Changing actors and investment landscapes of the property industry

Amsterdam, Investors, Planning

Eleven students complete their master thesis in a WHIG-related thesis project group at the University of Amsterdam.

The start of the WHIG project coincided with a new round of thesis supervision for master students of the MSc Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Amsterdam. Students following the programme start their master thesis within the framework of small thematic groups. At the beginning of the year, the WHIG Amsterdam team Tuna Tasan-Kok and Sara Özogul set up a thesis project groups on changing actors and investment landscapes of the property industry. It has now resulted in eleven master theses tackling issues relevant to WHIG, and many explicitly focusing on Amsterdam and the city’s surrounding areas.

Limited knowledge of the property industry in planning            

Susan Fainstein was one of the first planning scholars who demonstrated the importance of understanding the property industry and its actors in the mid-1990s with her detailed work on ‘The City Builders’ (2001), defining property developers and investors as main agents of change within urban development. Nonetheless, to this date, both researchers and practitioners tend to lack sophisticated understandings of the pressures and priorities of these actors and their investment channels into the built environment (Campbell et al. 2013). Since the 2008 economic crisis, the situation has become even more dynamic, particularly with regards to actors and investment flows into the housing markets of major metropolitan centres. With housing becoming increasingly less accessible and affordable, there is an urgent need to understand the intricate relationships between a diversified property industry, market functionalities and their connection to processes of urban governance and planning in cities.

There are some valuable and detailed studies about unlocking the dynamics of complex landscapes of property actors to provide a better understanding of how this industry functions (Adams, Croudace, & Tiesdell, 2012; Adams & Tiesdell, 2010, 2012). However, it is high time to recognize that this interaction is not just one sided (i.e. market takes control of urban development). Contemporary public planning actually functions in interaction with the property market, not only by regulating the playground for the private sector but also by financing the policy delivery through this cooperation. Already in the 1980s, Kloosterman (1985) asked whether public planning is becoming a tool for the market and whether it can still achieve the desired public sector goals or solve the novel problems in this entrepreneurial governance framework. While the scholarly literature stays critical to this day, the practice shows increasingly close ties between public planning and private sector actors.

While planning professionals are developing new ways to deal with the market dependency through activism and co-production in a co-managed planning system, and while they work closely with market actors, their understanding of the complex mechanisms of the market and its actors is limited. Additionally, while the planning scholars and education stays critical on the market dynamics, the new interactions between market and public sector actors and their dynamic roles are not fully accommodated in the planning education. Learning about the detailed and complex mechanisms of the property market seemed to be a ‘defeat’ in planning education although new scholarly work, which also partly framed the WHIG team’s research agenda, invites us to develop a stronger focus on how the property market actors interpret, understand and work with the planning systems (Raco, Livingstone, & Durrant, 2019), and on how planning education should reflect to the dynamics of the property markets (Tasan-Kok et al., 2016).

Filling a gap in planning education

In a recent event funded by the British Academy and the Reading Real Estate Foundation on the Future of the Planning Profession which took place in the University of Reading, Tuna Tasan-Kok highlighted the shift from planning-led to market-led spatial governance as a great part of the challenges of contemporary planning education, and also emphasized the emotional stress faced by planning professionals. Teaching the dynamics of the property market, its actors and complex mechanisms is an important part of preparing the future practitioner, though knowing these mechanisms is not enough. She drew attention to the need for giving insights in planning education to deal with daily challenges, institutional uncertainties, and asymmetric coercion by political and economic stakeholders as these dynamics may put practitioners into stressful and messy situations. Within this framework, the role of planner is constantly redefined. On the one hand their classic technocratic skills and positions empower them to take part in complex decision-making mechanisms, on the other hand the new nexus of professional figures creates new ways of performing planning in diverse forms.

Providing a better understanding the property industry is crucial for the planning education, and this can be done without losing our critical positions. Inviting master students to take a look at the property industry actors was challenging as they took the risk to face fierce criticism for this effort. In fact, some of them faced critical questions about their intentions and position, while some of them were being criticized for exploring unchartered territories as both the theoretical understandings and research in this field in planning still quite sensitive. Therefore, Tuna invited students to focus on the idea of critical constructive thinking in planning to remain critical while still being able to provide solutions in a landscape of complex social, economic and political relations and power dynamics.

The thesis project group

All eleven students selected the thesis project group as their first choice, following genuine curiosity and interest in property-led urban development practices. Doing both qualitative and quantitative research, their theses centred around one of the five key themes: i) in-depth analyses of the identity and role of property industry actors such as developers, investors or lobby groups; ii) the analysis of investment flows and patters of investments into the built environment especially in housing markets; iii) critical analyses of policy instruments and programmes regulating the property industry and investments; iv) the changing role and challenges of public sector planners in collaborating with and regulating property investment; v) property-led planning processes.


Adams, D., Croudace, R., & Tiesdell, S. (2012). Exploring the ‘Notional Property Developer’ as a Policy Construct. Urban Studies, 49(12), 2577–2596.

Adams, D., & Tiesdell, S. (2010). Planners as market actors: Rethinking state–market relations in land and property. Planning Theory & Practice, 11(2), 187–207.

Adams, D., & Tiesdell, S. (2012). Shaping places: Urban planning, design and development. Routledge.

Klosterman, R. E. (1985). Arguments for and against Planning. The Town Planning Review, 56(1), 5–20.

Raco, M., Livingstone, N., & Durrant, D. (2019). Seeing like an investor: Urban development planning, financialisation, and investors’ perceptions of London as an investment space. European Planning Studies, 27(6), 1064–1082.

Raco, M., & Savini, F. (Eds.). (forthcoming). A New Technocracy? Landscapes of Knowledge in Contemporary Cities. Bristol: Policy Press.

Tasan-Kok, T. (2015). Analysing Path Dependence to Understand Divergence: Investigating Hybrid Neo-liberal Urban Transformation Processes in Turkey. European Planning Studies, 23(11), 2184–2209.

Tasan-Kok, T., Bertolini, L., Oliveira e Costa, S., Lothan, H., Carvalho, H., Desmet, M., … Ahmad, P. (2016). “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”: Giving voice to planning practitioners. Planning Theory & Practice, 17(4), 621–651.

Tasan-Kok, T., & Oranje, M. (Eds.). (2018). From Student to Urban Planner: Young Practitioners’ Reflections on Contemporary Ethical Challenges. New York: Routledge.

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