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Informed stories about cities and urban life. From the researchers in the Urban Housing Lab and Smart Urbanism Lab at The University of Sydney.

We broadcast in Sydney on 2ser and around Australia on The Community Radio Network.

Featured post

Automated Landlord

This is a story about how the financial industry and governments turned a housing foreclosure crisis for everyday Americans into a financial opportunity for institutional real estate investors. And like all good stories, it involves the management of the new post-GFC housing asset class with digital technologies and algorithms. Say hello to The Automated Landlord.

We talk to Desiree Fields about a new housing asset class that emerged from other side of the GFC in the United States. The period leading up to the GFC saw the banks reducing their lending standards for home loans in the United States. The financial industry bundled up these loans into mortgages backed securities and sold them off to investors around the world. And in a now familiar tale, this eventually lead to the subprime mortgage crisis and the GFC.

When people could no longer afford to pay their mortgages, a lot of these properties wound their way through the process of foreclosure and finally settled on the balance sheets of the banks. The United States government famously bailed out some of the banks by buying up their so-called ‘toxic debt’. But according to Desiree, what emerged on the other side of the GFC was a new housing asset class that was underwritten by two opposing forces.

On the one side, the banks were sitting on a lot of property and financial institutional don’t like to own or manage physical assets, like family homes. On the other side, Americans were having a hard time getting mortgages after the crisis because of tighter mortgage lending standards, and many were turning to renting. This created the ideal conditions for property investors, who thought, “ah ha… we can buy these properties for a low price, we can rent them out to people, who are kind of locked out of the homeownership market”, says Desiree.

But before the institutional investors could bundle these houses up to create the new housing asset class, the government and the financial institutions needed to sell the idea of the single family rental to the public. Today, the management of this new post-GFC housing asset class is increasingly undertaken with digital technologies and algorithms.

Desiree Fields is an urban geographer who theorises the rise of financial markets, actors and imperatives as a contemporary process of global urban change. With a particular focus on housing, Desiree is interested in how the link between real estate and finance is being reconstructed since the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, how residents experience this process, and its implications for housing policy and advocacy.

Read more about Desiree’s work here: Constructing a New Asset Class: Property-led Financial Accumulation after the Crisis.


History and Cities

In Washington, DC, neighbourhood activists attempted to make themselves at home in their city by using the techniques of neighbourhood preservation. What became clear in that process is that those who control the historical narrative about a neighbourhood often have the power to shape its character and identity.

We talk to Cameron Logan, author of Historic Capital: Preservation, Race and Real Estate in Washington, DC., about the fragility of history and the battles over the past in the US. The physical landscape of Washington, DC, has been deeply shaped by grassroots citizen action organisations, especially preservation and restoration groups. These citizens groups sought to address issues of social and spatial justice through neighbourhood preservation. But as with most urban initiatives it produced unforeseen problems, and its benefits flowed disproportionately to those with established cultural and financial resources.

These benefits Cameron calls  ‘Historic Capital’, which is a particular kind of cultural capital that can be turned into real estate wealth. Just like any other social or spatial tension in cities, urban planning rules that preserve old dwellings and neighbourhoods are never apolitical. In Washington, DC, the displacement associated with the battles over preserving the past have a strong racial salience.

Dr Cameron Logan is an urban and architectural historian and the Director of the Postgraduate Program in Heritage Conservation in the School of Architecture, Design, and Planning at the University of Sydney.

You can buy Cameron’s book here: Historic Capital: Preservation, Race, and Real Estate in Washington, D.C.


Land and Cities

What is the secret life of land title registration? The Torrens system of land title registration, developed in South Australia in 1858, is fast becoming the most popular system of land conveyancing and administration around the world.

Sarah Keenan discusses the Torrens system of title registration that was invented for South Australia to assist the project of colonial settlement and land speculation. It was designed to increase efficiency of conveyancing, but title registration fundamentally changes the nature of title to land. The defining principles of Torrens title registration are ‘the mirror, the curtain, and indemnity’. These principles work together to hide the land’s unregistered history, making that history disappear from legal view. However the people who have those histories still exist. The Torrens system of title registration, or versions of it, are today favoured by the World Trade Organisation and World Bank, and are increasingly being adopted around the world in an effort to make land a liquid asset. New forms of title registration are being innovated to assist financial markets in land, for example the Mortgage Electronic Registration System in the US, which played a key role in facilitating the subprime crisis.

