As the housing crisis is getting increasingly worse it seems that more than ever that we need housing movements proposing progressive solutions. However, the almost complete lack of government action to address the crisis would seem to suggest that progressive solutions are not getting through to policy makers and politicians.  In this post, I offer four reflections for housing movements and those seeking a more just housing system to consider.

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  1. The big picture: demographics, credit and scarcity

Housing is at the centre of three irreversible process: demographics; scarcity and credit. We need to understand how these interact to appreciate the importance of housing politics today. First of all, there are strong demographic trends exercising pressure on the housing systems of medium and large cities. Populations are growing and people are living longer. Household size is steadily falling – people are living in smaller groups. And, finally, economic activity is increasingly concentrated. This means cities like Dublin will see significant in-migration (especially rural to urban) as people seek out employment.

These demographic trends, however, only become a problem in the context of the way the economics of housing works in market driven societies. This is a broad topic, but the most pressing matter for housing politics is the relationship between the availability of credit and the scarcity of land and property. Houses, land and property in desirably located urban areas are inherently scarce. We can’t just produce more of land to meet growing need. As such, given the above demographic trends, more people are competing for a scarce resource.

But credit money is not finite. As argued by Adair Turner in his recent Between Debt and the Devil banks don’t just help money move around the economy, they create money by issuing credit. This means credit can increase with few limits. But if desirably located urban land and real estate is scarce the inevitable result of increased credit is price inflation. This means property and housing becomes something of cash cow but it also introduces instability and volatility into market driven housing systems.

Over coming decades, intense competition for housing and erratic rises and falls of house and rental prices will become the norm in urban housing systems. This will lead to the expulsion and displacement of lower income and working class communities, the accumulation of private debt and volatility in the housing system, the financial system and the economy as a whole.

 

  1. The market and supply: its weakness is our strength

Because of the interaction of the above three processes housing markets are volatile and housing and rent is expensive. Here it is crucial that we appreciate an issue which cannot be underestimated in terms of its importance for housing activists: the market cannot and will not provide affordable housing for low and moderate income households.

In fact, the market has never been able to provide affordable housing. A brief look at Irish history is revealing here. Before significant state intervention in the housing system most working people rented housing in the private rental sector. The vast majority of this was over-priced and had extremely poor quality – the tenement being the most famous example. This changed from the 1930s. In the decades in the middle of the 20th century 50% of all housing output was social housing. Meanwhile, home owners also benefited from huge supports, in the form of tax relief and mortgages provided by the state.

This pattern is repeated across Europe – up until the 1930s every city was dominated by expensive private rental accommodation of dreadful quality. Throughout the 20th century this changed radically and social housing and home ownership became dominant, but only with a huge amount of state intervention.

The reality is that it is not profitable to build housing for people on low and moderate incomes. The only way it can become profitable is if you allow those people to borrow huge sums of money, which inevitably results in uncontrolled house price increases and eventual collapse, as we know only too well.

 

  1. Non-market solutions: playing to our strengths

Only non-market based solutions to the housing crisis can work. There is also an important strategic political point here. The key weakness of market based approaches to housing is not that they are unjust or that someone gets rich off them – it is that they don’t work and can’t work. The main strength of housing movements is that because we are willing to advocate for non-market solutions we can provide solutions in terms of the supply of affordable housing.

I think it is fair to say that we have remained somewhat ‘on the back foot’ in relation to the issue of housing supply. Housing activists for the most part have focused on the problems and injustices with the current housing system and the ‘vulture funds’ etc. that make money from it. We have tended to focus much less on providing solutions in terms of housing supply. Yet this is exactly where our main strength lies and where we should focus our energy.

In doing this, however, we have to be creative and innovative. In particular, we should be willing to look at innovative forms of financing and providing affordable housing. This includes new forms of financing social housing, such as including a greater role for private finance (credit unions, pension funds and banks) and cost rental and self-financing models. It should also include a greater role for not-for-profit housing providers such as housing association, cooperatives or community land trusts.

In exploring these innovations, we should not be afraid of taking a new approach to social housing and we should not be ideologically blinkered: by developing pragmatic solutions we will be able to put non-market approaches to housing at the centre of the debate.

