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FLEET LIBRARY | Research Guides

Rhode Island School of Design

Cityscapes: 20th Century Urban Plans - Providence: Exhibit


Providence’s urban landscape has undergone numerous transformations. Its prosperous industrial past and 20th century economic downturn left the city with abandoned factories, and urban renewal efforts changed the face and flow of the downtown. The city’s main waterways had been mostly paved over to accommodate roads, buildings, trolley terminals, and later parking lots. New highway and interstate projects bisected the city, and demolition efforts leveled neighborhoods and displaced residents.


By the 1970s, interested parties recognized the need to amend urban environments that adversely impacted business and pedestrian accessibility. In the fall of 1972, RISD Architecture professor Gerald Howes provided the spark for revitalizing the city with a studio course in the Division of Architectural Studies titled, “High Speed Rail, Any Effect on Providence?” Working with MIT’s Urban Systems Lab and students, Howes developed a city plan that was centered on the creation of a transit hub, green spaces, and an uncovered downtown waterway.


Similar ideas were incorporated into Providence’s comprehensive plans over the next decades, but Howes’s project was an effective public-private partnership for the city. Interface : Providence was published in 1974 with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the nascent Providence Foundation. Implementation has been protracted and incomplete, but the plan progressed under city leadership over the next three decades, and the waterfront was eventually uncovered and transformed into a pedestrian friendly urban destination by 2002.



It is not the fulfillment of some vague utopian vision we seek, but rather the establishment of a most essential functional item to any viable city. Interface: Providence (page 138)

Part of

Items on Exhibit

Photographs of downtown Providence showing docks and piers along the river, the newly constructed paved covering, and trolley depot.

Circa 1880s-1890s



Photograph of downtown Providence showing the construction of Market House.

Circa 1938



Photographs of downtown Providence showing the expanse of roadways and parking lots around the river.

1953 (top left and right), circa 1940s (bottom left), 1978 bottom right



Photographs of downtown Providence showing the construction of the river redevelopment project and the resulting downtown landscape.

1992 (top left), 2000s



Miles department store occupies the former Providence Journal Building, dramatically changing the facade. (Northeast corner of Eddy and Westminster Streets)

Circa 1890s, 1960s



Infrastructure and transportation methods change in front of the Metcalf Building. (North Main Street, next to the present day RISD Museum, Chace Center entrance)

Circa 1916, 1940s


Items on Exhibit

“Howes’ Interface, a new old city”

David A. Narsavage (author); Lawrence S. Millard (photographer)

Providence Journal-Bulletin, circa 1974



The Providence Sunday Journal Magazine, 11 May 1980



Detail images of a model of the planned waterfront redevelopment from “A Vision of Providence: the city reclaims her waterfront in a lively plan that ties together all the current here-and-there projects” (pages 8-17)

The Providence Sunday Journal Magazine, 26 August 1984