Whereas title to land in the common law world was previously conveyed using paper deeds that proved the owner had a history of possessing the land, under the Torrens system title is conveyed through the centralised, singular and increasingly electronic process of registration. The system was designed to make conveying land faster and more efficient, but it also changed the legal concept of land title, making it a discrete, dephysicalised object. Registered title is thus out of sync with land, which has a physicality and history that cannot be wiped away. This lack of synchronisation between land and title has a number of troubling effects.     

Dr Sarah Keenan is Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London. Sarah is a legal geographer with research interests in critical race and feminist engagements with property.

Read more about Sarah’s work in: her book ‘Subversive Property: Law and the Production of Spaces of Belonging’ ; in Smoke, Curtains and Mirrors: The Production of Race Through Time and Title Registration ; and in ‘From Historical Chains to Derivative Futures: Land Title Registries as Time Machines’ forthcoming in Social and Cultural Geography.

Homeless Cities

The state government recently passed legislation to remove a group of homeless people camped for several months in Sydney’s central business district.

Located just metres from New South Wales Parliament and some of Australia’s largest banks, the homeless camp was a practical response to a lack of affordable housing and a political activity designed to capture the attention of policy-makers and the general public. The state government’s legislation—which gave the relevant minister power to confiscate property and remove people from Crown land on public safety grounds—sought to end months of disagreement about who should take responsibility, and about what the appropriate responses might be. Was it the job of local government or state government? Should the campers simply be excluded from the central business district of Sydney? Or should there be a response that addresses the root causes of their homelessness?

The events in Sydney are not unique. Melbourne’s Lord Mayor recently attempted to introduce by-laws that would ban people from sleeping on the streets of the central business district. Public protests quickly followed. Elsewhere in the world, governments and civil society organisations are grappling with how to manage the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness, particularly in large cities.

In this episode we talk to Dr Tom Baker, a lecturer at the University of Auckland, about the ‘problem’ of homelessness. We discuss the factors that have led to the crisis of homelessness. We ask what policy makers and academics can do to address homelessness in the 21st century city.

For more on this topic see: Baker, T. and Evans, J. (2016). ‘‘Housing first’ and the changing terrains of homeless governance’. Geography Compass 10(1), pp. 25-41.

Music via Free Music Archive: Catching Feathers RMX by Ketsa

Population & Cities

Can cities experience growing pains? Not the pains we usually associate with awkward teenagers but the growing pains of population and economic growth.

Australia has one of the fastest growing populations in the world with most of us living in major urban centres. This puts pressure on urban planners, who have to deal with the city’s growth. To add to the pain, state governments do not always have the financial resources to cope with the development that is needed to keep up with the growth.

Associate Professor Glen Searle is an adjunct at the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney’s Urban Housing Lab. He talks with us about how other big cities have dealt with increasing populations, and what it might take for Australians to have the difficult discussion we need to have about population and economic growth.

Glen Searle was Associate Professor in Planning at the University of Queensland from 2009 to 2014, during which time he was Director of the Planning Program for several semesters. Prior to that, he was Senior Lecturer and Planning Program Director at the University of Technology Sydney from 1991-2009. Glen’s academic research has focused in particular on metropolitan strategy development and dimensions of strategy including urban consolidation and economic development. His research has also covered the economic geography of advanced producer services and inter-urban economic competition. In 1996 his monograph Sydney as a Global City was published by the NSW government, and he co-edited the book The Economic Geography of the IT Industry in the Asia Pacific Region (Routledge, 2013). He has twice had articles of his included in collections of global academic best papers published by Global Planning Education Associations Network academics.

Read about Glen’s work on population growth and cities: City planning suffers growth pains of Australia’s population boom in the The Conversation 

Music via Free Music Archive: Catching Feathers RMX by Ketsa

Race and Cities

Is the history of urban and land use planning connected to racial discrimination in the U.S.?