 

  1. More than bricks and mortar

Creativity and innovation are also crucial at other levels. A great strength of housing movements is that we appreciate that a house is more than bricks and mortar, that a home is both a fundamental right and is a key part of our social and community life. How we think about housing and in particular supply of affordable housing can draw strength from this insight.

For example, provision of affordable housing should also be linked to the task of creating sustainable, mixed income communities. Similarly, housing provision should be linked with the extremely important challenge of environmental sustainability. This is another major social challenge that the market has absolutely no hope of responding to. Energy efficiency, sustainable water usage and environmentally friendly transport planning can and should all be part of progressive approaches to providing affordable housing.

Mick Byrne

Mick Byrne is a lecturer and researcher in UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice and a member of the Dublin Tenants Association.

Coffee – From 2.30 pm

Lecture – 3pm

HAUGHTON LECTURE THEATRE, MUSEUM BUILDING, TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN

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As part of the symposium organised by Karen Till (Maynooth University), Mapping Spectral Traces: The Place of the Wound, Professor Mindy Fullilove will give a public lecture on Friday afternoon 14 October in Trinity College. Prof. Fullilove is an amazing speaker and activist, as well as public and social health expert. No registration is necessary. Hope to see you there.

Professor Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD HON AIA, is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Public Health at Columbia University and Professor of Urban Policy and Health at The New School in New York. Dr. Fullilove has conducted research on AIDS and other epidemics of poor communities, with a special interest in the relationship between the collapse of communities and decline in health. She has also published numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs, and has worked with planners, designers and architects on projects linking communities to healthy urban ecologies. Her book publications include Root Shock: How Tearing up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (2005, One World) and Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities (2013, New Village Press).

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The role of finance and financial actors in shaping the city is increasingly key to understanding some contemporary urban problems. Why are rents rising? Why is office space being built when we’re in the middle of a homelessness crisis and desperately need to increase the supply of affordable housing? How and where is profit being produced from urban space and what are the likely outcomes of this type of model? All of these questions in some way relate to how finance shapes the city.

These questions have somewhat complex answers.  Moreover, these are also quickly shifting sands. Indeed, the crisis (both in Ireland and internationally) and government responses to it has also created new opportunities for financial actors (Vulture funds, Real Estate Investment Trusts etc) to invest in and profit from the production of urban space.  To understand the contemporary city requires us to understand the role that finance plays.

In a previous blog post I looked at the concept of the ‘financialization of the city’. There were two key arguments put forward in that post. The first was that it is important to grasp precisely what is being financialized when we say the city is being financialized. It is the capacity of urban space, or rather property ownership over urban space, to generate ‘rent’ by capturing socially produced value. The issuing of credit and other financial products secured by or underpinned by income streams arising from property is ultimately underpinned by this singular monopolistic feature of ‘place as a commodity’, to use Molotch and Logan’s term.

The second argument relates more specifically to the contemporary context of ‘financialization’, understood as a specific phase of the development of capitalist political economy. Here, the argument is that what is decisive about the current conjecture is the ‘tradability’ of income streams arising from property. The classic example here is the securitisation of mortgages, whereby mortgage repayments are bundled together and traded on international financial markets. This argument has been put forward by a number of the most insightful commentators on this issue, including John Coakley’s (1994) early and extremely prescient work on property as a financial asset and the empirically rich analyses of Guironnet and Halbert (2014; see also Gotham 2006; 2009). Fine and Saad-Filho are particularly succinct in their analysis here:

“[A] mortgage…remains a simple (transhistoric) credit relation between borrower and lender. However, it becomes embroiled in financialization once the mortgage obligation is sold on as part of some other asset…”

In my previous post and elsewhere (e.g. Byrne, 2016) I also but forward the above argument. However, there are problems with this approach that I’d like to address here briefly.

The principal problem with the focus on real estate as a ‘tradable income yielding asset’ (Guironnet and Halber, 2014) is the fact that it is overly reliant on the US case and especially on the example of securitization. This is understandable given the role of securitization in the financial crisis. But it presents a particular problem for understanding the financialization of the city in the European context, where securitization played a relatively minor role. Understanding the role of property in the European financial system leads us in another direction. Here, the key driver of the property bubble was flows of finance between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ (Flassbeck and Lapavitsas, 2015). This mainly took the form of inter-bank lending.

