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.

We are particularly keen to supervise PhD topics which align with our research priorities - details of potential projects are provided below. We encourage you to treat these projects as starting points for a conversation with us.   If you find one or more project which excites you then we invite you to contact us – either direct to the proposed supervisor or through the Co-Director of the Research School, Dr Glyn Williams.

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

The governance of blue-green infrastructure

This project examines the processes through which blue-green infrastructure (BGI) is planned, designed and implemented. It could be focussed on a variety of different cities/countries.

BGI offers clear societal benefits associated with flood and drought mitigation, water quality improvement as well as local access to green space and associated health benefits. But consideration of BGI benefits is relatively new, and implementation requires buy-in and action beyond the water managers and landscape specialists who advocate its use. BGI therefore faces a significant planning problem.

BGI research to date has focused on identifying and quantifying benefits with relatively little attention to the process of projects’ development and governance. By exploring cases where BGI is being implemented, this research seeks to open up discussion of who is able to influence BGI, when, and in what ways, and hence to examine opportunities for how BGI can be better supported in the future.

Liz Sharp

The FOG challenge

The disposal of Fats oils and grease (FOG) via the kitchen sink is seen as a problem by the UK water industry. FOG combines with other food waste and hygiene products to form ‘fatbergs’ that block sewers, resulting in sewer flooding and requiring removal via expensive and environmentally demanding high pressure hosing. See 'Reshaping the domestic nexus' for more information.

Increasingly waste products are recognised as potential resources that can be harvested to deliver both environmental and economic benefits as part of the circular economy. A pilot scheme in Bradford arranges for residents to separate FOG, harvesting the collected material to yield bio-energy. FOG also forms a component of food waste collection in some parts of the country. More broadly, water companies frequently harvest the residues of fatbergs.

This PhD project aims to examine the different costs and benefits to different parties of various means of FOG disposal. The project is likely to draw on both social practice theory and life cycle assessment.

Liz Sharp

Change points and bathroom practices

The disposal of wet wipes and hygiene products via the toilet is seen as a significant cause of problems for UK water companies as they contribute to fatbergs and sewer flooding. While water companies have long advocated that such products are disposed of via the bathroom bin, public practices have been slow to shift. This project seeks to examine strategies through which the sewer problems caused by bathroom practices might be addressed.

Previous work has explored kitchen change points and their potential to influence the disposal of fats oils and grease, another significant component of fatbergs ( This research will seek to explore the applicability of the ‘change points’ approach in the bathroom. Potential change points may concern the nature of products, the ways in which they are disposed of, or the ways they are treated once disposal in a sewer has occurred.

See 'Reshaping the domestic nexus' for more information.

Liz Sharp

Housing and real estate


About this project


Housing crisis and the fight for the right to housing

As it has been epitomised by the cases of the USA and Spain in 2008 and 2011, housing has become an increasingly volatile aspect of contemporary neoliberal economies. The increased financialisation of the housing sector, as well as the pervasive role played by neoliberal logics in the governance of our cities, have led to increased housing instability and insecurity worldwide. Foreclosures and evictions are the most evident sign of this urban reconfiguration, which affects urban residents of various class and backgrounds. Some grassroots actions have been put in place to respond to these developments, ranging from articulated social movements such as La PAH (Spain) to more modest, but still effective, community-based interventions.

This PhD project investigates housing crisis within and beyond the West, focusing in particular on how radical groups worldwide are responding to the challenges brought forward by the neoliberalisation of the housing sector. A qualitative, ethnographic-based and activist-oriented approach will be privileged.

Michele Lancione

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

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


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
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

Urban inequalities and social justice


About this project


Rethinking life at the urban margins: assemblages and politics

Recent developments in urban studies are pointing toward a description of urban processes and dynamics as a matter of human and non-human entanglements, which encompasses clear-cut distinctions between subject and object; structure and agency; consciousness and vitality. The potential brought forward by this analysis is to reconfigure what we know about the city from the ground-up, paying attention at nuanced post-human articulations, affections, bio powers and atmospheres.

In this context, there is scope to re-approach urban marginality and social exclusion from a processual, dynamic and vitalist point of view. The aim is to cast a new light around everyday processes and makeshifts of life at the margins that are neither taken for granted nor fully explored in their capacities to generated alternative urban futures. This PhD project explores such possibilities both theoretically and empirically, in cities of the Global North and South.

Michele Lancione
Cities, inequality and violence

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
‘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