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Introducing Connect21: Project rationale and objectives

In April 2021, we will officially roll out Connect21, a new collaborative project with planning and real estate scholars and practitioners from around the world. Together, we will produce four public webinars and two early career seminars with the aim to address multiple knowledge gaps on the real estate industry. Detailed information on the individual sessions will follow soon. In this blog post, as project leader, I introduce Connect21's underlying rationale and objectives.

The project was initiated by Prof. Dr. Tuna Tasan-Kok, Nagwa Kady, Dr. Champaka Rajagopal, and myself. The main idea stems from our personal experiences and work at the intersection of planning, real estate investment and development, particularly within the framework of the research project What is Governed in Cities? (WHIG): While the key players in urban development processes – investors, developers, urban policymakers and planners – received heightened attention in Planning and Urban Studies in recent years, the spatial disciplines continue to grapple with the complexity and fast-paced nature of the real estate industry.

Global investments into built environments and particularly the financialisation of urban development are addressed across various contexts in the global North and South (Robinson et al. 2020). However, literature on this topic has been critiqued 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). Furthermore, data and knowledge of the real estate industry itself is often either inaccessible or overlooked by academics.

The Connect21 project aims to address multiple knowledge gaps on the real estate industry in the wider Urban Studies by establishing an interdisciplinary and interprofessional network of Planning, Urban Studies and Real Estate scholars, and academic and professional planning and real estate organisations to collaboratively develop four public webinars and two early-career seminars. The webinars tackle new urban development dynamics instigated by the Covid19 pandemic. The early-career seminars provide individualised feedback and support to early-career researchers working at the intersection of Urban Studies, Planning and Real Estate to support establishing a new generation of scholars who skilfully bridge interdisciplinary divides.

We managed to assemble an impressive team of institutional and individual project partners. Our institutional partners are the African Real Estate Society (AfRES), the Future Leaders of the African Real Estate Society (FLAfRES), the Association of European Schools of Planning Young Academics Network (AESOP YA), the European Real Estate Society PhD Network, and the Latin American Real Estate Society. Individual partners include Andre Legarza (PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam), Brian Jennett (Principal of Data-Driven Plans & Real Estate Insights, LLC), Ed Nozeman (Professor of Economic Geography at University of Groningen), Elliott Hale (Director of Research and Advisory Services EMEA at Urban Land Institute), Fuad Malkawi (Senior Urban Development Specialist at The World Bank), Isil Erol (Associate Professor of Real Estate Finance and Investment at University of Reading), and Michael Ball (Professor of Urban and Property Economics at University of Reading).

Connect21 is timely as it responds to mounting calls for new research agendas on real estate dynamics in Planning and Urban Studies. Scholars call for a better understanding of the roles, relations and behaviour of real estate actors in urban development (Raco et al. 2019) 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 projects (Brill and Robin 2020).

These insights are also indispensable for policymakers and planning practitioners. 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). For example, practices in Mumbai and Bangalore display how synergetic relationships and fiscal risk between state agencies and real estate firms are embedded in regulatory processes. While maintaining critical perspectives, we believe that Planning and Urban Studies scholars should support practitioners in developing innovative policy and planning instruments in market-driven conditions (Wargent and Tasan-Kok 2020; Kady 2020).

To govern and regulate urban development amidst these circumstances, in-depth knowledge on the real estate industry and market dynamics is needed (WHIG Project 2019). Real Estate literature sheds light on differentiated and nuanced interests of actors and their behaviour (Nichiforeanu 2021) but is due to its technical nature often not adequately incorporated in Planning and Urban Studies. Yet, there lies enormous potential for interdisciplinary knowledge transfers (Özogul and Tasan-Kok 2020). Analyses from a strong real estate background have proven successful in challenging dominant views in Urban Studies, such as on urban financialisation (e.g. Erol 2019). Meanwhile, private real estate organisations engage in practice-oriented research themselves.

The novelty of the Connect21 project – besides its thematic focus – lies in the project setup of getting scholars, urban policymakers, real estate organisations around a (virtual) table and work conjointly. Covid19 has created new urgencies for this type of collaboration, and to address existing knowledge gaps hands-on. Urban inhabitants and businesses migrate to less dense peri-urban areas, exacerbating urban sprawl, risks and costs of land, infrastructure and ecological concerns. Governments around the world impose restrictions, and local authorities race to reshape urban environments reflective of the “new normal”.

These novel challenges and real estate dynamics force policymakers and planners to adopt new roles. Simultaneously, the pandemic’s economic impact creates new dependencies in terms of even heavier reliance on private finance (Dodd 2020) and public-private partnerships in urban development (Howard 2020). Real estate actors adapt swiftly to regulations and market fluctuations, but lament lacking flexibility from public sectors, creating mismatches between real estate industry actions and urban policies. Furthermore, discussions on significant changes of Covid19 on cities and institutional learning from crisis-reactive interventions have begun (Grant 2020; UN-Habitat 2020).

Connect21 will contribute to these discussions by adding an explicit real estate component. Our overarching objective is to establish deep-rooted relationships across academic disciplines, professional network organisations, and geographical contexts for lasting contributions to the Planning Studies field. The project has been generously funded by the University of Amsterdam's Centre for Urban Studies as part of the Seed Grant XL for "Levelling the Playing-Field of Urban Planning: Co-producing and Commoning Property Market Knowledge."

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