School of GeoSciences

School of GeoSciences

Rowan Ellis



2013-current: Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Edinburgh

2009-2012: Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Geography and Social Theory, University of Aberdeen

2010: PhD, Geography, University of Washington

Research Interests

My research is motivated by a deep seated interest in Class Politics, Planetary Urbanisation, and Displacement and Exclusion. I explore these themes through research in South Asia, focusing primarily on the city of Chennai in South India. My work falls into three broad areas of inquiry:

Political Practices of the New Indian Middle Class

My earlier research focused on the ways in which the urban middle class were organizing themselves politically to make claims on the city. I became specifically interested in the political practices through which the middle classes exerted influence over urban space and in so doing, reproduced their class privilege. In the context of neoliberal reforms to urban governance in India, Urban Local Bodies have been recast as institutions of self-government, with a greater degree of fiscal autonomy and responsibility To facilitate this autonomy, new urban initiatives like the Jawaharlal Urban Renewal Mission call for a new approach to urban governance, built on a vision of public-private partnerships for infrastructure and service delivery, and an expanded role for civil society in decision-making processes.

What this means for middle class political practice is that there are new opportunities to get involved in decision making processes through civil society forms like small local NGOs, resident welfare associations, and environmental clubs. These civil society groups have become vocal in demanding better infrastructure, more accountable public officials, and improved environmental amenities. Equally significant to these claims, is the way middle class civil society organisations overtly attempt to distance their political practices, from more popular forms of politics. They do this by adopting a political style and praxis that is both professionalized, non-confrontational, and built on principles of partnership and consultation, a sort of anti-politics in self-conscious opposition to the distributive claims and protest politics of the poor and working classes.

Environmental Amenities and the Entrepreneurial City

Recently I have become interested in the ways environmental issues, however diversely defined, have become so central to the contestations and conflicts about urban space in India. Much of the organizational effort of middle class civil society groups became focused on campaigns to clear footpaths of encroachers, to redevelop parks and green spaces, or to improve urban sanitation. Within this growing movement, the concept of “habitat” functions as a powerful rhetorical device, which signals the a fusion of an urban quality of life, NIMBY-ish politics, with a discourse of urban environmental restoration and sustainability.

At the same time, Chennai’s increasingly entrepreneurial city government has utilized the language of environmental restoration to launch several high-profile initiatives to improve urban environmental amenities through the creation of eco-parks, river-walks, and beach beautification schemes. This new environmental zeal not only responds to the desires of urban elites for a clean and green city, but is also part of a city-worlding project, self-consciously emulating the environmental aesthetics of other world-class cities.

Displacement, ‘Eco-Gentrification’, and the Production of Environmental Vulnerability

What is perhaps most interesting (or troubling) is the way that much recent enthusiasm for urban environmental restoration goes hand-in-hand with a drive to cleanse urban space of the poor. On the ground, the environmental restoration agenda has resulted in large scale displacement of the urban poor from informal settlements in the central city, the reclamation of public land for private or semi-private use, and the relocation of many of those displaced from information settlement to environmentally sensitive on the urban periphery.

In many ways, new urban environmental projects in Chennai are premised on an amenities-driven transformation of urban space that is directed primarily at urban elites, and often for the benefit of private capital. This and the resulting forms of spatial exclusion, make Sarah Dooling’s description of environmental projects in Seattle as “ecological gentrification” applicable to the urban context in South Asia.



Journal Articles

Ellis, R. (2012) "A World Class City of Your Own!": civic governmentality in Chennai, India Antipode [doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00958.x]

Ellis, R. (2011) Whose Participation? Whose Sustainability?: India’s urban eco-parks Scottish Geographical Journal 127(3): 193-208.

Ellis, R. (2011) The Politics of the Middle: Re-centering Class in the Postcolonial. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies. 10(1): 69-81. URL:

Ellis, R. (2010) Who Participates? Rethinking Civil Society in the Context of Competing Definitions of Urban Sustainability. World Bank, Washington, D.C.

Ellis, R. (under review) Face-Time’, Friends, and ‘People Like Us’: gatekeepers and the micro-politics of researching class and class mobility.; submitted to Professional Geographer.

Ellis, R. and Galvis, J.P. (under review) Greening the World Class City: recasting city and citizenship through urban environmentalism in Chennai and Bogota” for International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Book Chapters

Ellis, R. (2013) “Public Performances: enacting citizenship in Chennai’s Second Master Plan Consultation” In, Coelho, Karen, Lalitha Kamath and M.Vijaybaskar (eds.) Participolis: Consent and Contention in Neoliberal Urban India. Series "Cities and the Urban Imperative" Series Editor: Sujata Patel. New Delhi: Routledge

Ellis, R. (forthcoming) “Water: movement and impasse” The Handbook of Mobilities by Peter Adey, David Bissell, Kevin Hannam, Peter Merriman and Mimi Sheller (eds.) London: Routledge.


Ellis, R. (2012) “India’s New Economic Policy: a critical analysis” Edited by Waquar Ahmed, Amitabh Kundu, and Richard Peet. Economic Geography {doi: 10.1111/j.1944-8287.2012.01160.x]

Ellis, R. (2008) “Playing with Fire” Edited by Richa Nagar and Sangtin Writers. Progress in Human Geography, 32(5), 731-732.

Ellis, R. (2006) “Domicile and Diaspora: Anglo-Indian Women at Home and Abroad” By Alison Blunt. Social & Cultural Geography, 8(1)