Available Master’s Thesis Projects

Here you will find a list of master thesis topics at CUSP. If none of the topics below interest you, you are welcome to reach out to any members of the centre for exploring other opportunities, whether in collaboration with external organisations or developing research questions together.

1. Assessing trade-offs in nature-based solutions from a socio-spatial perspective


Nature-based solutions (NbS) are “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature” IUCN. Examples include green roofs, pervious pavement, bio-swales, and rain gardens. Nature-based solutions not only address pressing urban challenges, such as water management and climate change, but also bring additional benefits to urban dwellers, as they help to restore local ecosystems, improve both air and water quality, enhance physical and mental health, and promote social and cultural well-being (Keeler et al., 2019). Because of the wide range of benefits associated with nature-based solutions, assessing their potential is a challenge.

One way to evaluate the impact of NbS from a holistic perspective is via the interdisciplinary concept of ecosystem services (Seppelt et al., 2011; Prudencio & Null, 2018). The ecosystem services concept emphasises the links between nature and human well-being, offering ways to understand where and when nature-based solutions deliver these benefits (Keeler et al., 2019). Furthermore, the ecosystem services concept can also account for disservices (for example, unintended negative impacts) and, thus, enables trade-off assessments. Having such a holistic perspective is critical for three reasons: (1) it provides ways to account for co-benefits when comparing NbS with conventional water infrastructure, (2) it identifies disservices which need to be addressed before NbS are implemented, and (3) it provides insights into potential trade-offs, which are critical for informed decision-making. The goal of this thesis is to bring a spatial dimension to the ecosystem services concept to explore questions like: How to quantify ecosystem services (and disservices) associated with nature-based solutions? How are ecosystem services spatially distributed (across a chosen city) and who benefits from them? How do ecosystem services conflict spatially with their disservices? How can trade-off assessments support decision-making when implementing nature-based solutions in cities?

This project will involve the following tasks: (1) Conducting a review on how to measure ecosystem services and disservices; (2) Developing a theoretical framework for characterising ecosystem services according to the literature review; (3) Defining an operationalisation of the measures and suitable methods to explore/test the conceptual relationships defined in the theoretical framework; and (4) Defining a case study and collecting data to test the framework and methodology.

If you are interested in this topic, please contact Dr. Juliana Goncalves [j.e.goncalves@tudelft.nl] with the email subject [MSc – Nature-based solutions & ecosystem services].

2. Resilience, justice, and self-organisation


Building urban resilience imposes difficult choices for allocating risks, benefits, and costs, bringing into the discussion the winners and losers of designing flexible, robust, and adaptable cities. Under the global pressure for increasing competitiveness, such allocation can be skewed towards high-value assets owned by the already better-off, leading to an even more unequal city. Therefore, the increasing interest in embedding the practice of urban resilience within justice and social conflicts is no surprise. This concern is elegantly presented by (Meerow et al. (2019)). Negotiating resilience in urban planning inevitably entails defining resilience for whom, what, when, where, and why: “Working through these questions could help to foreground debates about equity and justice in resilience policy-making”. In this regard, literature has extensively discussed justice approaches for integrating justice into urban resilience policy and planning (Fainstein, 2018; Doorn, 2019, Shi et al., 2016, Ranganathan and Bratman, 2021).

However, there is less attention on the organisational form by which resilience policy and planning hit the ground in concrete programs, partnerships, and projects. The inequality and justice problem can fire back at such more concrete decision-making levels. Resilience decisions are ultimately shaped within the boundaries of institutional constraints, grant funding, and financing reality that requires manageable and implementable projects (Fastiggi et al., 2020). Consequently, projects with higher chances of implementation must yield a more attractive return on financial investment, fit political priorities, or make the city more attractive to high-skilled inhabitants and investors. In this regard, even though resilience advocators see self-organisation as the answer to materialising resilience, their implications for justice are not fully understood.

On the one hand, self-organisation is a foundational characteristic of complex adaptive systems, grounding our current understanding of resilient systems (Martin-Breen and Anderies, 2011). On the other hand, self-organisation is at the core of ongoing economic transitions setting the context for urban development (Frantzeskaki, 2016). These transitions refer to post-industrialization dynamics as much as the emergence of new economies based on solidarity and social value. Furthermore, self-organisation also lies at the basis of contemporary forms of public governance in the Netherlands (van Buuren and Meulenbeld, 2016). Accordingly, the first resilience strategy published by Rotterdam municipality argues that “the way the Rotterdam society operates has many characteristics of resilience including self–organisation, strong networks and various coalitions of citizens and businesses, and a government offering customised services and a facilitating role” (Gemeente, 2016).

This project will involve the following tasks: (1) Conducting a review on how to measure self-organization and justice in the context of urban resilience and economic transitions; (2) Developing a theoretical framework for characterising self-organization and justice according to the literature review; (3) Defining an operationalisation of the measures and suitable methods to explore/test the conceptual relationships defined in the theoretical framework; and (4) Defining a case study and collecting data to test the framework and methodology.

If you are interested in this topic, please contact Dr. Camilo Benitez [c.a.benitezavila@tudelft.nl] and Dr. Juliana Goncalves [j.e.goncalves@tudelft.nl] with the email subject [MSc - Resilience, justice, and self-organisation].

