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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





My disciplinary grounding is somewhat unconventional, beginning with an undergraduate degree in architecture (India: 1989-94), following which I moved to New York to get an MS in Urban Design (Pratt Institute: 1994-96). After a few years in the professional sector of urban design and planning (in the US and the UK), I enrolled for a part-time PhD in Planning at the Department of Geography, London School of Economics (London: 2002-2008). My academic career began in 2008, starting with a lectureship at the MSc Urban Studies programme of the newly established UCL Urban Laboratory. Between 2008 and 2011, I held a a joint position between the Department of Geography and Development Planning Unit, the Bartlett teaching in their MSc Building and Urban Design in Development programme. Since 2011, I am a full-time lecturer in Geography & Urban Design at the Department of Geography, UCL, and a co-director of the UCL Urban Laboratory. In 2012, I was appointed as an editor at the City Journal.

Given this trajectory, I take inter-disciplinarity, everyone's favourite buzz-word more seriously than most, using discourses from architecture and geography to conceptually and methodologically think through some of the broad concerns within urban studies ranging from informality to ecology in the city. I also use my teaching focus to engage more actively with my own embeddedness in the hyphenated condition of an academic-practitioner, positioning practice centrally within the pedagogy of urban studies.


            Book reviews

            Non-peer reviewed publications

            • Arabindoo, P. (2016). Radical design: From ideology to practice. In Kaasa, A., Bingham-Hall, J. and Pietrostefani, E. (Eds.), Designing politics: the limits of design. (pp. 27-29). London and Paris: Theatrum Mundi, LSE Cities and FMSH.

            Working Papers


            Since 2003 I have been undertaking research in the Indian city of Chennai, documenting its spatio-political transformations to produce what Mike Davis (2006) has referred to as a ‘biography of conjoncture’. It uncovers the material transformation of the city, planned and otherwise, exposing the tensions and reconciliations between the contradictory articulations of the global and the provincial. In this context, my research is framed by two conceptual gestures: Firstly, it is a response to an ongoing call for a ‘southern turn’ in urban studies, whereby the centre of theory-making moves to the global South. Recognising the fact that such an exercise can replicate new geographies of elite policymaking where a select roster of cities from the South such as Mumbai, Sao Paolo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Mexico City and Istanbul dominate this agenda of provincializing global urbanism. It is in this context of avoiding the rewriting of new kinds of metonyms and paradigms that I seek a less familiar city like Chennai, one that carries little pretensions towards “worlding” itself. Over the past ten years, I have relied on the grounded theorisation offered by an ethnography of this one particular city to contribute to the ongoing sophisticated debates within urban studies including informality, political ecology of water and nature, and the bigger question of what actually constitutes the urban. Secondly, my research is situated amidst a growing corpus of new writings on the urban in the Indian subcontinent rejecting the banal quality of contemporary scholarship on India’s urbanisation – a generic essentialism of the Indian city based on a largely demographic interpretation and uninspiring periodisation of urban growth. Instead, it follows suggestions to steer clear of larger frameworks of looking for the Indian city, focussing on particular cities: Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi. All this is currently being consolidated into a monograph on Chennai, tentatively titled The unknown city: Excavating Chennai from Madras. Using longstanding empirical research in Chennai, I contribute to three main discourses:

