Integrating AI into Urban Planning Workflows: Democracy Over Authoritarianism

Tyler Hinkle
11 min readAug 31

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“In a potential dystopian scenario, an AI-based planning software gains access to all smart city devices, amassing data to reshape communities without consulting their residents. This data-driven transformation, devoid of human input, risks eroding the essence of community identity, autonomy, and shared decision-making.” Section from the end of the article.

In today’s rapidly advancing technological landscape, AI tools are emerging as powerful drivers of change, presenting exciting opportunities for revolutionizing urban planning practices. With the integration of AI into the workflow of urban planners, there is immense potential to enhance efficiency, streamline communication, stimulate creativity, automate tasks, generate visuals, simulate urban environments, and analyze public feedback. However, as we explore the possibilities of AI in urban planning, it is crucial to remain mindful of the importance of democratic decision-making processes and avoid the risks of authoritarianism as was seen by planners such as Robert Moses, Le Corbusier, or Georges-Eugène Haussmann. By combining the insights from scholars like James Fishkin and Sherry Arnstein, we can harness these AI tools to increase public access to democratic processes and ensure a more inclusive and equitable approach to urban development.

Fishkin proposes democracy through deliberative discussion as seen in courtroom juries.

James Fishkin’s Deliberative Democracy

In his book, Democracy When The People Are Thinking, Fishkin poses the question, “How do you participate in democracy?” He goes on to list the main aspects: voting, political engagement, public demonstrations, contacting elected officials, public hearings, community organizations, media, and running for office. He also lists the most important, and likely most despised method: jury duty. Fishkin poses the question as to why juries are not more common in our democracy compared to representative elected officials as they may be the key in providing legitimacy to the statement, “we the people.”

Fishkin’s concept of deliberative democracy advocates for meaningful citizen participation in decision-making. Deliberative polling, as proposed by Fishkin, offers a process wherein a representative sample of the population engages in informed and facilitated discussions on policy issues. By leveraging AI tools, such as online platforms and rapid data analysis/summarization and visualization, deliberative polling can be scaled up and made more accessible to a broader range of citizens with greater tools to convey their opinions and visions. These tools can also be used to generate ideas and options for a group to react to and discuss which could facilitate deliberation, ensure that diverse voices are heard, and foster a more informed and inclusive democratic process.

The main barrier that communities face to inclusive processes is a lack of time or funding to have professionals who can develop the visualizations, narratives, legal code, statistical analysis, and other aspects to inform the decision makers and public of their options. AI poses a solution with the potential to either empower professionals to improve their productivity and then help more communities faster and potentially at a lower cost, or by communities using AI to bypass professionals entirely and use these new tools to develop effective documents to influence decision making. The latter option would allow for communities to reach the highest rung in Arnstein’s Ladder and have full citizen control.

Relationship between Arnstein’s ladder and contemporary perspectives on social change. Figure 1 from the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, №3). https://www.planning.org/blog/9187533/view-from-arnsteins-ladder-the-promise-of-community-control/

Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation

Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation” is a conceptual framework that categorizes the varying degrees of citizen involvement in decision-making processes. It consists of eight rungs, ranging from nonparticipation and tokenism at the lower end, where citizens have minimal influence, to citizen power and delegated power at the higher end, where citizens have substantive control and decision-making authority. Arnstein’s ladder highlights the importance of moving beyond superficial consultation and empowering citizens with genuine influence, ensuring that their voices are meaningfully integrated into policy and planning initiatives.

AI tools can play a significant role in advancing citizen participation along the ladder, empowering individuals and communities. Although AI also has the potential to empower the cementation of the initial rungs of tokenism and nonparticipation through allowing professionals to use existing public information to generate an artificial “public will” that has been trained on the data and then to only consult with it rather than discussing ideas with the actual public. However, the ultimate goal should be to ascend to the higher rungs of delegated power and citizen power, where all citizens have substantial influence and decision-making authority.

It is important to note that it should be all citizens who have access to advanced AI tools so everyone reaches the highest rungs, otherwise the select citizens who earn access to AI tools will supplant the former citizens who had enough time and money to influence decisions in the way they wish. In a sense, AI has the potential to cement power in professionals or a select citizenry if the wider public is not educated in the capabilities of the tools and given access to them to ensure their voices carry the same weight as the select citizenry.

https://openai.com/blog/chatgpt

ChatGPT, a prominent AI language model, can significantly aid urban planners in various tasks, transforming mundane office activities into more streamlined processes. It can assist in drafting emails, preparing staff reports, writing grants, creating social media posts, conducting rudimentary research, updating zoning codes, and even generating ideas for comprehensive plan writing. With ChatGPT, planners can tailor their messages and maximize their time by utilizing premade prompts and connecting the model with the internet. Integrating ChatGPT with email systems, search results, and transcription tools like Descript enhances its versatility as you may be able to record a meeting, transcribe it, and then have ChatGPT summarize it in the format of meeting minutes. Moreover, ChatGPT’s language capabilities extend to translation, allowing seamless communication in multiple languages.

ChatGPT also extends its support to coding tasks, providing intelligent suggestions, syntax highlighting, and error detection. Whether it’s HTML code for a website or Python code for data analysis using ArcGIS or RStudio, ChatGPT can help improve efficiency and accuracy in writing code, enabling planners to navigate technical aspects more effectively.

Maximize your time with premade prompts

Connect ChatGPT with the internet

Tie ChatGPT directly into your emails

Talk directly to ChatGPT

Have ChatGPT alongside your search results

Youtube and article summaries with ChatGPT

Check out this article on the best ChatGPT prompts for planners to use.

AutoGPT Diagram https://writesonic.com/blog/what-is-autogpt/

AutoGPT tools like AgentGPT stimulate planners’ creativity by offering a creative boost, assisting in developing and refining ideas for urban planning projects. These tools automate repetitive tasks such as social media posting, freeing up valuable time and resources that can be redirected towards strategic goals.

AgentGPT is a free website that allows some capabilities without a ChatGPT API but ultimately requires the API to function. The site allows you to name the Agent, like AgentSpeck, and give it a daunting task such as “eliminate cars from New York City within the next five years so it is a walking city.” In my case it analysed the public transportation system in New York and devised methods of improving and expanding it as well as implementing and promoting alternative forms of transportation such as walking and biking, and then finally it went on to develop new laws to be adopted to ban cars and incentivize public transit.

Or you could task it with something such as social media posting every week on a certain day and it will generate the associated images and text and post for you once you provide it login information. You can also set parameters such as ensuring you review the post before it goes online. The possibilities are endless and grow as the software improves.

AgentGPT: https://agentgpt.reworkd.ai/

Free Auto-GPT on GitHub: https://github.com/IntelligenzaArtificiale/Free-Auto-GPT

Visualization Tools

Tools such as Microsoft Designer, Dalle2, Midjourney, and Adobe Firefly leverage AI-generated visuals to enhance the planning process. Microsoft Designer can create visuals based on provided text and directions, while Dalle2 and Midjourney aid in generating visuals for ideas that lack accompanying images. Adobe Firefly, on the other hand, empowers planners to explore various design options and showcase potential streetscape transformations to stakeholders using AI-generated visuals.

Using Microsoft Designer to craft posters and social media imagery.

Microsoft Designer

Microsoft Designer employs AI-driven design suggestions to assist users in creating visually appealing documents, presentations, and graphics by offering layout, color scheme, and font recommendations.

An urban planner can utilize Microsoft Designer to craft engaging proposals for local development projects. For instance, when presenting a new community park concept, the planner can use Designer’s layout suggestions to create an attention-grabbing presentation, fostering community support.

betterstreetsAI Uses DALL-E to Design Walkable Streets https://www.curbed.com/2022/07/dall-e-walkable-streets-betterstreetsai.html

Dalle2

Dalle2 is an AI model capable of generating high-quality images from textual descriptions, enabling the creation of visuals that match written concepts.

