PHD page

Research Areas and Topics

We welcome research proposals addressing topics from across the broad range of urban studies and planning and related disciplines such as geography, sociology, international development and politics.

Here you can see the PhD topics which align with our research priorities.Some of the ideas are quite open, while others are more specific about methods or policy field. We would encourage you to treat them as starting points for a conversation with us about a project you would like to do.   If you find one or more which excite you then we invite you to contact us – either direct to the proposed supervisor or through the Director of the Research School, Dr Steve Connelly.

We are interested in innovative social research methods, and can offer supervision across a wide range of methodological and theoretical approaches. We welcome students wanting to use both qualitative and quantitative methods in their studies.

Environment, infrastructure and sustainability


About this project


Using water efficiently: understanding the impact of expanding middle class demand on city water systems

This research addresses a significant challenge to global water supplies: the enormous increase in water demand from middle-class populations in middle- and lower-income countries, particularly in rapidly expanding new housing developments.

Especially in arid areas this has clear implications for tackling issues of water access for poorer people, for food production, and potentially for political stability both within countries and internationally.

Yet policy and research attention to domestic water use has tended to focus on water access for the poor, and neglected issues of water quality and other users. The research will therefore ask how burgeoning middle-class consumption impacts on city water systems, and what can be done to mitigate its negative effects?

Steve Connelly

Air pollution and the outdoor city

Sheffield prides itself on being one of the greenest cities in the UK and it has recently laid claim to being the UK’s premier outdoor city. These claims make Sheffield potentially attractive to businesses and investors who are seeking to find affordable, lively and healthy environments for highly-qualified, high-skilled employees.

At the same time, however, “boosterist” representations of Sheffield as a highly liveable, green city are challenged by Sheffield’s failure to meet current EU air quality standards. Adopting a qualitative approach and building on Stephen Graham’s (2015) work on the political ecology of air, this PhD would seek to examine the “value” of improving air quality from a range of perspectives, examining questions around the balance between public health concerns and new investment in the city, with some reference to the potential implications of Brexit on local environmental regulation.

Lee Crookes

Chinese investment and urban transformation

Across the world, the Chinese government and its state-backed firms are engaging in major investments in infrastructure and property development. Chinese-funded projects look set to become one of the defining features of twenty-first century urban development, whether in relation to China’s apparent interest in helping to build the UK’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to its growing investments far-flung cities across the global South.

Many of these projects are controversial, drawing concerns their effects on social inclusion and socioeconomic equality, as well as accusations of ‘neo-colonialism’. Yet they are also actively courted by civic leaders. Most are only very recent developments or are at an early stage of implementation, and there is a lack of research on both how these projects are negotiated and their emerging effects on urban communities.

Through a strategically selected case (or cases), this project will investigate the underlying processes shaping these investments, how they are situated within existing planning systems and political dynamics, and some of the potential implications for social justice in the urban communities affected.

Tom Goodfellow

Housing and real estate


About this project


The 21st Century Housing Professional

The social housing sector in the UK is being significantly transformed. Housing associations operate in an environment of increasingly complex financialisation, requiring an understanding of complicated loan and covenant agreements. Registered social landlords are subject to major realignments in their funding and framework of operations, including allocations, welfare reform and a growing use of the private rented sector.

These developments generate new requirements for social housing professionals in terms of their knowledge, skills and aptitudes and how they deliver housing and support to vulnerable populations. To date, however, little research has been undertaken to empirically understand these changes and how housing professionals can best be supported in their new roles and responsibilities. This PhD project, in collaboration with the Chartered Institute for Housing, will investigate these issues.

John Flint

The environmental and social impacts of mass housing in Latin American countries

Mass housing has been a policy taken up in several of the larger economies of Latin America over the last 15 years or so, in an attempt to provide formal housing for low- to middle-income urban residents at scale. However, it has been criticised for its environmental effects which include urban sprawl, loss of vegetation, lack of green space and transport implications. Social impacts relate to high levels of vacancies, insecurity fears and disconnection from the central city.

This project will compare these effects with those of informal neighbourhoods which have a much longer history in the region, are often viewed as “problematic”, but have good prospects for consolidation and the potential for lower environmental and social impacts. It is envisaged that the research will also explore the links between social and environmental impacts in each type of settlement.

Melanie Lombard

Healthy homes? Impacts of housing formalisation on well-being

This PhD will explore the impacts of housing change (upgrading, relocation, formalisation etc) on residents’ well-being. Well-being is understood in multidimensional terms, focusing on immediate health improvements (or deteriorations) relating to environmental changes, but also on residents’ abilities to access / grow nutritious affordable food, and their abilities to live in their urban context in healthy ways (including exercise, access to health care etc.).

This work questions the ways in which housing change works in relation to practices of well-being across cities, dependent on other policy interventions (particularly health care and education), but also how changing location and plot size and housing design, affects well-being more broadly.

Paula Meth

Community land trusts and the housing crisis in urban areas

Community land trusts (CLTs) have been positioned as a response to the housing problems of low-income households, offering greater security and better affordability. The number of CLTs has grown significantly in recent years, mirroring broader trends where individuals and communities have begun to assume greater control and influence in the design, delivery and management of their neighbourhoods. Yet, to date, this growth has predominantly been in rural areas, enabled by specific policies and contextual factors.

