Welcome to the Postgraduate Research site for the Institute of Spatial and Environmental Planning. This page will give you information on our current and planned projects and activities in ISEP and across the SPACE postgraduate community. The next reading group will look at Ethics and Planning Research. This will be attended by staff and students but we welcome interested researchers outside the ISEP group. If you wish to attend please contact Professor Geraint Ellis. A new ‘social networking’ approach to academia has been developed which some of our Doctoral students have joined. You can sign up at: http://www.academia.edu/ and play a part in creating connections with others in the planning research field.

Current PhD Students

ISEP's PhD students are immersed in our distinctive multi-disciplinary research culture. Working closely within the School of Planning, Architecture & Civil Engineering we want to generate a lively and proactive community of students and academics, who are conducting innovative research and laying the groundwork for lifelong careers in planning research and education.

A list of our current PhD students can be found here.

Current PhD Studentships

Planning, Politics and the Public Interest: A UK, Ireland and European Perspective

Supervisors: Dr. Phil Boland (p.boland@qub.ac.uk), Dr. Linda Fox-Rogers (L.Fox-Rogers@qub.ac.uk)

Public interest is a hugely important, but also problematic, concept for planning theory and practice (Alexander, 2002; Campbell and Marshall, 2002; Lennon, 2016; Mattila, 2016; Tait, 2011). However, recent work has sought to ground the more theoretical debates in the reality of the ‘politics of distribution’ associated with major planning interventions in cityspace, and the impacts of neoliberal urbanism (Boland et al., 2017; Murphy and Fox-Rogers, 2015). This project seeks to further develop these debates. The aim of this PhD research project is to unpack, analyse and problematise the different approaches to public interest across the UK, Ireland and Europe. This will involve excavating the context and rationale for different approaches in different political jurisdictions and spatial contexts. Focusing on a small number of key cities allows the researcher to focus in particular on the ‘politics of distribution’ associated with public interest, to examine and explain how this is played out geographically, and what lessons different cities can learn from each other. The ultimate aim of the research is to generate more democratic, inclusive and just notions of public interest that are genuinely rooted in the multiple publics that exist in the contemporary city. The project will focus on major cities in the UK, Ireland and continental Europe, and is framed around key research questions:

  1. How is public interest understood and operationalised in different political and planning jurisdictions?
  2. What is the variable impact of neoliberal urbanism on public interest in different spatial contexts?
  3. What lessons can different cities learn from each other to improve notions of public interest?
  4. In what ways can a more democratic and inclusive notion of public interest lead to ‘better planning’?


To build or not to build:  the effects of spatially/ geographically diverse house-building policies on the sustainability of rural communities in the UK

Research Theme: Place, Well-being and Healthy Environment
Supervisors: Prof. Aileen Stockadale (A.Stockdale@qub.ac.uk ) and Dr. Linda Price (L.Price@qub.ac.uk)

Within a UK context, Northern Ireland has possessed a relatively liberal planning approach to house building in the open countryside with one-off housing generally permitted (although the policy has been tightened since 2015).  By comparison, elsewhere in the UK planning policy has advocated a presumption against one-off housing in the countryside in favour of the reuse or residential conversion of redundant farm buildings and small scale housing development within existing rural settlements.

The arguments for and against house building in the countryside centre on sustainability. In NI the need to maintain rural communities has been persuasive. By contrast in Scotland, England and Wales the arguments have come down on the side of landscape/ environmental protection and the economic cost of servicing a dispersed rural population.  Different approaches to the delivery of sustainable rural communities are, therefore, evident.

This PhD research seeks to evaluate the consequences of these different approaches to the sustainability of rural communities.  Inevitably it relates to the supply of and demand for affordable housing in rural areas.  Specific questions include - do the different approaches to the supply of rural housing alter the composition of rural communities?  For example, does the one-off housing permitted in Northern Ireland's countryside enable the adult children of local farm families to remain in the home community? does the presumption against such development elsewhere contribute to young adult out-migration? Is retaining a younger rural generation preferable to the in-migration of older households?  Might the effects of the different planning policies be variable depending on the degree of rurality (for example, giving rise to different outcomes in accessible and remote rural locations)?

Overall, this research project seeks to examine the rural community effects associated with  spatially / geographically different house building policies. 


