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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  People  /  Academic Staff  /  Pushpa Arabindoo

Pushpa Arabindoo

Department of Geography

University College London
G21, 26 Bedford Way

Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 5512
Fax: +44 (0)20 7679 7565


Pushpa initially trained as an architect in India (1989-94) and as an urban designer at Pratt Institute, New York (1994-96). She worked in the urban design and planning sector for several years in New York and London before enrolling for a part-time PhD in Planning (2002-2008) at the Department of Geography, London School of Economics. Between 2008 and 2011, she was a lecturer at the UCL Urban Laboratory, holding a joint position between the Department of Geography and Development Planning Unit, the Bartlett. Since 2011, she is a full-time lecturer in the Department of Geography, UCL, and a co-director of the UCL Urban Laboratory.

Combining her training in architecture and geography, she adopts an inter-disciplinary approach to understand better the multiple and complex ways in space is imagined, produced and consumed in the contemporary urban condition, primarily in the cities of the global South, with a focus on South Asian cities. Her research investigates several aspects of Indian urbanisation including aesthetic dimensions of planning, emerging forms of middle-class militancy, and the political impact of environmental disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 floods.

She continues her dual role as both an academic and practitioner in the planning sector, combining her research knowledge with practical experience to develop innovative design and policy-based solutions to problems in urban planning. As a practicing urban designer and planner, she offers consultancy advice to both public and private sector organisations in UK and India. Her recent professional appointments in the UK include the CABE Enabling Panel, South West Regional Enabling Panel, and a design review panel member at Opun (East Midlands Development Agency) and Integreat Yorkshire (Yorkshire Forward).

  • 2013 (forthcoming). Urban design in the realm of urban studies. In M. Carmona (Ed.), Explorations in urban design: An urban design research primer. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • 2013 (forthcoming). The calculus of telescopic urbanism, City.
  • 2013 (under preparation). ‘Blaming the other: Dirt and danger in Chennai’s beaches’.
  • 2012. Middle-class moralities: everyday struggle over belonging and prestige in India/Being middle-class in India: a way of life, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 19(6), 813-816.
  • 2012. Bajji on the beach: Middle class food practices in Chennai's New Beach. In C. McFarlane & M. A. Weiebl (Eds.), Urban informalities: Reflections on the formal and informal, pp. 67-88. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • 2011. Chennai as "cut-out" city. In Gandy. M (Ed.), Urban constellations, pp. 118-122. Berlin: Jovis Verlag.
  • 2011. Beyond the return of the ‘slum’, City, 15(6), 631-635.
  • 2011. Rhetoric of the 'slum', City, 15(6), 636-646.
  • 2011. Mobilising for water: Hydro-politics of rainwater harvesting in Chennai. International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, 3(1), 106-126.
  • 2011. 'City of sand': Stately re-imagination of Marina Beach in Chennai. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(2), 379-401.
  • 2009. Falling apart at the margins? Neighbourhood transformations in peri-urban Chennai. Development and Change, 40(5), 879-901.
  • 2008. ‘Isolated by elitism: Pitfalls of recent heritage conservation attempts in Chennai’, in Prashad, D. (ed) New Architecture & Urbanism: Development of Indian Traditions, pp. 155-160. INTBAU and The Nabha Foundation, New Delhi.
  • 2006. ‘Geography of a lingua franca, history of a linguistic fracas’, in Venkatachalapathy, A. R. (ed) Chennai, not Madras, pp. 19-38. Mumbai: Marg Publications
  • 2006. ‘Neighbourhood transformations in peri-urban Chennai’, in V. Dupont and N. Srid­haran (eds) Peri-urban dynamics: Case studies in Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai, pp. 17-53. New Delhi: CSH Occasional Paper No. 17, publication of the French Research Institutes in India.
  • 2005. ‘Examining the peri-urban interface as a constructed primordialism’, in V. Dupont (ed) Peri-urban dynamics: Population, habitat and environment on the peripheries of large Indian metropolises, pp. 39-74. New Delhi: CSH Occasional Paper No. 14, publication of the French Research Institutes in India.

My main research interest draws from my PhD thesis ‘Absent societies: Contouring urban citizenship in postcolonial Chennai’, where I examined the way the new middle class in Indian cities employ their bourgeois sensibilities of propriety and right to paraphrase urban citizenship and their right to the city. I am currently developing three strands of focus coming out of this work.

