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PhD research themes Spatial Sciences

Candidates are invited to apply to one of the following topics: (click topic for more information)

1. Water as leverage for urban climate resilience in coastal areas

2. Spatial spillovers of well-being: modelling the spatial inter-dependencies of happiness and its determinants

3. Immigrants’ return migration from the Netherlands

4. Families and school classes as contexts for mobility and life chances

5. Inclusive mobility and accessibility

6. Data, dialogue and decision making: design thinking in participatory processes with digital tools for creating sustainable landscapes

7. A step in the right direction: exploring spatial scenarios for transformation of urban pedestrian mobility

8. Assembling new subterranean energy regimes: Vertical and horizontal explorations in renewable energy transitions

1. Water as leverage for urban climate resilience in coastal areas

Supervisors: Prof. Arts, dr. van den Brink, dr. Kempenaar

Climate change is expected to cause a series of serious effects with significant impact in many regions across the globe (e.g. extreme rainfall, sea-level rise, flooding, drought). In particular, the living conditions and livelihoods in coastal areas are vulnerable to climate change: coastal regions and cities need to become climate resilient. In building urban climate resilience, four characteristics are considered critical, namely being innovative, integrative, inclusive and transformative (e.g. Ferguson, 2013; Laeni et al., 2019; Moore et al., 2014; Rogers et al., 2020). However, current institutionalized and sector-oriented planning, financing and implementation processes do not comply with these characteristics, and hinder or block the design, uptake and implementation of promising urban resilience and water infrastructure projects (Brown et al. 2020). There is a need for new planning approaches to induce innovative, integrative, inclusive and transformative pathways to urban climate resilience.

In this context, ‘resilience by design’ is considered promising (Brown et al. 2020, Lochhead 2017). However, while design-led planning approaches for building urban climate resilience are on the rise, little is known about how they unfold in different institutional and cultural contexts, what critical success factors are, what ‘resilience by design’ entails, what it contributes to creating an enabling environment, or which institutional and organizational conditions promote the planning, design, financing and implementation of urban climate resilience initiatives and projects through ‘resilience by design’ approaches. The overall aim of ‘Water as Leverage for Urban Climate Resilience in Coastal Areas’ therefore is to induce research on innovative design-led planning approaches that are aimed at overcoming the current challenges in the planning, design, financing and implementation of urban climate resilience initiatives.

Preferably the research engages with multiple innovative climate resilience initiatives across the world. In 2018, the ‘Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities Asia’ (WaL) program ( initiated an innovative design-led planning approach for building urban climate resilience in Southeast Asia. During this program, Water as Leverage became a metaphor in itself, standing for creating enhanced innovative, integrative, inclusive and transformative processes for developing urban climate resilience project initiatives. Currently the Worldbank and the Vietnam Netherlands Water partnership are exploring how a ‘Water as Leverage’ approach can enrich project proposal development for building urban climate resilience south of Hoi An in Vietnam. This initiative, together with design-led urban resilience building programs and projects in for example Africa (e.g. Africa Urban Water Resilience Initiative), and Latin America (e.g. Towards a Water Sensitive Mexico City) could provide rich empirical data for a comparative analysis that deepens the understanding of building ‘resilience by design’.

The research theme is developed in collaboration with Henk Ovink, the Dutch Special Envoy for International Water Affairs and the Netherlands Enterprice Agency (RVO). It aligns with the University of Groningen strategic theme ‘Sustainable society’ and five URSI research topics: Climate and Energy Transitions, Governance and Civic Initiatives, Liveable and Resilient Communities, Spatial and Institutional Design, and Coastal Resilience. It also builds on and extends the existing collaboration of the Faculty of Spatial Sciences with the Global Centre on Adaptation (GCA).

2. Spatial spillovers of well-being: modelling the spatial inter-dependencies of happiness and its determinants

Supervisors: Prof. Ballas, Prof. Elhorst, dr. Mantegazzi

The importance of spatial context in the analysis of well-being has long been recognized in regional science and significant efforts have been made to take an explicit spatial approach to the analysis of happiness and its demographic, socio-economic, and geographical determinants (Ballas 2013 and 2021; Ballas and Tranmer, 2012; Rijnks, 2020). The need for a geographical perspective has also been acknowledged and demonstrated in the most recent World Happiness Report (Helliwell et al. 2020). This report especially contains a detailed discussion of geographical context in the analysis of factors pertaining to social environments (Helliwell et al. 2020), the physical environment, the ranking of urban environments (De Neve and Krekel 2020), and urban/rural differentials (Burger et al. 2020).