Curing qualities of culture: a comparative analysis of Northern Ireland and Cyprus

Supervisors: Dr. Phil Boland (P.Boland@qub.ac.uk) and Dr. Brendan Murtagh (B.Murtagh@qub.ac.uk)

The most recent and fascinating debate in cultural studies concerns the purported curing qualities of culture. This relates to the claim that cultural planning, and more specifically cultural events, are not only an ‘economic resource’ (i.e. jobs, tourism, and investment) but also a resource enabling peace and reconciliation to occur within divided societies. This was most evident in Northern Ireland when Derry-Londonderry became the UK’s first City of Culture in 2013; CoC aimed to deliver economic improvement to a depressed local economy and also bring the conflictual communities (Catholic-Nationalist and Protestant-Unionist) closer together through cultural activity, exchange and enactment. In 2017 Pafos will be European Capital of Culture, and like Derry-Londonderry Pafos is part of a territory that is divided (between Greek and Turkish Cypriots). This project seeks to analyse the curing qualities of culture – economically, socially and politically – in both cities and more specifically what this means for future cities of culture, and the role of culture in divided territories. Recent research on Derry-Londonderry (Boland, Murtagh and Shirlow, 2016) reveals positive impacts in terms of culture as a peace resource but less effectiveness on the economy. Given this, important research questions emerge for future cities of culture more generally and Pafos in particular:

  1. What are the long term legacies of Derry-Londonderry?
  2. What lessons can Pafos, and other cities of culture, learn from Derry-Londonderry?
  3. Is there too much importance attached to the curing qualities of culture?
  4. Should policy makers be more realistic about culture as an economic resource?


Resilience Planning in an Era of Neoliberalism

Supervisors: Dr. Phil Boland (P.Boland@qub.ac.uk ) and Dr. Stephen McKay (S.McKay@qub.ac.uk)

In an era of neoliberalism and rapacious economic turbulence there is significant theoretical and policy emphasis on building resilient economies (Coaffee and Clarke, 2015; Christopherson et al., 2010; Hudson, 2010; Pike et al., 2010; Shaw and Maythorne, 2012; Simmie and Martin, 2010; Martin, and Sunley, 2015). However, in comparison the literature on planning and resilience is in its embryonic stages (Davoudi et al., 2012; Fainstein, 2015; Mahmood, 2015; Raco and Street, 2012). It is true that resilience is an ‘extraordinarily popular’ yet ‘contested’, ‘fuzzy’, ‘ambiguous’ buzzword (Fainstein, 2015; Mehmood, 2015; Pizzo, 2015; Shaw and Maythorne, 2012). In addition, it is regarded as a ‘promising’ yet ‘problematic’ concept for city planning (Pizzo, 2015; Vale, 2014). This project focuses on excavating, analysing and problematising the role of resilience in planning theory and practice in an era of neoliberalism. Specifically, the investigation would seek to develop a normative model to enable the planning system to respond to the negative impacts of social and economic turbulence. The project will be focused on a set of key case studies from the UK and Ireland, and is framed by important research questions:

  1. How is resilience understood and operationalised by professional planners?
  2. What are the key drivers of resilience planning?
  3. What is the relationship between neoliberalism, planning and resilience?
  4. What lessons can be learned from different cities in their approaches to resilience planning?



Research Theme: Cities, Communities and Contested Urbanism
Supervisors: Dr. Linda Fox-Rogers (L.Fox-Rogers@qub.ac.uk ) and Dr Phil Boland (P.Boland@qub.ac.uk)

State powers are increasingly being reworked both vertically and horizontally under interrelated processes of neoliberalisation and devolution, especially in countries like the UK where devolutionary processes have been particularly pronounced (Davoudi and Madanipour, 2015).  Empirical enquires show that these new power dynamics have fostered the emergence of ‘soft spaces’ which are being used to devise more innovative spatial strategies that work around the constraints typically associated with the formal scales of planning, often in the pursuit of neoliberal visions of economic development (Olesen, 2012; Allmendinger et al, 2015).

This PhD seeks to build upon and extend this field of research by examining how the shift from government to governance, coupled with downward transfers of power, have created opportunities for various actors to bypass the formal structures of planning in what authors such as Fox-Rogers and Murphy (2015) have dubbed a ‘shadow planning system’. In doing so, this PhD not only focuses on the creation of informal spatial strategies, but examines a broader suite of planning practices which can help circumvent the planning system’s statutory procedures. The core objective of the research is to examine the extent to which the reworking of state powers vertically and horizontally gives rise to informal planning practices, and to whose benefit this ultimately serves. Key questions underpinning the research include:

  1. What types of informal planning practices exist outside of the planning system’s formal structures?
  2. Does the planning system provide a degree of legitimacy for more informal practices?
  3. Do informal planning practices become institutionalised over time?
  4. To what extent does informal planning support a neoliberal agenda?
  5. Can informal planning be harnessed by marginalised groups to deliver better planning outcomes?