Essentially, northern European banks invested in the over-heating property markets of Ireland and Spain (and elsewhere) by lending to banks in those countries. Securitization did play a role in Spain (López and Rodríguez, 2010; Norris and Byrne, 2015), but it was far from the main vehicle through which credit flowed into real estate. Nor was it the vehicle through which income streams arising from Irish residential and commercial real estate flowed bank into the international financial system.

Most of the credit issued in Ireland during the property boom was non-securitized, more or less old fashioned development finance, investment loans and residential mortgages. The main driver was thus not financial innovation and the tradability of property as a financial asset, but economic and monetary union and the deregulation of financial flows, elimination of exchange rate risk and low ECB interest rates that accompanied it.

If the transformation of real estate into a tradable income-yielding asset is not the definitive feature of financialization of the city then what is? Drawing on the Irish and Spanish cases, the key feature relates to the way in which income streams arising from local real estate took on a structural and systemic role in the European financial system and its expansion as well as in European political economy more generally. As has been argued by others (Hadjimichalis, 2011; Flassbeck and Lapavitsas, 2015; there also many parallels with David Harvey’s work on the built environment as the secondary circuit of capital here), investment in and returns from real estate canalized the flows of capital from the ‘current account surplus’ core countries to the ‘current account deficit’ peripheral countries.

What is novel, then, is the systemic role of real estate in the circulation of interest bearing capital at a European level. The massive increase in the volume of credit flowing into real estate in Ireland and Spain reflects this role. From this point of view, securitization and inter-bank lending are two different mechanisms or avenues through which global financial capital can flow through local urban spaces, but not the cause or essential factor of the financialization of the city. Instead, the key  factor is the structural and systemic role that income streams arising from property take on in the accumulation of capital at the European level.

One concluding note which is interesting, however, is that the aftermath of the financial crisis has seen huge trading of financial assets linked to property in Ireland, Spain and across Europe. This has mainly taken the form of ‘bad banks’ and other ‘wind down operations’ selling distressed assets to US private equity and hedge funds (Byrne, 2015; 2016; forthcoming). This may mean the importance of property as a ‘tradable income yielding asset’ will grow in the aftermath of the crisis and the role of inter-banking landing and structural flows of capital between core and periphery may diminish. For the moment it is too early to draw any conclusion.

Articles referenced

Byrne, M. (2015). ‘Bad banks: the urban implications of Asset Management Companies’, Journal of Urban Research and Practice, 8(2) 255-266.

Byrne, M. (2016a). ‘Asset price urbanism’ and financialization after the crisis: Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(1), 31-45.

Byrne, M. (Forthcoming) ‘Bad banks and the urban dimension of financialization: theorizing the co-constitutive relationship between finance and urban space’. City.

Coakley, J. 1994. ‘The Integration of Property and Financial Markets’. Environment and Planning A 26 (5): 697–713.

Flassbeck, H., & Lapavitsas, C. (2015). Against the troika: Crisis and austerity in the Eurozone. Verso Books.

Gotham, K. F. 2006. The secondary circuit of capital reconsidered: globalization and the U.S. real estate sector. American Journal of Sociology 112(1): 231-75.

Gotham, K.F.  2009. Creating Liquidity out of spatial fixity: the secondary circuit of capital and the subprime mortgage crisis. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33(2): 355-71.

Guironnet, A. and Halbert, L. 2014. The financialization of urban development projects: concepts, processes, and implications. Working Paper n14-04 URL: https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal- 01097192/document

Hadjimichalis, C. (2011). Uneven geographical development and socio-spatial justice and solidarity: European regions after the 2009 financial crisis.European Urban and Regional Studies18(3), 254-274.

López, I. and E, Rodríguez. 2010. Fin de ciclo: financiarización, territorio y socieded de propeitarios en la onda large del capitalismo hispano. Madrid, Traficantes de Sueños.

Norris, M. and Byrne, M. 2015. Asset Price Keynesianism, Regional Imbalances and the Irish and Spanish Housing Booms and Busts. Built Environment, 41(2): 227-243.