Economic geographers and regional scientists have been very successful in the analysis of compositional and contextual determinants of happiness through the specification and use of multilevel modelling frameworks that simultaneously take several spatial levels (cities, regions and countries) into account (Aslam and Corrado 2012; Ballas and Tranmer 2012). These methods have been used to determine the extent to which happy or unhappy people congregate in similar locations (compositional effects), whether certain attributes of places cause their inhabitants to be happy or unhappy (contextual effects), and whether, after having taken these factors into account, there remains any unobserved heterogeneity between places with respect to self-reported happiness and well-being measures (Ballas and Tranmer 2012).

Nevertheless, there is still great potential to further explore social and spatial inequalities in subjective happiness through the use of spatial regression and spatial econometric modelling frameworks (Anselin 1988; Elhorst 2014) in order to analyse possible spatial happiness spillovers and their determinants. In particular, there is an opportunity and potential to consider both spatial contextual effects as well as spatial interdependencies and interactions between individuals simultaneously. To that end, the proposed research will develop and implement such frameworks in order to address questions such as:

  • Does the way we feel affect the well-being and happiness of our neighbours (and vice versa) and is there a similar link at an aggregated level
  • Does an area’s collective sense of well-being affect that of neighbouring areas?
  • Do the characteristics of an individual (e.g., income, employment status) affect the happiness of individuals living in neighbouring areas?
  • Does the level of aggregate income, unemployment and other socio-economic indicators (e.g., social cohesion, inequality) in one area affect the happiness levels of neighbouring communities?

Overall, the proposed research will utilise and demonstrate the great potential, as well as the need, for economic geographers to engage with the new Science of Happiness. It is also envisaged that by addressing the above questions the proposed research will also engage with wider themes (that are key UG and FSS themes) such as healthy aging (in the sense of subjective well-being through space and time) and Sustainable Society (in the sense of socio-spatial cohesion and social sustainability in terms of well-being). The proposed research can also highlight possible links between socio-spatial inequalities and place-sensitive as well as national economic and social policies.

3. Immigrants’ return migration from the Netherlands

Supervisors: prof. Mulder, prof. Kalmijn, dr. Remund

Immigration and the integration of immigrants are high on the agenda of public and policy debates in the Netherlands. However, many immigrants only spend a limited time in the Netherlands and return to their country of origin. In this project, we analyze which individual characteristics of immigrants and which circumstances in their life courses are associated with their likelihood of leaving the country. An important question is whether return migration is selective with respect to the degree to which migrants and their children integrate – socially, culturally, and economically – into the host society. A hypothesis of ‘failed integration’ is often suggested but rarely studied due to a lack of sufficient data. Moreover, return migration is likely to be affected by the distribution and functioning of the family network but little is known about how this affects migration decisions. The aim of the research in this theme is to gain theoretically informed empirical insights into the individual determinants of immigrants’ return migration. Depending on the research interest of the student, s/he is asked to develop a proposal within this theme in collaboration with the envisaged supervisors. The student may want to focus on a specific type of immigrants, a specific life-course stage, specific countries of origin, or specific determinants. It is an option to develop a proposal close to the FamilyTies project ( but this is certainly no obligation.

Investigating emigration is challenging in terms of data requirements. In this project, a combination of three designs will be used. The first design is to use large-scale data from the System of Social and Statistical Datasets (SSD) of Statistics Netherlands. Unique in these data is that they cover a long period of time, many different migrant groups, and several important demographic and socioeconomic predictors. Note that the destination of the move is not always known but other data suggest that most moves abroad are toward the origin country. The second is to analyze the migrant surveys that have been conducted in the Netherlands, specifically the SPVA (1988-2002) and the SIM (2006-2015). These are very rich data specifically focused on the integration of immigrants and their children. The data can be linked with registers to trace the immigrants’ life courses after the moment of the survey, including moves abroad. Third, most migrant surveys contain direct questions about return intentions and emigration plans. These can be analyzed as outcomes in their own right and they can be used to link migration plans to actual migration behaviors.