          • Politics of the Indian middle class: This strand emerges from my doctoral dissertation which considered how a discourse of urban citizenship is invoked by middle class residents in Chennai through their civil society activism (mainly through their residents welfare associations). While scholars examining the rise of the new middle class in India have been quick to identify it as a powerful social group claiming unhindered access to Indian cities, through 10 months of in-depth ethnographic research I found that portrayals of the middle class as agents of urban restructuring are more about their aspirations while the reality is rather complex and murkier. I explored this through their assertions of a bourgeois imaginary over the city’s public spaces, mainly the beaches, finding a parochialisation of the public spaces discourse, one that fails to hold together at scales beyond localised concerns. I have used this material to develop a more cautionary theorisation of the broader discourse of public spaces in the Indian context.
          • Evictions and resettlement: While there is no doubt that a broad agenda of bourgeois urbanism dominating Indian cities has polarised the Indian middle class and the urban poor (two social groups who have had a more mutually dependent relationship in the past), I argue that the politics of the urban poor needs to be considered beyond the conceptual abstractions of informality, especially as they face the brutal prospects of evictions and resettlement. To this extent, since 2010 I have been investigating this phenomenon as large swathes of the city’s poor are unceremoniously evicted from the core and resettled at the margins. Employing the Lefebvrian lens of Right to the City, I analyse different moments in the city when such movements peak and dip at frequent intervals.
          • Water and nature: Much of the violent relocation of the urban poor has been framed around ecological re-imaginations, ones that go beyond the simple framings of a ‘clean and green’ city or even the seductive explanation of the favoured ‘bourgeois environmentalism’. Water and nature constitute a major part of this imaginary where the more they are invoked the less clarity there is to our subscribed understandings of the city’s ecosystem. I highlight this paradox through my critique of the rainwater harvesting discourse in Chennai, one that emerged in the wake of the 2003-04 water crisis. I have followed this up with a broader rethinking of nature in the city, closely related to efforts to reconstitute nature back in the city, either through aesthetically driven exercises such as eco-parks or through reminders about the oddly interchangeable tagging of wetlands as wastelands and vice versa. Extending this analysis to the way environmental knowledges and subjectivities are formed and held, I use this particularly to provide an anatomy of the devastating 2015 floods in the city, critiquing our common invocation of natural disasters as unprecedented.
          • Impact


            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: Comparative lessons from India and China (Convenor)

            URBNG006 Urban Practices (Convenor)

            URBNG099 Dissertation (Convenor)

            GEOGG093 Cities and Climate Change (Co-convenor)

            Undergraduate Geography

            GEOG3072 Urban Geography II / Asian Cities: Comparative lessons from India and China (Convenor)

            PhD Students

            Principal PhD Supervisor

            2010 – 2016        Petchpilai Lattanan (UCL Geography; Funded by HM Queen’s Scholarship for Asian Students, Thailand)

            From a ‘City of Angels’ to a city in flux: (Anti)Planning a middle class Bangkok in a Thai-style democracy (completed)

            2011 – 2014        Helena Rivera (Bartlett School of Planning; Funded by the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Scholarship with the Architecture Foundation)

            Reinventing the British New Town for the twenty-first century (completed)

            2013 – Ongoing   Niranjana Ramesh (UCL Geography; Funded by UCL BHP-Billiton Impact Studentship)

            Techno-politics of urban water: The case of desalination in Chennai and London

            2009 – Ongoing   Braulio Eduardo Morera (UCL Geography; Self-funded)

            (Part-time)           The politics of sustainability: The new environmental metaphors in Chinese low carbon cities

            2012 – 2014        Rit Chandra (Bartlett School of Planning; Self-funded)

            A phoenix or just ashes? Informal manufacturing sector at cross-roads in post-liberalisation India

            Visiting PhD Students

            2016 – 2017        Tobias Baitsch (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne/EPFL) at UCL on a Doctoral Mobility Research Funding from the Swiss National Federation

            Incremental urban development: Mumbai’s informal neighbourhoods in the making

            2011 – 2012        Aditya Mohanty (IIT Kanpur India) at UCL on a Commonwealth Split-Site Doctoral Scholarship

            Localism in a megapolis: The case of Bhagidhari in Delhi

            Subsidiary PhD supervisor

            2016 – Ongoing   Tania Guerrero (Funded by CONACyT Scholarship, Mexico)

            Impact of recent housing policies in the evolution of formal and informal affordable housing developments in Mexico City

            2012 – Ongoing   Fatema Jahan (Funded by Commonwealth Scholarship)

            Gender, embodiment and agency: Women factory workers in the garment industry of Bangladesh