In 2014, an African American teenager named Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson Missouri. Michael Brown’s death led to widespread protests across the United States and the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Many of us watched these events unfold on television. We probably made assumptions about Ferguson being one of those typically poor black US neighbourhoods, riddled with violence, crime and drugs. But according to Associate Professor Sarah Coffin, nothing could be further from the truth.

Sarah takes us back to the Civil War to show how the history of urban and land use planning are connected to racial discrimination in the US. She discusses the unexamined role that planning played – or didn’t play – in creating these systems of inequality. Using Ferguson, Missouri as a backdrop, she explores the challenges that concentrated poverty creates for communities.

Dr. Sarah L. Coffin is an Associate Professor of planning and development at Saint Louis University in St Louis, Missouri. Her work focuses on the spatial impacts of planning and development decisions on distressed communities. She has published work that considers the role that tax increment financing plays in the distribution of resources and investment across metro areas in the US. She has also published work that examines the impact of brownfields on distressed communities. Dr. Coffin has a PhD in City and Regional Planning from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Music via Free Music Archive: Catching Feathers RMX by Ketsa


Smart Cities

The ‘Smart City’ is not an urban planning term, it was dreamed up by large global tech companies.

This week we hear from Dr Tooran Alizadeh about smart cities, the digital infrastructure that is required to enable them, and the need for telecommunications planners. This Sydney Business Insights podcast is from our friends over in the University of Sydney’s Business School.


Tooran is an interdisciplinary academic leading cutting-edge research on the policy and planning implications of telecommunication infrastructure. Her research agenda covers the National Broadband Network (NBN) in Australia, smart cities, urban digital strategies, and telework. Tooran has published widely on the urban and regional policy and planning implications of telecommunication infrastructure.

Read more about Tooran’s work on digital infrastructure and cities here: The NBN: how a national infrastructure dream fell short in The Conversation

Music via Free Music Archive: Catching Feathers RMX by Ketsa

Digital Cities

The terms ‘Car Sharing’ and ‘Smart Homes’ conjure up images of driverless cars and automatic coffee machines.

But the digital transformation of our lives is a bit more complex than this. In this episode, Robyn Dowling and Sophia Maalsen take a look at the digitisation of our urban lives. Sophia talks about doing digital ethnography and Robyn talks about the politics of digital infrastructure and data.

Professor Robyn Dowling is well-known for her work on social and cultural geographies of cities, and in particular suburban homes, neighbourhoods and lives. This includes long-term research on the suburbs and homes of Sydney, documented in international journal publications and her co-authored book Home (with Alison Blunt, published by Routledge). This is currently being extended in a project on the ways in which energy transitions are being enacted in commercial office spaces. She conducted Australia’s first qualitative research on car sharing that is being widely cited internationally.

Dr Sophia Maalsen is the Ian Fell Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, where she is researching the role of technology in ‘smart homes’ as a locus to address future environmental and social challenges. Prior to joining the University of Sydney, Sophia was a postdoctoral researcher on the EU funded Programmable City Project where she investigated the digital transformation of cities and urban governance. In particular, she worked on the development of the Dublin Dashboard, a city metrics indicator designed to provide Dublin City Council and the residents of Dublin with real-time and relevant data on the City’s performance.

Music via Free Music Archive: Catching Feathers RMX by Ketsa

Foreign Investment & Cities

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Chinese are the only foreign investors buying housing in Sydney and Melbourne.

Sha refers to this chart

There has certainly been a lot of stories about foreign real estate investment in Australia in the news lately. Often, this news is about Chinese investment in housing. In this episode of City Road Podcast we talk with University of Sydney PhD scholar Sha Liu, who has been digging into the patchy data to find out just how much foreign investment in Australian housing comes from China, and what makes Australian property so attractive to foreign investors.

Sha’s research focuses on the growing interactions between domestic housing policies in Australia and international housing markets and buyers. Her current research looks toward China, and the way the Chinese housing market is driving foreign investment.

Music via Free Music Archive: Catching Feathers RMX by Ketsa


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