The research will build on Clara Mulder’s work on migration from a family and life-course perspective and on the migrant survey panel studies by sociologist Matthijs Kalmijn (NELLS). The research will contribute to the URSI theme Migration and Mobility. It will enrich this theme with knowledge on international migration, and also strengthen URSI’s knowledge base in using previously un(der)used survey data matched to register data. It will also be embedded in the theme group Migration and Migrants of the NIDI-KNAW of which Kalmijn is the coordinator.

4. Families and school classes as contexts for mobility and life chances

Supervisors: prof. Mulder, prof. van Duijn, dr. Rutigliano

Families, high schools, universities and other institutes for tertiary education are crucial contexts for socialization, social contacts, support, and the formation of human and social capital. These contexts are therefore potentially important for a host of life choices and outcomes, and for the timing and occurrence of several life events—and thus, for life chances. The aim of the research in this theme is to gain insight into the impact of the social context in terms of families and/or school classes on some kind of life event(s), choice(s) or outcome(s), for example in young adulthood. A few examples of such events, choices, and outcomes are the timing and destination of leaving the parental home, level and location of further education, labor-market entry, family formation (including partnership formation and childbirth), home-ownership, and internal and international migration. The choice of topic is up to the student, who will develop it in collaboration with the envisaged supervisors, also dependent on available supervision expertise (which may partly come from the copromotor).

Identifying the impact of families and school classes is challenging in terms of both data requirements and analytical methods. Data are needed on the choices, events and/or outcomes of a large number of persons. It should be possible to link these persons to their school classes and family members. Fortunately, register data from the System of Social and Statistical Datasets (SSD) housed by Statistics Netherlands contain this information, and are available for researchers. SSD covers the entire registered population of the Netherlands, and contains links to both family members (via parent/child links) and school classes (note that school classes should be approximated using data on institution, location/branch, level/field of study and year). A methodological challenge arises from, for example, the fact that individuals are not only influenced by their family members and classmates but the influence can run both ways. Furthermore, family and school class effects should be distinguished from each other and from regional or neighborhood influences. The research will therefore have an important methodological component in the sense of social network analysis and/or advanced multilevel analysis.

The research will build on expertise on life events and outcomes in a family context contributed by prof.dr Clara Mulder (for example knowledge gained in the FamilyTies project; Methodological expertise on social network analysis and multilevel models will be contributed by prof.dr Marijtje van Duijn, who has been involved not only in applying but also developing such methods. Expertise on network data from SSD will be contributed by prof.dr Marjolijn Das, external collaborator from Statistics Netherlands who has been involved in enriching SSD with network data on school classes, among other contexts. Depending on the topic the student chooses, it will contribute to the URSI themes Migration and Mobility and/or Population and Well-being, and to the overarching research theme of the department of Sociology “Social Networks, Solidarity and Wellbeing”. In both faculties, the research will further strengthen the knowledge base substantively, but also in terms of methodological expertise and experience using register data—a data source with a huge potential for URSI and sociological research.

5. Inclusive mobility and accessibility

Supervisors: prof. Tillema, prof. Meijering, dr. Ramezani

Mobility and accessibility as resources are distributed unequally between different population groups and over space. This interdisciplinary research theme studies inequalities in mobility and accessibility to services and amenities through seeking synergies between human geography and land-use & transport planning. In so doing, it will bridge the gap between movement in and perceived accessibility of living environments at the individual level, and the planning of land-use and transport infrastructure at the level of the city, region, and country.

Transport and mobility studies primarily focus on studying actual mobility patterns in space and time and not on potential mobility (‘motility’, see Kaufmann et al. 2004). Thus, mobility is a means, a tool, a vehicle and participating in activities at the destination is the goal. The concept of accessibility, in contrast, does foreground the potential to move as well as the spatial context. Since traditional accessibility measures are based on land-use and transport data, such measurements may be very different from how people themselves perceive accessibility.

Besides physical mobility and accessibility, movement through and accessibility of the digital world is becoming increasingly important, even more so in the current pandemic. However, these two are often studied separately. Innovative is that this research theme studies the interactions between the physical and digital worlds.

Inequality in mobility and accessibility can be understood as the unequal ability and capacity to move (Cresswell 2010; Hidayati 2020; Sheller & Urry, 2006). In transport planning, typically three aspects are addressed: mobility poverty, accessibility poverty and affordability of travel. These inequalities uncover the spatial and societal problems around transport poverty (Banister, 2018; Lucas et al., 2016). Besides transport poverty, inequalities in digital movement and access exist as well: the digital divide. Inequalities in supply and demand are often multi-scalar and -dimensional (Cowie et al., 2020). To resolve these inequalities, it is important to better understand why and how social groups differ in terms of (perceived) physical and digital accessibility and mobility.

