Book review - Interplaces: An Economic Geography of the Inter-Urban and International Economies

by Nicholas A Phelps and reviewed by Simone Franzi

24 Sep 2019, 12:21 p.m.
Simone Franzi

Interplaces book cover

Book review - Interplaces: An Economic Geography of the Inter-Urban and International Economies

by Nicholas A Phelps and reviewed by Simone Franzi

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017; 376 pp.: 9780199668 229, £55.00 (hardback)


What is the organising principle of human settlements? How are economic activities organised spatially? These are the simple questions that Nicholas Phelps attempts to answer in his book Interplaces: An Economic Geography of the Inter-Urban and International Economies. Against the backdrop of virtual realities and global networks having annihilated space and contracted the world economy to non-territorial relations, Phelps argues that spaces of accumulation are still produced in the global economy. According to the author, the production of space in this contemporary stage of capitalism manifests itself in geographical formations, the ‘interplaces’ which are in between cities and nations, and which are dominated by intermediaries brokering demand and supply in new markets. By engaging with a diverse field of inquiries, he illustrates that interplaces emerge in different geographical manifestations that coexist simultaneously, namely agglomeration, network, enclave and arena. This book is valuable reading, providing ample insights into how the global economy produces a variety of different places that are territorially grounded but that nonetheless span borders.


The book attempts to call our attention to the economic geography of the in-between, namely of the intervals and spaces that are between nations and between cities. Many contemporary economic activities occur in places that are between the geographic containers, cities and nations that we presume to be dominating the global and urban economy. These in-between enterprises have today become omnipresent: from suburbs that blend urban and rural qualities to the multinational enterprises that are simultaneously localised and global. Despite the diffusion of interplaces (a short-hand term for the economy in between), most theories and paradigms of economic geography pertain only to economic activities within cities and nations, and consider the activities in between either as occurring in non-places or as manifesting non-territorially. The common view in economic geography is that agglomeration is the force bringing people and firms together in cities. More recently, human geographers in the so-called ‘relational turn’ have deployed the metaphor of the network to describe social relations across spaces and boundaries. Nonetheless, in the contemporary global economy, Phelps argues that these two concepts are not sufficient to understand the uneven nature of development and its territorial, trans-territorial and non-territorial manifestations. He thus contends that we need to extend the vocabulary of economic geography with two additional concepts characteristic of the global economy: the enclave and the arena. According to the author, ‘the contemporary economy is neither purely one of agglomerations (place) or networks (space)’ (p. 9); instead economic activities are organised in between territorial containers, that is, in interplaces. The concepts of enclave and arena, in coexistence with agglomeration and network, help us understand the contemporary geographic formations of capitalism which occur through different economic logics, namely concentration, deployment, interaction and convocation. As Phelps puts it, the analysis of interplaces as ‘organized places giving way to disorganized spatial relations’ (p. 20) is fruitful for understanding the uneven production of space in modern capitalism.


Nicholas Phelps is a professor of urban planning at the University of Melbourne. He has written and published extensively on sprawl and suburbanisation. This book is a welcome continuation of his research that ties in suburbanisation with international economics. As the architect Richard Ingersoll wrote in 2006, ‘almost without notice the city has disappeared […] the majority of the inhabitants of the developed world live in urban conditions somewhere outside the center city’ (Ingersoll, 2006: 3). Ingersoll wrote a book from an artistic standpoint, about how to appreciate ‘sprawltown’ and suburbanisation. Phelps instead gives us a social scientific view for understanding where we actually live and work: not just in sprawltown but in interplaces. Hence, Nicholas Phelps’ research presented in this book provides us with a social scientific framework through which we can appreciate the latest geographical developments of modern urban landscapes. The book is an egregious work that adds value to our understanding of urban places outside the city proper.


The book is divided into five parts and 11 chapters. After explaining the meaning of the term ‘interplaces’ in Part One, in Part Two the author delineates the theoretical framework within which it is possible to understand and analyse this concept, particularly by highlighting the coexistence of the four different geographical formations (agglomeration, network, enclave, arena) throughout modern history. First, he contextualises interplaces in broader philosophical discussions within human geography (Chapter 2); second, he outlines an economic geography of interplaces by focusing on the role of intermediaries in the production of ‘distinctly in-between places and in the between formations of arenas and enclaves’ (p. 41). Here, the author explains the rise of interplaces as a consequence of the process of economisation of intermediary activities between resource extraction and final consumption (Chapter 3). In the third part, the inter-urban economy is described. From the sprawling suburbia (Chapter 4), to the mid-urban realm of corporate offices, research campuses and retail malls (Chapter 5), to modern mobility via planes, trains and automobiles (Chapter 6), to policy mobility (Chapter 7), the author exposes how interplaces are generated by different intermediaries. The result is complex morphologies in the spaces in between that can be simultaneously characterised by agglomeration dynamics, as well as interactions (networks), deployment (enclaves) and convocation (arenas). Part Four is dedicated to the international economy. Here, it is illustrated how different international economic activities are grounded territorially; and the practicality of the four organising principles of economic activities are displayed by discussing the in-between nature of Multinational Enterprises (Chapter 8), Global Production Networks (Chapter 9), the Cognitive-cultural Economy (Chapter 10) and the Non-territorial Realm of the Economy (Chapter 11). In the fifth part, the conclusions are drawn.


The book covers a large interdisciplinary literature that at times might overwhelm the reader. Despite this vast discussion of seemingly separated matters, Phelps’ work is a valuable theoretical effort in bringing forward our understanding of economic geography. The value of the book rests in theorising where humans act and live today; in theorising where economic and leisure activities materialise. Namely, in the 21st century, the global economy does not manifest itself only in the containers of cities and nations, but also in the many ‘interplaces’ that complement them. By merging theoretical explanation with empirical observations, Phelps is able to combine insights from economics, business studies, development studies, political science and sociology. With this interdisciplinary background, the author achieves his goal of explaining the coexistence of different geographical formations in the economy in between. There are three main strengths to be highlighted: first, the book enriches the vocabulary of economic geographers by adding the metaphor of the arena as well as recovering the concept of the enclave. Second, the book shows that the concept of ‘place’ is still relevant in the globalised economy, or as the author explains: ‘Even in an era of second modernity, we remain confronted by both place and space as objects worthy of geographical inquiry and, moreover, ones that ought to be considered together’ (p. 23). Third, the author aptly connects international economics with economic geography and urban theory to show the interconnections of the global economy and their geographical impacts; an interdependence that has common causes and consequences.


We must thank Phelps for bringing us new metaphors to help us understand interplaces and the contemporary landscape of global capitalism. The book is both an academic endeavour that attempts to theorise the economy in between and a panorama view of the current research in economic geography that lays out a research agenda. In this sense, the exploration of a large literature is an important contribution to the theorising of contemporary global capitalism, with the (re)discovery of metaphors apt for discussing the interplaces that dominate different economic geographies. I recommend the book to human and economic geographers, planners and policymakers, but also to any eclectic social scientist who is interested in the global economy and its relationship with the built landscape.




Ingersoll, R (2006) Sprawltown: Looking for the City on Its Edge. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
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