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"Centre" and "periphery": two concepts not only spatial by Sonia Zarino – Architect and Urban Planner

City "centre" and "periphery" are concepts always associated with their spatial representation. Moreover their etymology has its roots in the elementary geometry: the word centre derives from kéntron, meaning "point", referring to the tip of the compasses that marks the centre of the circle, while periphery is derived from perì, meaning "around" and phèreia, from the verb phèrein "to carry", describing in this way the act of bending and close a line defining, like this, a space. If we imagine that the figure inscribed within this curve is a circle, the relationship between centre and periphery is geometrically identified, because the radius of the circumference is the distance between the two entities. The circumference and centre lend themselves to represent what has long been the urban form, from the fortified village onwards: a dense set of buildings distinctly separated from the rest of the territory from a closed perimeter, constituted mostly by walls, within which it was possible to locate a central area that housed the most important functions and collectively significant : the square, the market, the temple, and so on.

Monteriggioni, Italy

If we think about the numerous representations of cities that ancient mapmakers have accomplished in centuries past, we can easily verify the above stated: the city taken origin precisely because its shape clearly separates it from the rural countryside.

by Sonia Zarino – Architect and Urban Planner http://

It is a socio-economic meeting point where products of the surrounding area are sold and traded with other products and services, generating a mercantile economy entirely distinct from the rural, although strongly connected with it, which promotes and diffuses peculiar cultural patterns of the urban environment. When, at the end of the ‘800 cities leave the walled shape which defensive system, we are witnessing a progressive expansion of buildings in the surrounding area, and cities come to encompass neighborhoods and rural villages in a continuum increasingly deconstructed. Today, urban sprawl took pathological forms so to speak, spreading often so messy rural contexts, destroying territorial identity and textures that had so far kept and gave rise to a number of high-value landscapes now highly compromised by constructions of no quality. "Centre" and "periphery" are words no longer applicable spatially, as in the past, when they could be properly used in reference to the historic city. The margin that defined the rural urban structure than outside disappeared, new polarities "competitors" than traditional ones that lost their uniqueness have established themselves. It has emerged the concept of "polycentric" urban system where city is composed by a series of interconnected centers thanks to public and private transportation networks that in fact made closer places that were perceived as separate and distinct entities. Peripheral space became the interstitial space between these centers can now attract the cultural, economic, administrative interest in modern society. The large cities are characterized by this "spongy" structure where the "fullness" of vital and rich of activity areas alternates with the "emptiness" of disused areas, degraded and thus peripherals. An emptiness, mind you, not necessarily physical, because in many cases areas are constructed, but later emptied and abandoned to themselves. Describe the center and the periphery in the way their etymology suggests is no longer relevant today: it is therefore necessary to analyze what makes these entities recognizable regardless their spatial location. Centre vs. periphery: old and new antinomies How can we, today, analyzing the meaning of words "centre" and "periphery"? The method we propose is investigate what concepts are commonly associate to the two words, nowadays, for finding a definition separately from the purely spatial datum, that we saw no longer sufficient. CENTRE


positive, good

negative, bad









by Sonia Zarino – Architect and Urban Planner http://





care of public spaces

degradation of spaces





Try to think, using maybe to our personal experience, such a place considered as "central" to a city and another regarded as " peripheral". From the outset say that a place is central or peripheral often implies a value judgment, positive in the first case and negative in the other. The reason this happens is determined by several factors: for example, when we are in areas that we perceive as Central, we overall feel , a sense of security1: be in places frequented at all times of day and night is definitely more reassuring than to be in places where the presence of other citizens is scarcer, and this is why we perceive them as peripherals; Being in a central place, gives us a sense of well-being due to the easy access to many job opportunities, and entertainment venues, public services, and so on, as opposed to what happens to people in desolate areas and lifeless, they experience various forms of socio-economic or cultural hardship. We note, incidentally, as already in these early cases such Antinomies are completely disengaged from the spatial aspect, i.e. do not refer necessarily to areas geographically located on the edge of the urban entity considered. The central areas have normally higher real estate values, and also the cost of living is higher, what normally matches to people's social status living in these areas. They are also rich in services and community facilities (e.g. parks, gardens, museums, libraries, theatres, etc.). In the central areas are more opportunities of exchange and encounter: to meet friends, to do business, to get a job. The peripheral areas are at the opposite much poorer in terms of chances like this, and often host weak categories that for some reason are excluded from more dynamic social streams. The greatest opportunities given by the central areas are also found in many other fields: in the cultural offer, access to public and private services, in accessing physical and intangible communications networks. This has a direct effect on larger or smaller possibility of integration. If in the central districts the richness and variety of opportunities for Exchange facilitates the integration and sharing of values, in peripheral areas to the opposite notes a certain tendency to segregation for closed groups on the basis of ethnic, religious, etc. Variety is another aspect that finds its fulfillment in the central areas: diversity and admixture in construction forms, functions, urban proportions and ways of life. In these areas the life flows and pulsates at every hour of the day and night . Peripheral areas, on the contrary, are often characterized by a formal as 1

Cfr. J. Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

by Sonia Zarino – Architect and Urban Planner http://

functional monotony: e.g. dormitory neighborhoods or large concentrations of shopping centers, where life is limited to shopping hours. The central areas are identifiable even to the appearance particularly clean and ordered public's facilities (gardens, squares, lighting, etc.) while the peripheral areas are often shabby and unwelcoming, with deficient or non-existent public equipments due often to phenomena of vandalism. The central areas are also characterized by a high density of the building fabric, which has a recognizable structure and a hierarchy between the various components (public spaces, various types of residential tissue, specialized buildings, etc.), while the outlying areas, species of recent settlement, are normally composed of building elements unable to establish a dialogue with the surrounding . Are buildings that seem to get lost in empty spaces that do not create identity but alienation. A space is so central or peripheral not only by virtue of its spatial placement within an urban fabric, but also depending on which present those features (all or part) that we have listed. Analyze the different levels of "centrality" or "peripherality" can help to understand the mechanisms that determine the onset of them and therefore implement appropriate corrective actions, which will require from time to time various skills (urban planning, social, economic, etc.) in order to diminish the areas of hardship and territorial and socioeconomic depletion.

by Sonia Zarino – Architect and Urban Planner http://

"Centre" and "periphery": two concepts not only spatial  

How can we, today, analyzing the meaning of words "centre" and "periphery"? The method we propose is investigate what concepts are commonly...

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