Utskrift från Malmö högskolas webbplats www.mah.se

Shifting conceptualizations of property in Sweden

Contact person: Peter Parker
Funding: Malmö högskola, Institutionen för urbana studier
Timeframe: 2017-02-01 -- 2020-08-31
Faculty/Department: Faculty of Culture and Society, Urban studies

Openings and closures

The concept of property is arguably central to urban studies (Blomley 2005). The way property is conceptualized has implications for how urban spaces are accessed, used and managed. Concepts of property connect and divide different constituents in urban development and provide a recurring point of contention in negotiations on urban development. For instance, a vocal lobby in Sweden has proposed that planning and building codes be 'simplified' in order to meet the pressing need for new housing. While simplification seems inherently good, this particular claim can also be understood as a clearing away of regulation and the assertion of rights of owners in development as opposed to other specific and collective interests. Simplification is in this case means a shift of power relationships between different parties in urban development, a power relationship that is embedded within a particular understanding of property. Similarly, calls for deregulating the rental market assert the rights of owners in relation to collective interests that rental regulations were intended to protect. These examples may illustrate something of the significance of the concept of property for urban development and may also serve to highlight how issues of property are complex. 

Part of the complexity of property relations comes from the interlinked nature of values in an urban setting. Private properties, public spaces and services, as well as users jointly create or undermine values for different groups in the city. Questions therefore arise as to what rights contributions to value creation confers (Ostrom 2003, Lehavi 2004, Blomley 2004, Foster 2006). We are not suggesting that there are simple answers to how property should be understood in an urban context but only that the different conceptualizations put forward in discourse, in negotiations of urban planning and implemented in practice deserve to be studied, particularly so in the light of the changing role of the public sector in Sweden.

It is a widely held view in European research in recent decades that the public sector is withdrawing and restructuring its influence. This has manifold implications impacting conditions of living but also relations of property ownership and development.

One effect of public sector restructuring has been an increasing pressure to abandon the principle that public space should also be publicly owned and managed for the reason that this is deemed too costly.  Increasingly there are different strategies of urban planning that seek to offload public sector responsibility for creating public space by the creation of privately owned publicly accessible space. These novel forms however create a lack of clarity as to what rights and obligations obtain in these spaces. In some cases there may be a lack of legal precedent and therefore the claims invoked by different groups, relations of property, are in some sense unresolved. In other cases the understandings of users, managers and owners do not necessarily correspond to legal stipulations and are therefore negotiated through practices on site rather than in legal and administrative settings. Generally however, there is a lack of overview of the plethora of developing forms. These novel forms of space created in urban planning provide an interesting site for contestations over what property means both in urban planning and in spatial practices. 

A further effect of public sector re-structuring, is the prioritization of public space development to attract investment (e.g. Harvey 1989). This leads to unequal development of public space and situations of what Foster calls regulatory slippage in neglected areas (Foster 2011). Regulatory slippage refers to a "marked decline in management or control of a common resource over which public authorities have formal governing authority" (Foster 2011 p7). This leaves a resource vulnerable to expanded access by competing users and uses. One manifestation of slippage is closure; the accelerating trend of gating, the increased reliance on privately created controls and the diminishing access to public spaces (Low 2008, Blakely and Snyder 1997). However, regulatory slippage is also a reason for the development of collaborative arrangements in addressing for instance maintenance of parks, revitalization efforts in business improvement districts or forms of neighbourhood crime patrols (Lehavi, Foster 2011).  In this cases the decline of public sector regulation leads to what we call openings, a situation in which property is understood as inherently interlinked with other spaces and where property owners see themselves as stakeholders in a broader urban process.

This situation differs markedly from as strategy of closure and is based on a different understanding of property.

In sum, the restructuring and withdrawal of the public sector shifts conceptions of property and invites negotiation on its meaning in the urban setting. In those cases in which the withdrawal of the public sector combines with a territorial notion that emphasizes ownership right, the results are closures. In other cases public sector restructuring undermines a the above territorial assumption by creating publicly accessible property that are privately owned, or by giving rise to collaborative arrangements for the management of public space. These shifts give rise to negotiations both in a legal and administrative sense but also in daily practice in which conceptions of property are central. 

Aims of the research

The overarching purpose of this research platform is to explore the shifting understandings of property with specific attention to the development of publicly accessible space in Malmö both in planning and practice. 