Mick Byrne

Media coverage of the 2016 Population and Migration Estimates, just issued by the Central Statistics Office, has focused on the return to net immigration. This, combined with the recent report that 2 million people are now at work in Ireland, has been used as evidence of an economic upturn in Ireland.

These headline figures mask an important change that has taken place in Ireland. That change is shown by the ‘dependency ratio’, which measures the relative size of younger and older populations (under 15 and over 64) compared to the working age population (between 15 and 64). This ratio is important, because working people provide funds for public services and benefits, such as full-time education, health care and pensions, that are used by the younger and older populations. The higher this figure, the more people have to be supported by each working person.

The total dependency ratio across the EU as a whole in 2015 was 52.6% (calculated by Eurostat). This includes the young dependency ratio (23.8%) and the old age dependency ratio (28.8%). In Ireland in 2016, the total dependency ratio in 2016 was 55.3%, made up of the young dependency ratio (34.5%) and the old age dependency ratio (20.8%). On one level, this shows that there are proportionately more younger people and fewer older people in Ireland than across the EU. It is possible to argue that Ireland’s high young dependency ratio is potentially positive, but this would only be the case if these young people remained in Ireland. Instead, the CSO figures show us that many young people have left, particularly those aged between the ages of 20 and 40.

In 2016, total dependency ratios varied across regions. The highest was the Border region (62.7%), while the lowest was Dublin (49.8%). There were also considerable variations in the young and old age dependency ratios. These are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Dependency ratios by region in Ireland, 2016

Total dependency ratio Old-age dependency ratio Youth dependency ratio
STATE 55.3 20.8 34.5
Border 62.7 24.6 38.1
Dublin 49.8 18.4 31.3
Mid-East 56.0 17.2 38.8
Midland 56.8 19.8 37.0
Mid-West 58.0 23.1 34.9
South-East 56.8 22.3 34.4
South-West 55.3 21.8 33.5
West 59.2 23.9 35.3

Source: Calculated from CSO Population and Migration Estimates 2016

The geographical variation highlights one problem, since some areas (e.g. Border, West, and Mid-West) have proportionately fewer economically active people. A second problem is the dramatic change in total dependency ratio since 2009, when the average in Ireland was 47.3% (see Table 2). This means that there has been a significant increase in the proportion of younger and older people who are supported by working people.

Table 2: Total dependency ratio by region in Ireland, 2009 and 2016

2009 2016
STATE 47.3 55.3
Border 51.5 62.7
Dublin 42.5 49.8
Mid-East 47.0 56.0
Midland 51.5 56.8
Mid-West 48.6 58.0
South-East 50.6 56.8
South-West 47.8 55.3
West 49.2 59.2

Sources: Calculated from CSO Population and Migration Estimates, 2009 and 2016

Across the EU, changes in dependency ratios are attributed to declining fertility rates and ageing populations. This is not the case in Ireland, which consistently has one of the highest fertility rates in the EU. While the population of Ireland is ageing, the country has the lowest proportion of people aged over 64 in the EU. Instead, the key factor in Ireland’s changing dependency ratios is the decline in the proportion of the population aged between 15 and 65. This is a result of migration: in particular, the net emigration of almost 170,000 people aged from 15 to 44 in the years from 2009 to 2016. Net emigration is the main reason for the striking change in dependency ratios in Ireland.

Headline figures, such as a return to net immigration in 2016, mask the ongoing and persistent effects of austerity in Ireland. The increase in dependency ratios means that the working-age people who remain in Ireland have more people to support, particularly in rural areas. These geographical variations will intensify further in future years. There are long-term consequences from austerity, and the dependency ratios show this clearly, through the loss of a significant number of economically active people from the country. Headline figures must not distract us from this, more troubling, reality.

Mary Gilmartin

Rule #1 of the neoliberal playbook – when faced with a construction crisis, attack the planning system! It has been ever so since Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s environment secretary in the 1980s, launched his broadside against the “jobs locked up in the dusty filing cabinets of planning departments”. Of course, it matters little whether there is any evidence that the planning system is indeed stifling construction – the ideology demands that planning regulation remains firmly in the crosshairs. As Michael Gunder puts it – planning is “the chief remaining scapegoat of neoliberal governance”, a convenient patsy for contemporary policy failures.

