (particularly of planning, energy, and tenancy laws) that neglect the social pillar of sustainability in housing. This is to be done by;
2. Introducing and/or activating more socially effective municipal policy instruments such as:
– Public control mechanisms of housing finance capital (e.g. municipal housing foundations, public subsidies for non-profit housing associations);
– Public control mechanisms of private land (e.g. restrictive zoning in favor of social criteria, provision of building leases to housing cooperatives, or public land acquisition);
– Social protection mechanisms for tenants (e.g. eviction controls, rent controls, legalprotection from redevelopment or modernization);
– Counteracting the decision-making capacity and resistance power of private property owners through an active municipal land policy strategy.

Conclusory, results show that if densification is approached only through a process of “green gentrification” (measures that couple ecologic modernization (energy efficiency) with densification goals), city sustainability will be put at risk. It cannot be achieved by supporting particular economic and environmental aspects at the cost of the social. The diminishing of one sustainability dimension affects the others.

However, strategies of decommodification exist even in Switzerland, a state representing the very core of advanced capitalist economies. To promote more decommodified forms of housing, what stakeholders must find are more effective forms of governance (such as active forms of municipal land policy) so that densification processes respond to the needs of the public at large rather than simply catering to private individuals and firms.

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