In this strategic theme we distinguish three dimensions of inclusive mobility and accessibility:

  • The spatial dimension: neighbourhood-city inclusiveness, city-rural inclusiveness;
  • The social dimension: inclusive mobility and accessibility for different social groups, such as by age, ability and socio-economic status;
  • The digital dimension: e-services and digital inclusiveness.

Potential topics and research methods

Research proposals in this theme should address the intersections and interactions between the three different dimensions. For instance, what are the connections between limited physical and digital accessibility of a rural area; how do these impact the (potential) physical and digital movement of young people; how could we address this in integrated planning approaches?

The problems outlined above can be studied using a variety of research methods, with a preference for mixed-methods. Possible methods include: spatial methods such as GPS-tracking, map-based surveys, and activity space modelling; quantitative methods such as use of (existing) survey data (e.g. Dutch Mobility Panel); and qualitative research methods, such as walk-along interviews, focus-group discussions, or photo elicitation.

6. Data, dialogue and decision making: design thinking in participatory processes with digital tools for creating sustainable landscapes

Supervisors: prof. van Dijk, dr. Sijtsma, dr. Weitkamp, dr. Meijles, dr. van der Vaart

The landscapes we live in today will need to change in order to accommodate climate change, energy transition, agriculture intensification and new mobility patterns. The new landscape elements that contribute to sustainability (solar fields, wind turbines, biomass crops, calamity polders, eco-neighbourhoods, transferiums, etc.) require a mental transition before a physical transition can begin. People need time and opportunities to get used to the need for change, explore possible new elements in their landscape, speak their mind, interrogate the hinter lying problem frame.

Good process design paves the way for successful landscape design. But we need to benefit from recent technological developments as well, as online geographical mapping, serious gaming and 3D visualization offer far reaching possibilities for effectively fueling a more effective process of mental preparation to scenarios for landscape change. They are expected to promote much better progress in refitting landscapes for challenges to come. They enrich the quality of the dialogue and the outcome of it, while support and a collaborative energy will emerge.

In the Netherlands, municipalities have the obligation to engage their citizens in the development of their Strategy on Spatial Planning and the Environment. In order to make progress on the most important landscape transitions of our time, participatory planning procedures are in urgent need of more effective learning, listening, and exploring supported by 21st century tools: interactive map-based questionnaires, serious gaming, Virtual Reality. They provide an environment for realistic yet radical explorations of strategic choices for possible future versions of the landscape people inhabit.

Using Design Thinking as a mindset and advanced tools as support stakeholders will create a richer and more respectful dialogue on spatial possibilities for the community, instead of a fight over individual vested interests based on assumptions. It fosters a learning process of the regional community by taking notice of basic knowledge about the area, just as it sparks a learning process by the governmental entities involves about the perceptions and meaning the landscape holds for people. This joint dialogue about change requires clarity and acceptance with respect to the boundaries to the design process, in order to prevent disappointment later on. And also an environment to fan out much wider than in a normal consensus-eager procedure would happen.

The Kadaster is a key player in the landscape changes we face. Kadaster has a deep and unique database on land use and ownership, while in recent years it has been very active and innovative in implementing new tools for participation and negotiation around land-use challenges and conflicts. The Kadaster is therefore a vital partner for experiments with the combination of Design Thinking as a mindset and advanced tools as support.

Key questions are:

  • What tools, such as interactive mapping, VR and serious gaming help to create a dialogue and discuss consequences of possible futures?
  • What works best to organize an open sharing of knowledge, ideas, and preferences of various stakeholders, including citizens?
  • How can we make decision-making consider a wider array of options and which style of moderation can keep tensions low and creativity high?

7. A step in the right direction: exploring spatial scenarios for transformation of urban pedestrian mobility

Supervisors: prof. Woltjer, dr. Vos, dr. Bahrami

Walking saves lives. It has been repeatedly acknowledged as the composing instrument of the city, generating social and urban life, as the most democratic and accessible physical activity, a vital antidepressant, an essential preventive medicine, and an antidote to the syndrome of chairs and wheels. A radical advancement in walking can become as much of a breakthrough for future cities as technological innovations such as autonomous vehicles and delivery drones.

