A focus on urban wastelands within a broadly European, North American or even East Asian context risks occluding differences both within and between cities. If we extend the analytical frame to the global South, however, a new set of anomalies emerge such as the epidemiological dimensions to urban nature where the emergence of zoonoses, insect vectors for disease, and other factors complicate the cultural and scientific aspects to urban ecology and its intersection with intensified forms of corporeal marginalization. The European experience will be contrasted with that of Chennai (formerly Madras) where there is intense conflict over land and resources, especially at the margins of the rapidly extending metropolitan region.

The Pallikaranai Marsh, for example, is a site of international ecological importance for bird migration but also a focus of intensifying development pressures. Cultural and historical aspects to the analysis will also explore the complex mix of words and metaphors associated with marginal spaces such as the Tamil term porambokku that became appropriated during the colonial era to refer to “unclaimed sites”. The environmental history of Chennai is entwined with wider histories of colonial and post-colonial governmentality that challenge existing conceptions of urban nature.