The Shame of the Cities

Renderings, reality TV, and obsessive urbanism

by Ella Comberg

published April 12, 2018


There’s an image of the proposed Providence streetcar that keeps me up at night. It depicts the corner of Empire and Washington Street at twilight. A restaurant is illuminated for Christmas, and if you squint you can see those cream-colored wicker chairs that crowd Paris’ outdoor cafes; the awning reads “brasserie.” Masses of people congregate as they might in a European plaza, but the street’s small scale makes this imagined Providence feel all the more pleasant. At the heart of the urban vision is a sleek, red streetcar. If you ignore RIPTA’s beachy logo (still emblazoned on the side of the modernized vehicles), the scene begins to vaguely resemble Saint Petersburg, Russia, where the trams are red and the buildings are similarly white and ornamented. An amalgamated ‘Europe’ takes root in Providence as the streetcar pulls into town.

But, of course, Providence streets are never this crowded (save for the occasional WaterFire). And if you look beyond the intensity of the rendered corner, you’ll see a remnant of much of downtown Providence’s current un-Photoshopped reality: a windowless parking garage.




The image first appeared on the front page of the Providence Department of Planning’s 2014 application for TIGER funding, a grant from the US Department of Transportation that supports transit infrastructure improvements. The city scrapped the project, which would have cost some $100 million, but the JPEG is still floating around the internet. It consistently pops up in my professors’ PowerPoints (sometimes in jest, other times not) as a representation of what Providence could be with a little TLC, federal money, and the right lighting. The rendering is as ridiculous as it is romantic and as implausible as it is memorable; I seem to mentally conjure the image every time I walk through downtown Providence. There’s so much to love about the city in its current iteration, but I can’t seem to shake this image of Providence’s potential future. In a visual side-by-side, the present pales in comparison to its fictional sister.

Thousands of images like this one exist: renderings commissioned by hopeful, maybe naively progressive planning departments. Some projects scrape together enough cash and after a few months (but usually years) finally come to fruition. Others, like the streetcar, exist only in image and imagination. Inherent to all these renderings—for projects realized and otherwise—is a sense of ideal urbanism. Even if the projects themselves are practical and well-planned, the renderings tend to insinuate a near-impossible future brought on by good design. These images silently propagate an urbanist paradigm that goes something like this: dense buildings flanked by public transit bring people into the street, and with people in the street, cities thrive. Indeed, before the Providence streetcar project was shot down, countless proponents pointed to its ability to “catalyze development;” businesses would, they argued, pop up along the streetcar route, and crowds like those depicted in the rendering would follow. Even without mouthpieces, the renderings speak volumes: trees are always more mature than they would be in a new development, buildings appear nearly translucent, figures have been blurred in long-exposure fashion as they happily explore their pristine city. It never rains in the rendered urban future.

As digital renderings have become more lifelike and aesthetically appealing over the past decade, they’ve moved out of the offices of architecture and planning firms and into the mainstream. Even for those entirely uninterested in city planning and development, visual representations of the work done in these fields are unavoidable. Renderings are plastered on plywood walls outside of construction sites as a sign of what’s to come; they appear alongside every news article about a new apartment building; they even accompany Craigslist listings of soon-to-be-finished renovated apartments. Blueprints—in their monochrome two-dimensionality—still guide construction, but highly stylized digital renderings do the work of garnering public support. The $100 million Providence streetcar would have been strikingly unconvincing had the planning department not produced full-color, laser-printed poster boards to prop up at community meetings.

As images of ideal urban spaces have become commonplace, urbanist ideology—which once sat picture-less in books like Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities—has gained a valuable visual aid. But if Jacobs’ 500-page volume was, in 1961, able to delineate urbanism in an extensive and nuanced fashion, the renderings that now constitute so much of our urban imagination are immensely simplified. Like Jacobs, today’s renderings favor density over sprawl and public transit over cars, but they do so without comment or question; a complicated, multifaceted urbanism—probed in thousands of texts beyond Jacobs’ seminal writing—has been reduced to a utopian vision. Install a streetcar and call it a day.