Simon Coveney’s glossy production ‘Rebuilding Ireland – An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’ launched last month to much fanfare promises a ‘root and branch’ review of the planning system. A headline element of the strategy is to speed-up the planning process – an ever-present feature of neoliberal planning reforms – by allowing large housing applications of a hundred units or more to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. This is proposed as a temporary measure for four years to incentivise large-scale housing production in a manner similar to strategic infrastructure applications. The apparent rationale for this fast-tracked planning consent system is that: “with almost all planning approvals of larger housing developments for 100 new homes or more being appealed to An Bord Pleanála, this has meant that there is in effect a two-stage planning application process which can take 18 to 24 months to secure ultimate approval to go on site and start to build.” (Pg 62)Of course, no evidence is presented to support this assertion. Indeed, An Bord Pleanála’s own annual report, published earlier this month, states that: “The number of appeal cases for housing developments received over the past two years has remained low, 35 cases of 30+ units in 2014 versus the peak of 568 in 2007. While the number of 30+ housing appeals received has increased slightly (60 to the end of 2015), the number of such cases remains low.” (Pg 35). All of these appeals, according to An Bord Pleanála, have been disposed of within the statutory compliance time of eighteen weeks. Furthermore, there is also no evidence whatsoever that the strategic infrastructure process actually speeds-up the planning system, with just half of such applications over the past ten years decided upon within eighteen weeks and, only then, after lengthy pre-application consultations.

The reality is that, despite the assiduous commitment by influential commentators over the past few years to successfully paint a picture of planning as the chief villain and bugbear in impeding housing supply, permission is currently in place for 27,000 shovel ready homes in Dublin alone. According to the strategy, just 4,809 or 18% of these potential units are currently under active construction i.e. 82% of potential homes with planning permission are not commenced at all. The planning system is clearly not the impediment here. The strategy even includes a proposal that the lifetime of these extant planning permissions be extended further. This would mean that often poor quality and poorly located Celtic Tiger era housing could still be constructed as far out as 2021. Furthermore, according to the Residential Land Availability Survey, as I have written previously, nationwide, there is enough zoned land to provide for 16 years of new housing supply based on an annual projected requirement of 25,000 units.

In order to maximise the efficiency of the process under the new system, the strategy proposes that An Bord Pleanála will be required to make a decision within eighteen weeks and will only be able to seek requests for further information or to hold oral hearings in “exceptional circumstances”. For local authority own development under Part VIII (social housing, roads, community facilities etc.), the whole process is to be streamlined to a maximum of twenty weeks. Proposals for major housing developments and other infrastructure are complex undertakings which are irreversible and shape places and communities for generations. The idea that adequate consideration could be given to such proposals, while fulfilling all requirements pursuant to EU and national law, within these compressed timeframes and without recourse to seeking further environmental or technical information or giving adequate consideration to local concerns or right of appeal, is a recipe for yet another great planning disaster. While the need to intensify use of vacant space in town centres is paramount, the proposal in the strategy to exempt from planning permission residential development over shops and commercial units also seems neither sensible nor workable.

Of course, if the history of strategies in Ireland is any yardstick, we should not get too carried away about Rebuilding Ireland actually ever being implemented and it will most likely remain just a paper strategy. All of the targets in it seem hopelessly optimistic and the funding proposals tenuous. It is interesting, however, that its publication was uncritically welcomed by pretty much everyone from the Construction Industry Federation to the Peter McVerry Trust – for in the teeth of a ‘crisis’ who could be against a housing strategy? This is the trump card of lobby groups such as the CIF – to position their vested interests as an illusory societal interest. The Irish Planning Institute, not an organisation given to mounting robust defences against planning scapegoating, were among the few to release an insipid statement expressing “concern”. However, there are very good reasons to be vigilant about the prevailing anti-planning rhetoric and the ‘root and branch’ review of planning proposed by Coveney. Over the past five years, the government has shown scant interest in implementing the crucial regulatory reforms recommended by the Mahon Tribunal and have consistently shown de-regulatory tendencies. Completely absent from this strategy are any measures to provide a pro-active role for planning in delivering housing and other infrastructure – like ensuring local authorities are staffed with the requisite range of planners and other expertise? The only reference to local authority resources is the introduction of new on-line planning services, again in the name of efficiency.