3. Gender and accessibility: A sensitivity analysis


Accessibility is a key concept in urban planning, particularly important for transport development. There is a wide range of different metrics to evaluate accessibility (Páez et al., 2012). Accessibility metrics can be generally divided in two approaches: place-based and person-based metrics (Ryan and Pereira, 2021). The former only accounts for interaction between land use and transportation systems, while the latter considers how transport and location characteristics interact with personal characteristics. Person-based metrics can include, for example, activity schedules or constraints that may prevent certain segments of the population to access some types of opportunities, or at specific times (Hagerstrand, 1989; Chen and Kwan, 2012; Patterson and Farber, 2015; Mahmoudi et al., 2019). Person-based metrics are important to understand how personal characteristics such as age, gender, and physical capacity, influence the levels of accessibility a person has. Indeed, gender differences in mobility have been reported in the literature (Lo and Houston, 2018; Tiznado-Aitken et al., 2020). Moreover, in most studies, person-based features are specified in a normative way (Páez et al., 2012). For example, the analyst makes assumptions about how far people are willing to walk to reach grocery shops or recreational spaces. However, these assumptions may not reflect people’s perceptions of their accessibility. As result, normative approaches tend to overestimate accessibility levels and underestimate inequalities in accessibility across different social groups (Ryan and Pereira, 2021).

This project has a twofold objective. First, the project explores how normative assumptions about personal characteristics affect accessibility metrics. A sensitivity analysis will be performed to identify which person-based feature influence the accessibility metrics the most. Second, the project focuses particularly on features that may describe gender differences in mobility, such as daily schedule or preferred mode of transportation. Empirical existing research and surveys may provide information on how gender affects perceived accounts of accessibility. Insights from this project may help urban planners and policy makers to design cities that provide gender-equitable access. Furthermore, the most influential person-based features identified through the sensitivity analysis may be topic of future empirical research on perceived accessibility.

If you are interested in this topic, please contact Dr. Juliana Goncalves [j.e.goncalves@tudelft.nl] with the email subject [Gender and accessibility: A sensitivity analysis].

4. Defining, mapping and analysing the systemic and interconnected nature of inequalities


Inequalities are shaped by a combination of several structural social, economic, environmental, and political factors, and a fragmented approach across disciplines and development of policy acts as a barrier for effectively dealing with their consequences. Transformative developments in the field of studying inequalities have largely been through systematic literature reviews Nijman and Wei, 2020, development of box-and-arrow frameworks around concepts essential to studying inequalities (ex. accessibility Geurs and van Wee, 2004, transport poverty Lucas et al., 2016 or energy poverty Robinson, 2019), empirical approaches in developing indicators [Xu et al., 2020, Lowe et al., 2022], moving beyond an economic lens to understand the distribution of infrastructure capabilities Pereira et al., 2017, and incorporating notions of equity and justice in evaluating social exclusion van Wee and Geurs, 2011. While excellent in their work, none of these frameworks support the view of how inequalities are systemically linked. Having a systemic view of the multifaceted phenomenon of inequalities will situate case-studies under appropriate systemic relationships and identify linkages across dimensions and scales of inequalities.

Thus, this thesis you will tackle the question: what are the different dimensions of inequalities that people face in an urban environment and how are they related to each other? In this thesis, through the lens of urban systems-thinking Meerow et al., 2016, you will co-create Lang et al., 2012 an integrated framework built upon the theory of social impact assessment (SIA) Vanclay, 2002. The SIA framework, when adjusted to an urban issue, constitutes the different social aspects of impact that might be faced by an urban population. These include, but are not limited to, health and well-being, quality of built-environment, economic and material well-being, cultural aspects, community relations, institutional and legal aspects, and gender relations. The research will draw on other case and place based studies of indicators measuring various forms of inequalities and identify how they fall into or expand the categories of SIA. To acquire knowledge about other forms of inequalities that do not fit into theoretical or empirical evidence bases, you will co-create and extend this framework to incorporate knowledge from stakeholders associated with the problem of inequality: namely by hosting participatory workshops for 3 case-studies in The Hague, The Netherlands; Delhi, India; and Sao Paolo, Brazil. (thjese can also be 3 cities in The Netherlands for ease of managing stakeholder participation). The goal is to use the framework as a deliberative tool - a boundary object Star et al., 1989 that becomes a point of focus for exchange of multiple social realities and perspectives - for eliciting knowledge crucial to every actor Dany et al., 2016, simultaneously staying well-defined yet adaptive. Your focus will be on The Hague where we will facilitate stakeholder deliberation workshops with policymakers in different sectors of mobility, health, energy, environment etc., community-led NGOs supporting citizen groups in urban commons or communal efforts, infrastructure developers and operators of social housing, transit and energy, and citizen representative groups from a specific region that faces the highest forms of inequality in the city. Due to lack of structured datasets available for the other case studies, they will be used only in part of the thesis, brokered through local academic and policy networks, to understand how various actors view the definition of inequalities proposed, and what is the scope for the framework’s adaptive use in different policy contexts. This will be followed by building a bipartite ontological mapping of indicators of the various social and economic impacts onto the different dimensions of inequalities identified in co-creation process. To identify existing indicators and develop new ones necessary to represent the dimensions of inequalities, we will use a well-established approach in environmental change research that uses multiple indicators for aggregating the extent of social vulnerability and assessing the ranking and spatial distribution of such indicators Cutter et al., 2003. Following the co-creating phase, we will use desk research methods and interviews with the stakeholders, and examine the data at the neighbourhood level (together with anopther thesis student) to identify specific or proxy indicators measuring inequalities.

This thesis will lead to a). developing an overarching conceptual framework for studying inequalities by expanding the scope beyond economic or wealth implications, and casting it as a multidimensional problem instead of tackling it across disciplines and sectors individually; b). a comprehensive translation and mapping of socio-economic indicators for which datasets are maintained by municipalities onto the ontologies of multifaceted inequalities; and, c) methodological insights into transdisciplinary co-creation of frameworks and its use and validation in other contexts.

If you are interested in this topic, please contact Dr. Trivik Verma [t.verma@tudelft.nl] with the email subject [MSc – systemic and interconnected nature of inequalities].