Paradise or dystopia? The 9 most powerful depictions of cities in 2018

From a Chinese copy of Paris, to a deserted Atlantic City, to a Blade Runner-esque Tokyo, it was a year of haunting imagery of urban life.

Paradise or dystopia? The 9 most powerful depictions of cities in 2018

In today’s cities, inequality is embedded in concrete. The 21st century city is defined by the disparity between the rich and poor, which shapes the urban fabric itself. This year, a range of photographers trained their lenses on the modern city–capturing both stunning and horrifying images of urban dwelling in 2018.

[Photo: Johnny Miller]

The Rich and Poor of Silicon Valley

Inequality is certainly visible at street level in many cities, but it’s even more stark when viewed from above. Photographer Johnny Miller used a drone to expose the dramatic differences between rich and poor in places like Silicon Valley, Detroit, and Seattle, all from the air.

[Photo: Michael Kienitz/courtesy National Building Museum]

A portrait of eviction

A collection of photos on display at the National Building Museum this year took the opposite approach to Miller by portraying the people impacted by the housing crisis so rampant in many urban areas. Captured by photographers Michael Kienitz and Sally Ryan, the images depict the human cost of inequality through the heartbreak of being evicted.

[Photo: Lewis Bush]

The Luxury Condo Racket

On the opposite side of the housing spectrum, luxury condos remain a potent symbol of how many big cities have become playgrounds for the wealthy. In his series Metropole, photographer Lewis Bush tries to expose these luxe developments for the dystopian nightmare they are, using double exposures to create disorienting images of high-rises in mid-construction.

[Photo: Brian Rose]

Trumps’ Atlantic City

Atlantic City, New Jersey, illustrates what happens when luxury development goes bust. A photo series by Brian Rose follows the plight of the city through the lens of Donald Trump’s failed real estate and casino ventures–a fascinating portrait of a place impacted by our president’s ineptitude. Let’s hope the rest of America doesn’t look like this when he’s through with it.

[Photo: Romain Jacquet-Lagreze]

Life on Hong Kong’s Rooftops

When space is at a premium, you get creative. Photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze captured the the secret communal rooftop lives of city dwellers in Hong Kong, which is one of the densest cities in the world, in his series Concrete Stories. The images reveal a slice of city life only visible from above. The series is a testament to how adept humans are at making the best of what they have.

[Photo: François Prost]

The Copycat cities

A recent urban development trend caters to tourists who can’t visit the real thing, instead offering up new cities that look exactly like the old ones, but in a different place. In Tianducheng, China, there’s a replica city of Paris, complete with mini Eiffel tower and Versailles-style park. A photo series called Paris Syndrome by the photographer François Prost puts images of tourists and buildings in both places side by side–and you really can’t tell the difference.

[Photo: Moritz Stefaner]

The inescapable sameness of instagram

Have you ever noticed how people tend to take the same pictures of the same things, over and over? An interactive called Multiplicity by researcher and data viz artist Moritz Stefaner shows dozens of Instagrams that look nearly identical. As a result, the complex nature of urban places gets distilled digitally into just a few pervasive images–simplifying cities into just their stereotypes.

[Photo: Tom Blachford]

Noir Tokyo, 30 years later

Some cities look more stereotypically dystopian than others. Take Tokyo. Photographer Tom Blachford photographed the city at night for his series Nihon Noir, deliberately choosing to shoot scenes reminiscent of the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

[Photo: Danila Tkachenko]

The lost secret cities of the former USSR

What does a failed techno-utopia look like? Look no further than this series by visual artist Danila Tkachenko, who documented the secret cities of the former Soviet Union and their dead buildings, satellites, and monuments. The eerie images contain echoes of today’s metropolises, defined by futuristic architecture and skyward-looking infrastructure. Perhaps our cities will look like this one day, if climate change reduces them to ruins.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable