Peripheral centralities: Lost, past, present and future

Blog 9th November 2023

In this guest post, Professor Nicholas Phelps, Professor Roger Keil and Professor Paul Maginn write about their seminar series, which was supported by the USF through a Seminar Series Award grant.

The seminar series – Peripheral Centralities – was initiated by Nicholas Phelps (University of Melbourne), Paul Maginn (University of Western Australia) and Roger Keil (York University, Canada) as a set of opportunities for scholars and practitioners to think through and evidence the centrality of urban peripheries to the organization, functioning, experience and physical development of cities. The field of urban studies remains overly focused on historic city cores and these seminars provided an opportunity to continue to rethink the field of urban studies and the practice of city making from the ‘outside in’. Presentations and materials can be found at the following Melbourne School of Design website.

Four seminars were held during 2021 to 2023 and were aimed at different audiences and eliciting a variety of academic and practitioner perspectives on the past and contemporary significance of urban peripheries. Seminar 1 was held online in September 2021 and composed of 18 presentations by urban planning historians in multiple international time zones and covering a spread of global South and North examples. The focus of this seminar was on uncovering lost and past examples of projects and plans that sought to centre the urban peripheries of cities. They included examples of plans that never materialised and those that did but whose impact and significance has been forgotten with the passage of time and urban extension. A thematic summary of the presentations was published as a commentary in Urban Studies ‘Centring the periphery’ (Phelps, Maginn and Keil, 2022) while chapter texts from the presentations are due to be published as an edited volume in the Routledge Planning, History and Environment series.

Colour photograph of a group of people standing outside of the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre building in Toronto, Canada.
Participants at Peripheral Centralities Seminar 3 on location at Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, November 2022 Toronto.

Seminar 2 was centred on practitioner perspectives on the present and future of community building in Australia’s urban peripheries. A half day of ten presentations from state and local government and consulting planners and urban designers and residential developers was held online as part of the National Growth Areas Alliance Annual Conference. A variety of examples of best practice in suburban community making were unveiled.

Seminar 3 returned to academic perspectives on the present and future of centres in the urban periphery. The seminar was split into an in-person event held at York University in Toronto in November 2022 and an online event in December for those who could not attend in person. Participants at the in-person meeting were treated to an excursion to one of Toronto’s many new outer suburban spikes of vertical development. Participants presented graphic-rich accounts that significantly extended the discussion to focus in particular on the technologies driving a measure of centrality in urban peripheries and a variety of methods – walking, cycling, use of large-scale data analysis, morphological mapping – used to uncover the importance of urban peripheries. The plan is to seek publication of presentations from seminar 3 in a graphic-rich edited book or a journal special issue.

Seminar 4 was dedicated specifically to Australian early career researchers whose research touched on or was related to the idea of peripheral centralities. It was held in-person in July 2023 at the University of Melbourne with attendees arriving from Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney as well as from institutions elsewhere in Melbourne. The event included advice on writing for academic journals and popular outlets. We are grateful to Professor Shenjing He (Hong Kong University, Editor Urban Studies) and John Watson (Cities Editor, The Conversation) for giving their top tips for writing for these two outlets.

Colour photograph of a group of people sat with laptops around a desk in an office-type room, with overhead lighting and a projector presentation.
Paul Maginn and early career researchers during Seminar 4 in Melbourne, July 2023.

Across the 4 seminars and the over 60 presentations, new thematic and practical understandings of the designs that continue to be made on urban peripheries, their motivations and the constraints on their realisation have come to light and play into a rapidly emerging body of scholarly writing that seeks to move the field of urban studies away from its ‘methodological cityism’.