Growth in urban areas has been more gradual and potentially inhibited by the collision of CLT focus on non-profit, democratically managed housing with logics and prioritised of marketised forces that produce, manage and compete for urban space. This qualitative project will aim to understand the development of case study urban CLTs, looking at the opportunities and issues that enable or inhibit their progress.

It will also look at their organisational relations to broader social, economic and political frameworks, examining how different policy environments may differentially influence the capacity of communities to implement urban change.

Tom Moore

NIMBYISM and community engagement in new housing development

NIMBYISM is an endemic feature of residential development across the UK and it often positions housebuilders as villainous interlopers in local communities. This can lead to significant mistrust and suspicion of housebuilder motivations in the design, planning and development of new housing production. Against the backdrop of a significant housing crisis and the government’s commitment to significantly increasing housing supply, it is likely that tensions between developers, planners and local communities may rise.

This raises important questions that this research will seek to address focusing on: the dynamic relations between local communities and developers; the ability of planning to mediate new development; and the choices made by housebuilders when engaging with and diffusing opposition from local communities.

Sarah Payne

The structure and operation of land markets

In the UK, land plays a fundamental role in the supply of new homes and its competitive acquisition is central to the business success of much of the speculative housebuilding industry.

The value of housing land is a primary determinant of the financial viability of housing schemes and of the type and form of planning obligations such as affordable housing, education provision, public art, highways improvements and infrastructure.

Despite its prominent role, the structure and operation of land markets and the decision making behaviours of landowners remain largely unknown. This raises important questions about: the behaviour and motivations of landowners; the relationship between landowners and developers; the role of land agents and land promoters in shaping land value; the interactions between land prices and house prices; and the implications of these dynamics for the planning and delivery of new homes. These research will be framed by these questions.

Sarah Payne

Informal housing solutions and the new precarity?

The structure of the UK housing system has changed dramatically since the 1980s driven by housing privatization, deregulation, the decline and financialization of the social housing sector, and unprecedented welfare reforms since 2010. Alongside the global financial crisis of 2007/08, these ongoing trends have served to limit the housing options for a range of individuals, households and groups.

Many households who would have likely been in owner-occupation or social housing in previous eras now find themselves competing for private tenancies in the context of a severe housing shortage. As well as an increase in “hidden homelessness” this situation has also given rise to new responses and alternative or “informal” housing situations: from “beds-in-sheds” to creative sharing arrangements to caravan dwelling and container housing.

This research will adopt a household approach in exploring the emergence of these informal responses. Key aspects will include: the types, scale and geography of alternative housing situations; collective/community responses and new solidarities; the actors and groups involved; the underlying factors shaping housing “decisions”; the extent to which these responses are “active” or constrained choices; and the implications for housing policy.

Ryan Powell

Residential life, gates and urban fortification

There has been a substantial increase in levels of so-called residential “forting-up”, observed in the high-crime and high-risk societies of Latin America, the US and other regions globally. In light of the extension of these processes to urban and regional locations across Europe access to these settings and contact with those residing in, supplying (builders) and governing (planners and urban officials) have become an important area for empirical research.

Beyond this there are interesting questions to be asked about the relationship of gated communities and micro settings (fortress homes) to questions of public service provision (such as education), family/household life and the navigation of urban environments more broadly. Such questions may be tackled via an interest in scale or the qualitative dimensions of these settings.

Rowland Atkinson

Planning, people and place


About this project


What does government know about community?

“Community” has been a much-used and contested term in policy-making for several decades. It is identified as an appropriate scale for government policy and action across a wide range of fields and in many places and locations. Actual communities experience government action as a result - whether as pre-existing collectives of people who might self-identify as a community, or just as collections of people who live in a defined area, or have a shared interest.

Government deems to make these collectives a “community” – and some of these may come to see themselves as a community as a result of government action. Given this, what governmental actors believe they “know” about communities and how they arrive at that knowledge, is important and is the focus of this project. This could be taken in a number of directions, but at its heart will be gaining insights into how government accesses sources of information and knowledge (including academic research) and how these are “translated” into usable “knowledge”.

Steve Connelly
Making space for co-production

With some exceptions, notably the recent book, The Physical University (Temple, 2014), the built form of the university and its (dis)connection with the world around it has frequently been overlooked as a focus for research. At a time when universities are seen as the cornerstone of local knowledge economies and a focus for the co-production of knowledge, the neglect of universities’ physical form, particularly their openness and permeability is a curious oversight.

Ironically, given the growing emphasis on co-production and the need for welcoming spaces of encounter, universities appear to be moving in the opposite direction, towards the privatisation of urban space (and knowledge).

Thus, starting from an assumption that co-production will become an increasingly important mode of knowledge production, this PhD would examine local, national and international case studies where universities have worked with partners to develop buildings, sites and spaces that are conducive to the co-production of knowledge, with a view to identifying commensurate principles, practices and architectures. In particular, the PhD would explore key questions around access to knowledge and Appardurai’s (2006) concept of the ‘right to research’ as key elements of the sustainable, just city.