Research Theme: Cities, Communities and Contested Urbanism
Supervisors: Dr. Linda Fox-Rogers (l.fox-rogers@qub.ac.uk) and Dr. Brendan Murtagh (B.Murtagh@qub.ac.uk)

As the exist negotiations begin to unfold following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, intense scrutiny has arisen over the potential economic, political and social consequences of this unprecedented decision. The implications are particularly pronounced on the island of Ireland where Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland currently share a porous land border that facilitates free movement of people and goods across it. While much of the focus has centred on the economic and political repercussions, this project seeks to examine the implications for spatial planning in terms of promoting balanced and sustainable regional and economic development on an all-island basis.

In line with the broader ‘spatial turn’ in planning (Davoudi and Strange, 2009), spatial strategies in Northern Ireland and the Republic increasingly reflect the willingness of both administrations to work together in tackling planning and development issues that straddle the border. However, the prospect of continued coordination and cooperation in terms of stimulating  balanced regional development is unclear as it remains to be seen how the respective administrations will respond as the new political economic context arising from Brexit emerges:

  • Will inter-urban and regional competition between the North and South be intensified thus undermining strategic policy goals?
  • What barriers will planners and policy makers on both sides of the border be confronted with in terms of developing shared objectives?
  • Can spatial planning play a positive role in terms of facilitating continued cross-border collaboration on the island of Ireland?
  • To what extent can regional planning help address or mitigate some of the social and economic (and possible physical) barriers that may result from Brexit?
  • What are the conceptual implications for the European spatial planning project, multi-level governance and the need to address the frictional effects of spatial ‘disintegration’?


Planning for Neurodiversity

Research Theme: Cities, Communities and Contested Urbanism
Supervisors: Dr Neil Galway (N.Galway@qub.ac.uk), Dr. Keith McAllister (K.McAllister@qub.ac.uk)and Dr Bronagh Byrne (Social Sciences, Education and Social Work)

Humans have a natural variation in the anatomy of their brains – they have a different neurological make up, or ‘brain wiring’.  While most people can be described as neurologically typical, or neurotypical, a minority who show differences such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), dyslexia, dyspraxia are now characterised as neurologically diverse, or neurodiverse. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a term that covers the many sub-groups within the spectrum of autism. Along with the triad of impairments associated with ASD that manifest as problems with communication, social interaction and imagination, those with ASD often suffer from sensory sensitivity to the visual, auditory, tactile, proprioceptive, gustatory and olfactory realms.

Therefore for those with cognitive impairment, the Built Environment and its cities in particular, can become difficult, confusing and even threatening. Subsequently one of the main difficulties for the person with ASD is to simply feel at ease within the Built Environment. This can have far reaching and profound consequences for designers entrusted with providing an inclusive Built Environment. Whilst designers are arguably now recognising the benefits to health and wellbeing for people in making our cities accessible to all, little thought has been given to those with cognitive impairment and especially, those with ASD in that context. With the incidence of autism in society currently on the rise and society beginning to take stock of this, now is an appropriate time to tackle this issue.

This proposal therefore seeks to better identify specific and meaningful design considerations when designing for those with ASD in our cities. The aspiration is then that this might help inform future urban design, thereby encouraging fuller integration of just not the person with ASD, but also others with the challenges of sensory sensitivities, anxieties and isolation into the city, the wider Built Environment and society beyond.


Heritage as Commons in a Polarising World

Research Theme: Cities, Communities and Contested Urbanism
Supervisors: Dr Neil Galway (N.Galway@qub.ac.uk) and Dr. Brendan Murtagh (B.Murtagh@qub.ac.uk)

IHow nation-states incorporate or exclude the heritage associated with their minority religious, ethnic, regional and other heritage communities and those sites associated with human atrocity and the shameful instances in its past, into its “authorised heritage discourse” (Smith 2006) can illustrate how it sees its future identity. Given the potential for multifarious values associated with contested sites, heritage is now theorised to be a ‘contact zone’ within which different pasts and experiences are negotiated (Stephanides 2003). In an increasingly diverse world where nation-states face greater fragmentation, the potential for heritage dissonance increases, as mismatches between how messages are disseminated and interpreted become more commonplace. For a nation state’s heritage to be valued by its population, a general acceptance of a common and inclusive past is beneficial. This is often not the case in post-conflict nation states that are dealing with the built (and unbuilt) legacies of histories ‘that hurt’ including those sites that are associated with protagonists in the conflict.