In its simplification, a once lofty ideology has become broadly appealing—perhaps to a fault. Urbanism is now popular, and it has begun to take the mold of the popular. Obsession with physical urban improvement is now as much a valuable credo as it is a guise for doing to cities the kind of makeovers we once reserved for people and houses. At times, we imagine new cities in our renderings not because there’s anything wrong with the look and feel of our cities today, but because it’s fun, like watching a home makeover on television. Detached from the grueling work of planning—of securing public funds (or a spouse’s approval)—we watch the gutting of kitchens and cities with fascination. And so, just as our own homes and bodies feel inadequate when viewed in the context of their post-makeover potential, we become dissatisfied with today’s cities when surrounded by images of what they might look like in the near future. We can’t be happy, it seems, until everything looks like the High Line.




I often worry that I’m complacent in the reduction of cities to an urban aesthetic. When I was in middle school, I watched HGTV shows about home renovation in my friends’ carpeted basements. Now, I listen to two-minute clips from the design podcast 99% Invisible with titles like “Road Signs Suck, What if We Got Rid of Them All?” and read CityLab articles about dockless bikeshare. There’s more substance to this kind of media consumption, I hope—an underlying sense of common good in public street design that isn’t present in the multi-million dollar flippage of a Cape Cod bungalow. But recently, I’ve been feeling a creeping sense that my tweenage obsession with home renovation has morphed, with age, into a young-adult passion for urba-nism.                                               

Retile the bathroom, repave the street. Update appliances, modernize transit. Two sides of the same coin.

My guiltiest pleasure is Curbed, a website that, in a grating irony, posts weekly profiles of the newest luxury apartment building (and “What You Can Do to Get Past the Co-op Board”) along with the occasional long-form story lamenting, say, the hyper-gentrification of the East Village. Their “About” page reads, “Unlike a glossy shelter magazine, we see homes, streets, neighborhoods, and cities as inextricably related.” The editorial board knows, it seems, that idealizing the midcentury villa is, on its own, insufficient; the availability of affordable urban housing is more pressing than California modern. But if tours of 432 Park Ave are published among criticism of unreliable MTA service, the aesthetic call of high modernism and the political charge of low urbanism dissipate into a certain form of acceptable pleasure: spectatorship of the “built environment.” When buildings bleed into streets and neighborhoods into cities, as Curbed calls for, the disparate spaces of the public sidewalk and the private living room are suddenly understood as a singular, built whole in opposition to the natural, unbuilt environment.

Interest in urban planning and design, then, feels inoffensive because it’s lacquered with the inherent politics that all cities possess. Our present urban obsession is predicated on the notion that because infrastructural improvements (like those to public transit) aren’t glamorous, to be interested in them is to be socially-minded. But the renderings of these changes to the city tell a different story—one in which infrastructure actually is glamorous. We love the streetcar not because there’s anything particularly compelling about a new kind of vehicle, not because physical changes to the city are able to accomplish dramatically more than policy changes (labor laws, property taxes, school reform), but because we love to fantasize about a European-inspired Providence. Likewise, we watch reality television shows about wardrobe makeovers and home renovation not because we are sympathetic to the implications that these changes might have in a person’s life, but because physical change is endlessly compelling. “I can’t believe he lost all that weight”; “I can’t believe the house used to look like that”; “I can’t believe how much the city has changed.”

In an urban context, the ‘fun’ of watching change comes in part from the aesthetically stunning nature of renderings. But it also derives from the fact that a visualized, physical urbanism is more digestible than social urbanism. As a white elite repopulates the literal inner-city, and as public perception of ‘urban’ becomes less racialized, we’ve begun to pursue one-size-fits-all physical urban solutions rather than the careful, personalized solutions that less visual (that is, unrenderable) problems necessitate. What we might ten years ago have called ‘urban problems’  (gun violence, drugs, literacy) are now frequently eclipsed by transit-oriented development, rail-park conversion, and opening up the waterfront. If those older urban dilemmas are horrible, unsolvable, and hopeless, the newer questions posed by Curbed and the like are fixable with good urban praxis.

And so, as Curbed churns out home/street/neighborhood/city content; as Vox Media buys the site for some $30 million; as the conglomerate starts to produce short videos about how Brooklyn’s DUMBO came to be; and as 70,000 people join a Facebook group dedicated to ‘urbanist memes,’ I come face-to-face with the shame of today’s cities: our contemporary urban fixation lies not in people, but in space. 70,000 college students aren’t obsessively posting in a Facebook group about public school funding; they’re posting pictures of well-engineered streets in Scandinavia and calling for international implementation. Both urban planning and urban policy are important forms of urban interpretation, but the built city—especially when idealized in digital renderings—is more fun and more manageable than the social city with its ceaseless social problems.




