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Rhode Island School of Design

Cityscapes: 20th Century Urban Plans: Exhibit


A genuinely humanising city has yet to be brought into being ... to an urbanism appropriate for the human species. And it remains for revolutionary practice to accomplish such a transformation.

— David Harvey, Social Justice and the City, 1973

Drawn from the Library’s Special Collections and Archives, this exhibition presents a selection of publications and documents produced by architects and planners from 1909 through the 1970s. Composed of maps, diagrams, and visualizations, these plans propose changes to urban life through changes to the built environment. Paired with works by artists, preservationists, and concerned urban dwellers, this exhibition sheds light on the impact of such plans on the human experience and supports the shifted perspectives on urban planning and design that came to prominence in the 1960s.




This exhibition was curated by RISD Library Special Collections and Archives staff.

Exhibit Cases

New York City has historically struggled with affordable housing, regularly making use of eminent domain for slum clearance and building large-scale housing complexes. New York State Division of Housing funded an opportunity in the late 1950s to identify new designs for low-income housing projects. They aimed to plan solutions that accommodated the maximum number of people with the least impact on tax dollars. John Callender, Associate Professor of Architecture at Pratt Institute received the grant and conducted a year-long study with a graduate student team. This book of their findings and designs was published through a grant from Dow Chemical.

Cities are social and political constructions. In the 20th century, with the rise of Modernism, the field of urban planning professionalized as a reaction to industrialization in cities, working to optimize, organize, and restrict land-use. Architects and city officials regularly re-imagined their version of the futuristic, utopian city, putting forth manifestos and formulating plans for redevelopment of the problems in their cities. These new ideas often involved socio-economic segregation or designation of use-zones, and influenced the plans set forth in the mid-twentieth century by many cities in the U.S. and abroad.

Boston’s city planning efforts in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in problems felt decades later. The infamous Central Artery (replaced by the O’Neill Tunnel during the ‘Big Dig’) was constructed during this period, separating the downtown from the highway and displacing many neighborhoods. By 1966, plans had been enacted for another large scale highway project in the Southwest Corridor, cutting through Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and Hyde Park. In response to public hearings on the adverse impact on neighborhoods, Governor Francis W. Sargent ultimately cancelled the project. In 1979, the revised Southwest Corridor Development Plan was forged with the cooperation of community leaders and residents, and included minority construction workers and consultants.

Urban redevelopment programs, which gained traction in the U.S. at the close of World War II and continued through the 1970s, attempted to translate architects’ and designers’ ideas into physical reality. Supported by legislation that began with the Housing Act of 1949, renewal efforts aimed to impose order on the complex structures and relationships that make up cities. The results included demolition of perceived “slums,” resettlement of inhabitants into clustered housing, and destruction of districts for transportation infrastructure. Many transformations were enacted through eminent domain rather than the input of citizens.

In the 1920s, the Pennsylvania Railroad began planning for new stations to improve service through Philadelphia. Previous developments included elevated tracks that left the downtown divided and stations that could not accommodate commuters. Planners crafted proposals to redevelop Broad Street Suburban Station (or Suburban Station), replace West Philadelphia Station with a Grand Central Station-sized terminus (30th Street Station), move tracks below street level at the east bank of the Schuylkill River, and create underground walkways in the central business district. Completion of these plans took decades.

On June 16, 1965, the South Platte River flooded, devastating Denver’s downtown and providing the city’s Urban Renewal Authority with a pressing reason to redevelop. The flood demolished bridges, rail yards, the Tivoli brewery, and the majority of Jerome Park, a low-income, historically Hispanic community. Deemed destroyed beyond rehabilitation, the Authority initiated plans for a new downtown sector within the neighborhood’s limits. As noted in this 1966 plan, the district would contain an academic campus, a stadium, a shopping complex, and highway access. Many residents of the impacted areas were relocated but not given natural disaster aid.

The City Within is a kinetic bookwork exploring cartography and fantastical anatomy. Juxtaposing bird’s eye maps and hand-drawn street-level maps with a rib cage of text centered around Montreal’s downtown core, The City Within overlays the heart of a city with the interior body of a city dweller.” (Quoted from the Women’s Studio Workshop website)

Rent-Free in the East Village is the artist’s commentary on the gentrification of New York City’s East Village neighborhood in the 1980s.

“The Topography of Home is the artist’s attempted reconciliation of living in the present while longing for her remembered hometown. Letterpress printed maps convey a more emotional than geographical terrain; events and places are recorded and revisited, worried over and examined.” (Quoted from Macy Chadwick’s website)


Channel & Flow documents an attempt to follow a stream on its path through a dense suburban neighborhood. It uses the structure of the book’s page turns and fold outs to represent how the stream has been contained and fragmented by the built environment.” (Quoted from the Women’s Studio Workshop website)

Jeannie Meejin states: “like my experience of the city, this detour/map is not linear. ...when completely unfolded, it has no beginning and no end, no front and no back, no inside and no outside. This was my experience of Seoul.”

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.


Click here for the 2nd floor item list.