When investigating the relationship between heritage and identity, the ubiquitous question of “whose heritage?” (Hall 2008) is central to the philosophical and practical challenges facing heritage decision-makers in contested environments. The prioritisation of the most traumatic events in the cultural memory of the ‘heritage communities’ leads to an affirmation of Hegel’s view that “periods of human happiness and security are the blank pages of history”. In plural societies, how can heritage be utilised as a form of commons to create more inclusive and representative national narratives?

In Northern Ireland, where accommodation of separate cultural traditions rather than reconciliation and integration, has been the main outcome of the power-sharing arrangement, it is important that research is undertaken to assist in developing models where heritage can be valued universally as a resource for the future, without hiding its contested past.


Access to the countryside in Nothern Ireland

Research Theme:
Supervisors: Dr. Linda Price (l.price@qub.ac.uk ) and Prof Keith Lilley (k.lilley@qub.ac.uk)

Despite enabling legislation Northern Ireland has failed to develop access to the countryside at a similar pace to Great Britain.  A statutory right of access only exists within publicly owned forests in NI.  NI is caught, therefore, between an even more illiberal access regime in the Republic of Ireland (ROI), that of furthering opening up of land in GB through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW) and regional developments such as the coastal path around Wales.  The project provides the opportunity to explore the historical, political and social contexts to these variations across the UK via a comparative study.  The student would be free to develop the focus of the study which may be around the extent to which NI is experiencing ‘legislative lag’ as a result of the troubles, the extent to which  productivist, agricultural lobbying power is affecting the issue of National Park Development and/or the extent to which the marketing of the natural environment through tourism/health strategies is becoming an ever more pressing issue; the type of countryside management strategies/financing implications that would be needed to enact the legislation; investigation of a weak countryside lobbying movement in Northern Ireland.



Research Theme: Place, Well-being and Healthy Environment
Supervisors: Prof. geraint Ellis (g.ellis@qub.ac.uk)

he combined crises of climate change, peak oil and energy security have been powerful drivers on initiating the low carbon transition in western societies. This involves complex and long term shifts in many aspects of the socio- technical systems related to energy, including market mechanisms (such as carbon pricing and trading, Tietenberg 2014), technological innovation (such as those related to energy efficiency, renewables and carbon storage, Shi and Lai, 2013), major infrastructure development (grid extension and electrification of the energy system, Foxon 2013) and a wide range of new policy initiatives (Geels 2014). Transition studies have been insightful for developing an understanding of such complex changes, offering explanations for the role of society – technology interactions, innovation niches regulatory regimes, exogenous factors and place and other time/place dependent factors. In terms of renewable energy, the aspects of society-technological relations that have been particularly emphasised have been under the broad rubric of ‘social’ acceptance’ (Wustenhagen et al, 2007), having socio-political, market and community aspects.  The issue of community acceptance has been particularly prominent in relation to wind energy, with a focus on the site disputes surrounding specific projects, the dominance of the ‘NIMBY’ framing of this issue and responses that follow this, such as site avoidance or enhancement of community benefits. A range of case studies have suggested that the nature and extent of community objection to wind energy projects may be influenced by, inter alia the scale and proximity of the project, distribution of costs and benefits, perceptions of procedural justice and a range of contextual factors relating to historical and geographical context. It has become clear that the development paths of energy have strongly shaped the nature of the renewables industry in different countries, with Denmark being typified by a cooperative based sector, in Germany there is a high presence of locally owned projects, while in the UK and Ireland, the wind industry is overwhelmingly large scale and owned by large multi-national companies. These factors have had a strong influence on public attitudes to wind energy and the prospects for initiating more innovative trajectories for the energy sector. Despite this, governments in the UK and Ireland have recently sought to stimulate a community energy sector, with the aims of encouraging local economic development and overcoming community hostility to wind energy projects. However, compared to other jurisdictions (for example Denmark or Germany), it can be hypothesised that the centralised, large scale, ‘hard’ energy path of the UK (Lovins 1976) have created major obstacles to the development of a community energy sector.



Research Theme: Place, Well-being and Healthy Environment
Supervisors: Prof Geraint Ellis (g.ellis@qub.ac.uk) and Prof. John Barry, School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics (j.barry@qub.ac.uk)

The UK planning system has been in a constant cycle of reform and ‘innovation’ since at least the late 1990s. This has produced new discourses around ‘development’ and introduced new practices for regulating land use. A dominant theme has been one of ‘streamlining’ that prioritises speed of decision-making and aligns regulatory approaches with market-supportive outcomes. Although this has been framed in terms of ‘innovation’, it has inevitably also involved ‘exnovation’; the process where practices are curtailed and discontinued. In the planning system, examples of exnovation have been dispensing with previous (’bureaucratic’) forms of plan-making, reducing participative opportunities and even abolishing institutions (for example the Sustainable Development Commission, Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution). While there has been an emphasis by government and academics to evaluate the impact of ‘innovation’ in planning governance, there has been virtually no appreciation of the costs and impacts of ‘exnovation’. In other words, have these changes inevitably been a good thing? What are the costs of a culture of continual ‘innovation’ and what types of benefits may be lost through ‘exnovation’? Innovation and can we develop a conceptual framework through which learning from both innovation Is it possible to develop a more reflexive form of planning governance?