It is perhaps the greatest indictment of the impotence of the state that, in a Circular Letter issued by Coveney subsequent to the publication of the strategy, the so called ‘active land management’ measures involve politely asking developers to sell their lands to housing providers and, if not, local authorities should identify alternative lands elsewhere. Absent is the one measure, as recommended by pretty much everyone, that could actually release hoarded zoned and serviced land into productive use, re-invigorate under-utilised town centre properties and simultaneously contribute to the finances of broke local authorities – a site value tax. Instead, the state has once again capitulated to the development lobby and opted to subsidise developers through a new infrastructure fund, abolition of windfall taxes on sale of zoned lands, reduced development contribution levies, much weakened Part V social housing requirements and lowered apartment standards.

Gavin Daly

Annual Conference of the RSA Irish Branch (in conjunction with NUI Galway and The Western Development Commission   Planning for Regional Development)
The National Planning Framework as a Roadmap for Ireland’s Future?
Friday 9 September 2016, NUI Galway

Preliminary Program Now Available at:

http://rsa-ireland.weebly.com/uploads/6/9/6/0/6960312/rsa_-_conference_v_2.pdf

 

The prelim results for Census 2016 make it clear that housing vacancy continues to be a serious issue in Ireland.  Given that new housing units grew by only 18,981 to 2,022,895 and population grew by 169,724 to 4,757,976m between 2011 and 2016, one might have expected vacancy to have fallen substantially.  However, housing unit vacancy fell by only 29,889 to 259,562.  Of these 61,204 are holiday homes (HHs), a slight growth of 1,809 from 2011.  On a base level vacancy of 6%, oversupply is 76,984.

Vacancy and oversupply varies geographically as Map 1 demonstrates.  Excluding holiday homes all but three local authorities – South Dublin (4%), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (5.7%) and Fingal (5.3%) – having vacancy rates (exc. HHs) above base vacancy.  In several cases housing vacancy (exc. HHs) is running above 10% and four local authorities have rates above 15%.  The issue is particularly acute in the north west.

Map 1: Housing vacancy (exc. HHs) in Ireland

Map 1: Housing vacancy (exc. HHs) in Ireland

One might expect that the vacancy rate has been declining everywhere, but this is far from the case.  In fact, vacancy has been rising in many EDs.  In Figure 1, each dot is an ED, with each dot above the line representing an increase in vacancy (exc. HHs).  In some cases the increase is quite dramatic.

07_Scatterplot_BxPltSo, the question is what has led some EDs to increase in vacancy?  Some of it is obsolescence – in any housing market 3-5 properties drop out of use in a year.  Some of it might be properties under-construction and on unfinished estates being completed (and thus counted) but are not yet occupied.  And some of it will be related to population change and migration.

Here, we want to look at the latter since a large number of EDs lost population between 2011-2016, especially those in rural areas (with towns in rural counties growing).

Map 2 shows population and vacancy (exc. HHs) categorised into four classes.

  1. (light blue): population decreased and vacancy decreased (687)
  2. (blue): population decreased and vacancy increased (705)
  3. (red): population increased and vacancy decreased (1497)
  4. (light red): population increased and vacancy increased (517)

06_PopChg_and_VacChgThe relationship we would expect would be classes 2 and 3 – where population decreased, vacancy increased, and where population increased, vacancy decreased.  And that happens in 2022 EDs (out of 3406).  However, in 1204 cases (c. a third), something odd happens: as population increases, vacancy increases (517 cases), or as population decreases, vacancy decreases (687 cases).  In the case of the latter this might be explained by obsolescence and household fragmentation.  We would be interested to hear of other possible explanations.

Without further analysis it’s not possible to determine the causes of this inverse relationship.  However, what the data does show us is that how housing vacancy is unfolding is not universal and there are different social and spatial processes at work.

Rob Kitchin and Martin Charlton