Lee Crookes
Planning for an ageing society

A majority of societies are ageing, and some rapidly. This PhD will explore how planners might work with other professional groups and older people themselves to create places that enable active, healthy ageing.

The project would explore to what extent planning in one or more countries currently conceives the opportunities and challenges of an ageing population, and how the planning and design process might better produce environments and neighbourhoods that enable people to live long, fulfilling lives.

Malcolm Tait

Urban inequalities and social justice


About this project


Cities, Inequality and Violence: Exploring the Links

Criminological and urban studies have often focused on various forms of violence in city life. A remarked feature in many empirical studies has been the links between absolute poverty but also the relative gaps between rich and poor. Work by Blau and Blau, Gurr, Wilkinson and Pickett among others find that violence is higher in metropolitan/city areas where inequality, traditions of masculine violence and labour market exclusion are present.

Yet the question arises – why do cities with high levels of material inequality generate higher levels of social and interpersonal violence? This is an opportunity to undertake a study that will devise and enrich criminological theory while also working with qualitative and quantitative data. Work will commence using large-scale datasets, police records and victim studies in a number of urban locations (the work may be pitched at an international or national level).

This will be supplemented with in-depth interviews with key actors with roles linked to policing, urban management, social services and related functions as well as others with relevant views on the links between inequality and violence. The work will be used to devise sophisticated accounts of urban change, inequality and violent crime that offer new insights into the ‘unequal societies do worse’ findings of recent years.

Rowland Atkinson
Urban land tenure, informal working and technology justice

How are security of tenure and access to technology linked? Do more secure neighbourhoods witness more technological innovation? A recent report suggests that secure tenure provides stability as the basis for appropriating and using technology, and ultimately for technological innovation.

We could explore how home working is underpinned by secure tenure; the link between access to basic services (water and electricity) and secure tenure; and the potential for technological innovation based on these elements. Another potentially interesting element of this theme could be around street vending and rights to public space.

Melanie Lombard
Urban migration, organization and access to technology

Recent research suggests that often the most vulnerable informal workers are the newer arrivals, due to their lack of social networks/capital, finance and organisation, which can lead to poorer working conditions (compounded by social-cultural factors leaving them at the “bottom of pile”).

The scale of urbanisation in many countries of the global South suggests this will be an increasingly important issue in many cities. How can new arrivals to the city (urban migration) be supported in terms of accessing technology and improving working conditions? This could also offer an opportunity to explore links with meso-level organisations as “good practice”, perhaps with the aim of strengthening their capacity to support technological innovation of informal workers.

Melanie Lombard
‘Not on the list’: Gender and housing exclusion in South Africa (or elsewhere)

This PhD will examine the gendered, political and economic outcomes of state housing policy which targets particular beneficiaries over others. In particular it is interested in those citizens who do not make the beneficiary lists because they fail to meet the eligibility criteria (e.g. lacking dependents, lacking marriage / relationships, earning just a little too much, lacking evidence of rights to particular housing etc).

The thesis will explore how these processes unfold in a social, political and economic sense, asking questions about impacts on gender relations, livelihoods, spatial strategies, ideas of citizenship, and choices about where to live and how to meet complex housing needs. The thesis could target residents in South Africa, but similarly could work in other contexts where subsidised state housing provision occurs.

Paula Meth
Roma migration and social integration in the UK

This research will seek to develop an historically informed understanding of governance and securitization responses to Roma mobility in the contemporary, post-Brexit era. Roma are the most stigmatised and marginalised minority group across Europe, with their representations reflecting long held stereotypes and perceptions of inferiority reinforced by material conditions.

Yet there are fundamental differences in the experiences of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the West shaped by differing historical trajectories, as well as aspects of convergence. Recent years have seen a growth in Roma migration as a result of the EU accession of CEE nations with some commentators arguing that EU expansion has bolstered and reawakened old nationalist agendas.

This PhD will explore the migration movements and experiences of Roma households migrating (both ways) between Europe and the UK post-2007. It will focus on Roma practices, strategies and understandings of their own mobilities, alongside their differential positioning, framing and dynamic experiences of stigmatisation across different nation-states.

Ryan Powell
Humanitarian crises and urban refugees

The humanitarian sector is increasingly attentive to the impact of both ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ disasters on urban areas. The phenomenon of‘hard-to-reach’ urban refugee communities has been on the increase, to the extent that now 60% of the world’s refugees are now based in towns and cities rather than camps. Although the European migrant crisis has gained a lot of attention, by far the majority of refugees and internally displaced people are in urban areas in the global South.

This project will take a comparative case study approach explore how local authorities, NGOs and international organisations are engaging with urban refugee communities in specific settings. The parameters of comparison will be decided in the early stages of the project, but could range from a global North/South comparison to a comparison of different neighbourhoods in the same city or region. The project will examine how specific approaches to helping refugee communities improve their lives, find a livelihood and integrate into communities have fared in different settings, and what can be learned from comparing these experiences.

Tom Goodfellow