The first looks at how a bourgeois state and its citizenry have constructed a new development discourse around ‘elite’ issues such as heritage and environment framed increasingly around dominant class interests. Looking at the role of political ecology on the constraining nature of urban citizenship in a neoliberal condition, I have undertaken an assessment of the rehabilitation initiatives in India following natural disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami and the 2005 floods which have involved covert and overt mechanisms of disciplining the poor and marginalised. I have been investigating the re-scripting of planning regulations by the Indian state using the rationale of an "expert" yet exclusive techno-scientific knowledge system.  I have just completed fieldwork in Chennai looking at the state-sponsored Adyar Eco-Park whose aestheticised discourse is steeped in socio-spatial purification strategies and disguises a more violent politics of eviction. In addition, I am also looking at the media coverage and middle class responses to the launch of Tata Nano, illustrating the rhetoric of a bourgeois environmental debate.

The second strand seeks to diversify my disciplinary approach to studying the Indian middle class and hence sets its examination within the debates of global health. Combining discourses from geography, anthropology and epidemiology, this project looks at how the middle class understand the rise of diabetes and obesity as a specific manifestation of globalisation and neoliberalisation, and thereby address the epidemiological transition to chronic non-communicable diseases in urban India. While my PhD and current research concentrated on developing an ethnography of one particular city (Chennai), this research adopts a comparative approach and is set in the three southern Indian cities of Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.

The final project looks at the political economy of diasporic pilgrimage in India. This emerged from my field interrogations with the middle class which revealed their reflexive relationship with the non-resident Indian (NRI), a specific manifestation of the Indian diaspora, and by looking at the NRI as a pilgrim-tourist during their regular ‘return visits’ to India, I intend to explore how the NRI negotiates his/her diasporic identity. In this regard, I have established a research group on Diaspora and Development within the British Association of South Asian Studies (BASAS). Through this group I hope to bring together scholars working on the Indian diaspora who try to understand it beyond the simple, traditional discourse of nostalgia for cultural symbols.


Interview with The Hindu Business Line 'Make planning more independent' published on 22 December 2013 (

Invited by The Hindu to moderate a session on 'India's mega cities: Centres of hope or centres of despair?' on 12 January 2014 as part of their Lit for Life Festival. (;


My research mainly revolves around the ethnography of one particular city, Chennai in India, a city I have been investigating since 2003 documenting the politics of urban development through different lenses (middle class as well as slum dweller activism, ecological reimaginations, public spaces, planning and governance, etc.). Based on this research history, I was invited as a speaker by the Moscow City Government in December 2013 to its Third Annual Moscow Urban Forum, an event aimed at bringing together experts, investors and potential partners ( I also participated in the wider festival open to the public speaking about 'Rethinking the region: Planning challenges' (

I was invited by the Asia House London to speak at their signature conference The New Asian Middle Class, drawing from my research on the Indian middle class. Seeking to examine the demographic upheavals taking place across Asian emerging economies, the event held on 04 April 2013 comprised two panels: The Demographic Dividend and Urbanisation Unleashed. My presentation on Mobility and Infrastructure focussed on the challenges of moving the middle class in urban India. These panels involved a discussion amongst experts from practice, think-tanks and research consultancies, academia, private sector investors as well as state representatives.

I edited a special feature Beyond the return of the ʽslumʼ in the CITY Journal (15:6, 2011) which included an introduction as well as a contributing article by myself (Rhetoric of the ʽslumʼ). Based on the arguments made in this article, I was invited in June 2013 by the International NGO, Save the Children, to give a presentation to their regional directors on the emerging landscape of urban poverty, and the challenges it presents to the INGOʼs agenda. This has recently been incorporated as well in a report ʽMapping the way forwardʼ, commissioned by Save the Children International and prepared by Urban Futures Project, Kingʼs College London. Details of this project and the report can be found here:


My most recent research involves tracing the changing politics of slum evictions in the Indian city of Chennai. To this extent I have been conducting an ethnography of slum dweller activism in the city and its historical evolution. This included engaging with representatives of Tamil Nadu Slum Dwellers Association, All Slum Residential Welfare Associations Federation, local activists from the National Slum Dwellers Federation, a local NGO called Tozhamai working with residents of the slum resettlement sites at Kannagi Nagar and Semmancheri and other Right to Information (RTI) activists. I have been mainly exploring how they could employ the Right to the City discourse in a useful way, extending beyond its appeal as a slogan to invoke legal-institutional rights of the slum dwellers facing eviction and resettlement.

As a practising masterplanner/urban designer based in the UK, I have served on several panels including the CABE Enabling Panel, Places Matter! Design Review Panel for North West (2008-2011), Integreat Plus Design Review Panel for Yorkshire, and OPUN East Midlands Design Review Panel.

MSc Urban Studies

URBNG002 Cities Space and Power (Convenor)

URBNG004 Asian Cities in a globalising South: Comparative lessons from India and China (Convenor)

URBNG006 Urban Practices (Convenor)

URBNG099 Dissertation (Convenor)

Department of Geography

GEOG3053 Asian Cities in a globalising South: Comparative lessons from India and China (Convenor)

GEOG3054 Independent study (Convenor)