I do not want to ignore the pressing reality that the built environment and the social world (with its social problems) are intimately intertwined. As Heinrich Zille, the German artist, once said in reference to tenements in Berlin, “You can kill a person with an apartment just as well as with an axe.” Zille’s hyperbole is commonly used in architecture circles to dismiss bad design, but city space has more literal implications, too. I’ve read no more compelling account of the connection between racism and designed urban spatial confinement than Rashad Shabazz’s Spatializing Blackness, which details, among other things, how public housing architecture in Chicago aimed to blur the line between home space and prison space. A quick scan of the proximity of power plants to low-income neighborhoods where people of color live will reinforce the ever-true notion that the physical space—and indeed, the calculated planning—of cities has life-threatening implications for those it rebuffs.

In many ways, the potential to reverse spatialized inequality is what makes urban planning a compelling field to young people today. Urbanism wouldn’t be in vogue right now if it were understood as a purely aesthetic ideology. We like cities without highways through their cores because we hate federally-sponsored displacement, not just because on-ramps and overpasses are ugly. But even if urbanists—both those who work professionally in architecture and planning and those who, like me, obsess unprofessionally—care about social issues, the design projects that take up the bulk of architecture and planning firms’ time—those that pervade Curbed and my Facebook feed; the things we render in high definition—aren’t the kinds of projects that might mitigate rising rents. For every high-quality mockup released for a new public health clinic, it seems there are hundreds of luxury apartment buildings in the works. In fact, meticulously designed urban space can be understood as an indicator of soon-to-come or already-begun gentrification (the antithesis to the equitable city). Take the proposed Providence streetcar: even if the line would have serviced Rhode Island’s low-income, public-transit riding population, its larger project was to “catalyze development.” The essence of the project was not to move people—travel times might have been reduced, but not dramatically. Instead, the streetcar harnessed a nostalgic aesthetic (think: San Francisco’s trolleys) to earn property taxes from nearby land.




There are photos of New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s that people, including me, love to look at. Curbed publishes an article with a variant of the title “20 Photos That Capture New York City's Free-Spirited Seventies” almost weekly. The most memorable of these photos, I think, are those astounding ones of the inside of subway cars covered in graffiti. There is an immense pleasure in seeing what space you know well looked like before you were there. I like to look at photos of Brown in the ‘70s, too; but the New York City subway ones are so uniquely compelling because, aside from the graffiti, the cars look basically the same. All I can think about when I see them is the transformation between then and now—the wiping off of the tags and the passage of a few decades. I see a before and after.

We retrieve these from the archives so frequently not for nostalgic purposes, but to indicate just how far we’ve come. One Business Insider article, for example, is titled “New York City Used To Be A Terrifying Place [PHOTOS].” If the photos of graffitied subway cars are a ‘70s-era “before,” then today’s almost graffiti-less MTA is the “after.” But as today’s outcry over the MTA’s inadequacy indicates, even the “after” is unsatisfactory. The same might be said of digital renderings. They’re as interesting to look at as photos of New York before its sanitization, but they’re disingenuous in suggesting that any urban solution will be sufficient—that any aesthetic change could possibly alleviate the ailments of a post-industrial American city. If New York post-sterilization is any indication, “clean up the city” projects in all forms (those that sought to remove graffiti from the subway in the ‘80s and those that today seek to replace well-functioning busses with sleeker streetcars) might do more to further impoverish marginalized groups than they do to improve public transit.

I continue to obsess over the streetcar rendering because of its reality TV-like pleasure and because I know it is not enough. Even with a streetcar, poverty in Providence will persist. As urbanism has become popular, such a self-evident truth has become necessary to state.

I spend my days reading and writing about physical urbanism because I believe deeply in its social implications, but when I do so, I withdraw from the social world of the cities I inhabit. When I look at Kennedy Plaza and all I can think is, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to move the westbound bus lane to the north side of Washington street?” I am failing to see the people in front of me. I am seeing, instead, the static people who will inevitably appear in a rendering of this project, frozen as they board a bus.


Ella Comberg B’20 wants to live in the real world.