The concrete objectives of the research include:

  1. Provide a historical overview of past openings and closures in Malmö and use selected cases of property development for detailed study.
  2. Identify contemporary legal and administrative forms of openings and closures in urban planning in Malmö and delineate understandings of property that inform public and private actors in these cases.
  3. Contextualize and explore the urban context of openings and closures using different types of data in GIS.
  4. Explore selected cases of openings and closures to understand the implications for use by means of Nolli mapping, observation and interviews.

In achieving these aims the research will provide a rich description of how different conceptions of property influence and are influenced by urban development. By doing so the research seeks to contribute to international and comparative discussions on concepts of property in urban settings as well as debates on publicly accessible space in urban development. A mutli-disciplinary study of conceptions of property may also serve integrate real estate science and urban studies. 

Property claims and property regimes

The concept of property has been the object of many and various interpretations and justifications[1]. At its core the concept is relational asserting the rights of owners against others and invoking state power to guard this right. However, both in theory and in practice these relations are far from simple. This is due in part to the interlinking of different claims to property but also because conceptions of property are not simply legal rights but interlinked in complex ways with social norms and practices.

Sustained effort to understand empirical regimes of property has been exerted particularly with respect to natural resources (Ostrom 1992, 2003). An important result of this stream of research as has been to identify multiple forms of property rights including rights of access, withdrawal, management, exclusion and alienation. Furthermore, the particular property regime, that is, the balance of different kinds of rights that will be appropriate in a specific context is shown to depend on a range of variables (Ostrom 2003). This approach has more recently be transferred to urban settings (Lehavi 2004, Foster 2006, Blomley 2008, Boydell and Searle 2014, Borch, and Kornberger 2015, Dellenbaugh et al 2015. However, this steam of research has also been critiqued with respect to its applicability in an urban setting. Critique has focused particularly on issues of scale, the sheer number of people in cities, their mobility and differing interests that would seem to necessitate simple and clear rules for property. It also seems to implicate an important role for the public sector as arbiter and require forms of organization among users that allow for a degree of continuity and accountability (Harvey 2011). So, although the urban may be understood as set of competing and complementary claims to property ranging from the individual to the communal (Blomely 2004, Boydell and Searle 2014) the forms by which this can be governed may be limited.

That being said, the complexity of property remains. This is due to a perceived (Lockian) link between labour, value creation and property. In urban settings, a portion of the values (economic and otherwise) in a property may derive, not from investments of owners but by developments in adjacent properties, public space, infrastructures or simply the extent and ways it is used  (e.g. Jacobs 1961).  Conversely, values in public space will depend in part on the particular ways in which adjacent properties are developed. Therefore, public and private actors as well as ordinary users are intimately intertwined in the development of economic and public values. When these different actors perceive their contributions as linked to rights this entails claims to property that need to resolved (Lehavi 2004, Blomley 2008).  Ideological notions beforehand prioritizing one claimant or the other will serve only to undermine values rather than provide a basis for constructive negotiation.

We are thus left with diverse situations, competing claims and the need to study empirically the implications of different conceptualization of property in order to find contextually appropriate alternatives. Key to the analysis is an understanding of how property formally, and in practice, connects different actors in regulating urban spaces and in creating values.

The case of Malmö

Swedish local government is comparatively strong in terms of its legal powers and administrative capacity. On the whole local government has sought to maintain a leading role in urban development. Nonetheless effects of withdrawal and restructuring have also become evident.

In urban planning, public sector restructuring has led to a situation where even costs of maintaining fairly ordinary public space can be prohibitive and thus avoided. This has restarted debates and practices whereby urban planners seek to off-load responsibility for creating and maintaining publicly accessible spaces to private actors. The extent and form of these new practices are not recognized either in research or by practitioners themselves and implications for property owners, the public sector and ordinary inhabitants are mostly unexplored. Unequal development of public space and regulatory slippage has underpinned extensive gating private properties. This costly strategy is not seen as desirable by the property owners', but employed in lieu of alternatives as a means of managing risk (Herbert 2013). Regulatory slippage has also underpinned the development of collaborative management of public space (Parker 2014, 2015) and most recently in collaborative efforts such as Fastighetsägare Sofielund inspired by the international development of business improvement districts.