Despite decades of scientific and political efforts advocating for walking to be placed at the centre of urban planning, walking’s share in transportation and city space is not at the priority it aspires to. Even the cities that are most acclaimed for their urban transformations in favour of pedestrians tend to concentrate their efforts in limited, and often central, city areas. The surge in walking during the 2020 pandemic has proven it to be a resilient mode of transport (YouGov, 2020). This trend can potentially serve as an initiation experience, be sustained and developed into new mobility habits. The health benefits of physical activity, now more relevant than ever, have already led to recent initiatives encouraging walking (Agenda Stad 2020; UK Goverment 2020).

Targeting inactive or insufficiently active populations, academic research and urban policies have often focused on promoting short-distance walking (e.g. Pooley et al., 2013). However, for the longest part of its existence our species has been walking far greater distances, our hunter-gatherer genetic legacy having shaped our body for long-journey walking (Christie, 2018). The current spatial organization of our lives in cities undermines the capacities of the healthy human being as a “walking animal”, missing out on potential benefits for both cities and their inhabitants.

Increasing the scale and extent of bipedal mobility is a deceptively simple instrument for addressing unremitting health challenges in cities, while simultaneously reshaping them towards more environmentally and socially sustainable futures. We propose a research agenda that re-evaluates walkability potential by bringing scenarios for longer walking distances into view, and shifts the accepted parameters currently guiding urban and transportation planning schemes by illustrating how they compare to the alternatives in respect to public health and urban sustainability. Alongside this societal relevance, a scientific contribution is envisioned through addressing the knowledge gap concerning long-distance walking and establishing the value of novel techniques in exploring this topic. This will be done through a twofold approach addressing practices (mobility behaviour), as well as infrastructures (spatial configuration, barriers and hindrances, walking continuities).

Suitable methodological approaches to address this theme include the analysis of existing bipedal mobility patterns using GIS, assessing the effects of access (restriction) in urban areas through space syntax analysis, and creating models for future spatial transformations by applying agent-based modeling. The study areas at focus should therefore preferably include locations for which open data on mobility are available, and information on local conditions can be acquired through various open platforms (e.g. OpenStreetMap). Data collection (through e.g. Maptionnaire) could be used to reinforce open data sources and add a qualitative element to the analysis.

8. Assembling new subterranean energy regimes: Vertical and horizontal explorations in renewable energy transitions

Supervisors: prof. Zuidema, dr. Turhan

According to Huber and McCarthy (2017), “industrial capitalism is defined by an intensive vertical reliance upon subterranean stocks of energy that require relatively little surface land to harness”. Thus, the ongoing transition from fossil fuels to renewables will not only be disruptive in terms of production-consumption relations but also in terms of how spatialities (Bridge and Gailing, 2020) and materialities (Balmaceda et al, 2019) of energy production co-create new energy geographies.

Although critical socio-spatial theory and socio-technical transitions research helped advance our understanding of energy geographies as a ‘fertile borderland’ in the past decade (Calvert, 2016), there still seems to be room and need for further research into how particular renewables produce particular socio-spatial territories both vertically and horizontally (Bridge, 2013). This calls for in-depth, interdisciplinary engagement by planners and geographers, using the critical toolbox of political ecology to unpack the “struggles hidden behind the quiet vista” (Robbins, 2004). This research topic will investigate values, knowledges, objects, infrastructures, and material-discursive practices in the assembling of new subterranean energy regimes and landscapes in low-carbon energy transitions (ie. Geothermal energy).

Through an international collaboration with KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory (Stockholm, Sweden) that includes a visiting research period, the candidate will have the opportunity to develop a truly interdisciplinary approach to the study of new subterranean energy regimes by merging methodologies from spatial sciences and energy social science (ie. Comparative case study, Q-methodology, Qualitative Comparative Analysis among others) with the methods of environmental humanities and energy history (ie. Oral history and archival work among others).

Such an approach is not only timely but also necessary to demonstrate “how university research interfaces with politics, economy and society in world of high-stakes decision-making” (Castree et al, 2014). Accordingly, the candidate will be able to develop cutting-edge skills in analyzing a) institutional and policy contexts, b) spatialities and materialities of low-carbon subterranean energy regimes, and c) sociotechnical trajectories and imaginaries of these energy regimes in spatio-temporal context.

Last modified:15 April 2021 11.49 a.m.