Knowledge Exchange and evidence based policy making in spatial planning

Research Theme: Place, Well-being and Healthy Environment
Supervisors: Prof. Geraint Ellis (g.ellis@qub.ac.uk) and Sara Melo, QUB Management School

For the last 20 years there has been a strong discourse on the need and purpose of evidence-based policy making. This has included the fields of spatial planning, which requires data on a wide range of economic, social and environmental trends, outcomes and impacts, in order to effectively evaluate development strategies. Parallel to this there has been a growing emphasis on university-based researchers to integrate a process of knowledge exchange into their research. However, there is a distinct lack of debate and understanding of the key concepts and types of mechanism in evolved in these processes.

This PhD will explore the purposes, barriers, opportunities and rhetorical claims surrounding knowledge exchange in planning and seeks to evaluate whether the emphasis on this is conceptually useful for planning researchers and likely to be effective for planning outcomes  and if so, will seek to identify the mechanisms through which such collaboration could be enhanced.


A mixed methods approach investigating the impact of urban regeneration on public health

Research Theme: Place, Well-being and Healthy Environment
Supervisors: Prof. Geraint Ellis (g.ellis@qub.ac.uk), Dr. Deepti Adalkha (d.adalkha@qub.ac.uk) and Dr Mark Tully, Centre for Public Health (m.tully@qub.ac.uk)

The aim of this project is to develop new methods to understand the impact of natural experiments on health-related behaviour change. There is a lack of evidence regarding the impact of urban regeneration projects on public health, particularly the nature and extent to which urban regeneration impacts upon health-related behaviour change. Natural experiments enable comprehensive large-scale evaluations of such interventions. The Connswater Community Greenway in Belfast is a major urban regeneration project involving the development of a 9 km linear park, including the provision of new cycle paths and walkways. In addition to the environmental improvements, this complex intervention involves a number of programmes to promote physical activity in the regenerated area. This PhD project will seek to further develop approaches to assessing the impact of urban regeneration on health related behaviour, using data from the Physical Activity and the Rejuvenation of Connswater (PARC study).

The first stage of the PhD project will be to conduct a systematic review of previous natural experiment evaluations, in order to understand the range of approaches used to evaluate their effectiveness. In the second stage, the student will develop quantitative analytic techniques for pre-post study design of natural experiments like the PARC study, using information from the systematic review as a guide. By conducting a series of analyses on PARC study data, the student will compare various analytical approaches in understanding the impact of the greenway on health-related behaviours, such as the influence of changes in macro-environment features (e.g., GIS measured walkability on physical activity, commuting modes, etc.). In the third stage, findings of quantitative analysis, combined with appropriate theories of qualitative research, will be used to inform a feasibility study using narrative analysis techniques (e.g., walk-along interviews, video elicited interviews using wearable cameras) to assess the impact of macro (e.g. walkability) and micro (e.g. street level aesthetics) on health-related behaviours. It is anticipated that the systematic review will be completed within the first year. The quantitative analytical models will be developed during the second year and the feasibility study will be conducted in the first six months of the third year.


Liveability Indicators for Belfast

Research Theme: Place, Well-being and Healthy Environment
Supervisors: Prof. Geraint Ellis (g.ellis@qub.ac.uk) and Dr. Deepti Adlakha (d.adlakha@qub.ac.uk)

Liveability has emerged as a key concept for attempting to measure the qualities of cities in relation to sustainability, community health and the character of place.  While there are critiques of this concept (e.g. Lloyd et al 2016), it is being widely adopted and promoted as an effective way of assessing the effectiveness of policy for producing meaningful outcomes for citizens (Foster at al 2016) and exploring the links between policy and its spatial outcomes (Badland et al 2016). The new community plan for Belfast, The Belfast Agenda  (http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/council/Communityplanning/BelfastAgenda.aspx) proposes the development of a Liveability index for the city, but with little contextual understanding of citizen needs, or adequacy of current data provision. This PhD project will critically engage with the Liveability agenda in Belfast and seeks to clarify the need, effectiveness and the range of potential indicators that could be usefully deployed in the context.