The shifts underlying these developments have significant implications for property owners, urban planning and city life in general. We contend that these processes have not been widely perceived and discussed let alone made the object of constructive attention.


The research platform creates a multidisciplinary research team with a doctoral project at its core, and a collaborative network of practitioners and stakeholders in Malmö. The research is primarily inductive, using mixed methods, and brings together data from different fields in order to create a composite understanding of shifting conceptions of property in planning and practice in Malmö.

The research will review historical shifts in the legal and administrative frameworks as a means of contextualizing present cases. Relevant contemporary cases will be identified in collaboration both with the department of urban planning and property owners in Malmö. The cases will be explored in relation to conceptions of key stakeholders. This will include integrating research from different fields to provide rich understanding. Data will be collected through interviews and documentary studies, observations and Nolli mapping. GIS data will be used to explore the geographical context. The research platform integrates significant expertise in each of these different areas.

Collaboration will be an important part of the research. The network CFFF will be important in this respect. Early and regular presentations of work in the platform will be conducted to ensure its relevance and to identify cases. The platform will also work closely with the urban planning office in Malmö in order to identify cases illustrating contemporary practices of urban planning and experimentation with respect to the provision of publicly accessible space. In this, the proposed platform links up with and broadens an existing collaboration with the work of municipal PhD candidate Per Larsson.

The research team

A primary component of the research platform will be the recruitment of a PhD candidate in urban studies whose work will be supplemented and supported by a team of senior members. The PhD candidate will have a social science background and preferably familiarity with mixed methods research.

The senior researchers in the platform intertwine different streams of prior and ongoing research at the department of Urban Studies. Peter Parker (senior lecturer leadership and organization studies) works with issues of urban governance. He is part of an international comparative project on the private provision of public space and is co-supervisor for Per Larsson's PhD project on urban commons from an administrative and legal perspective. Peter Parker will co-ordinate work of the research platform. Hoai Anh Tran is a senior lecturer in urban planning with a research focus on urban policy and social justice. Tran will be responsible for qualitative investigation of the cases from a planning perspective by means of Nolli mapping, observation and interviews. The platform will also integrate competence on the distribution of social risk and how this affects, and is affected by, strategies of property owners. Jerry Nilsson (PhD) is currently involved in this research where GIS is used to explore the spatial dimensions of risks such as residential fires. Peter Gottshalk brings a legal expertise to the research group. This allows for exploration of tensions between formal and informal norms in regulation or governance. A legal sociological perspective pays attention not only to regulative but also to constitutive functions of rules and conceptions of property The senior researchers in the platform thus bring complementary competences to this area, providing multidisciplinary support for a well-rounded work.

Associated researchers
A broader network of researchers at the department of Urban Studies with related research will be especially invited to biannual seminars. Associated researchers include: Stig Westerdahl, Karin Staffansson Pauli, Lina Olsson, Per Larsson, Mikaela Herbert, Katarina Nylund and Maria Persdotter.

Communication of results

The research platform will regularly present findings seminars and conferences. The platform will also result in

  • 1 PhD dissertation
  • 4 peer-reviewed articles (1 for each senior member of the platform)
  • 1 popular science anthology in Swedish (collective effort by the platform and with invited writers)

Societal relevance

Property is a key concept connecting and separating parties in urban development. Concepts of property are invoked as part of negotiations in legal, political and administrative as well as in daily life yet these concepts are seldom made a focus of empirically based inquiry. As a result, there is a lack of awareness of different ways of understanding property in an urban setting and a therefore an unnecessarily limited set of practical alternatives.

There is an ongoing restructuring of urban space in Sweden due to changes in the role of the public sector. There are tendencies toward a fragmentation of the city through enclosures and simultaneously new forms of planning privately owned publicly accessible space. There are new collaborative forms of management arising to tackle regulatory slippage. We believe that there is significant value in close examination of these developments and a need to understand and reflect on shifting conceptions of property that underpin different strategies. This is a first step toward avoiding costly and undesirable strategies for individual properties and finding more constructive means of city development.


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Parker, P., Madureira, M. (2015) Housing context and legitimacy in the transformation of a stigmatized estate: the case of Rosengård. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment DOI: 10.1007/s10901-015-9480-3

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Senast uppdaterad av Johanna Svensson