An urban planner can describe the vision for a revitalized downtown district, and Dalle2 can generate lifelike images depicting bustling streets and vibrant storefronts. This aids local businesses and residents in visualizing the potential transformation.

A landscape site plan drawn by Midjourney https://www.instagram.com/p/Cq0nxUIvprk/?img_index=4

Midjourney

Midjourney, an AI image generation model, is a game-changer for urban planners. It takes text and creates immersive, realistic images, revolutionizing the way plans are visualized.

For an urban planner, envisioning a new development’s layout becomes effortless. By describing the arrangement or uploading a rough sketch, Midjourney crafts detailed images that enhance overhead views and site plans. These images, vivid and true-to-life, make the planning process more tangible.

@Car_Free_America on Instagram using Adobe Firefly with Photoshop to show the development potential of Chick-fil-a if developed as a mixed use development https://www.instagram.com/car_free_america/

Adobe Firefly

Adobe Firefly is an AI-powered design tool that automates the creation of marketing visuals, enabling users to efficiently design social media posts, flyers, and promotional content.

An urban planner can leverage Adobe Firefly within Photoshop to create striking street visualizations or infill potential presentations. By integrating Firefly’s AI assistance, the planner can craft captivating visuals that showcase future streetscape improvements or demonstrate the untapped potential of vacant lots, facilitating community engagement and investment.

Digital Twins in action at State College, Pennsylvania https://www.esri.com/en-us/industries/blog/articles/finding-common-ground-in-planning-with-the-digital-twin/

Digital Twins

Digital Twins, facilitated by software like ESRI’s ArcUrban, allow planners to create comprehensive 3D models of communities. These models enable visualization of future developments based on predefined parameters such as population goals or resource limitations like energy and water. This technology provides a powerful tool for assessing the impacts of planning decisions and fostering effective stakeholder engagement.

Real time analysis of public input

Public input serves as the cornerstone of well-informed urban planning decisions. Here, the convergence of AI tools offers a progressive framework that not only collects insights effectively but also transforms them into actionable plans. NovelAI’s ability to translate qualitative data into narratives is the first step in this process, setting the stage for a broader citizen-driven transformation.

In the context of a small city, the power of AI integration becomes vivid. Imagine a local community sharing ideas for revitalizing a historic district through an online platform. Here, NovelAI comes into play, rapidly transforming these inputs into coherent narratives. However, this is just the beginning; these narratives can then serve as the foundation for dynamic image generation.

Dalle 2 and Midjourney, AI models that can generate images based on textual descriptions, can breathe life into these narratives. The public’s ideas, now summarized in narratives, can be translated into visual concepts. These generated images become a shared canvas, allowing citizens to visualize the collective aspirations. The exciting part is that the visualization process doesn’t stop here. By integrating Adobe Firefly, urban planners can superimpose these generated visuals onto actual images of the community. Citizens can now witness the potential transformation of their surroundings, making the abstract tangible.

But it doesn’t end with visuals; public participation extends even further. Through digital platforms, citizens can cast votes on the images they find most compelling. This interplay of technology and collective choice propels urban planning beyond the realm of technical experts, empowering citizens to co-create their environment. These preferences drive the next phase: translating public aspirations into strategic goals, objectives, and strategies.

With ChatGPT, public input transforms into actionable planning steps. The nuanced discussions among citizens can be distilled into tangible objectives. AI plays a pivotal role here, facilitating the conversion of qualitative inputs into quantitative objectives. As public engagement and feedback continue in a responsive loop, AutoGPT tools, particularly AgentGPT, enter the scene.

AgentGPT’s ability to automate tasks and ideation is invaluable. It fills in the methods required to achieve each goal, refining the strategies outlined by the community. This collaborative interplay, with ideas being fine-tuned iteratively, embodies a novel approach to urban planning. From these collective strategies, zoning codes can also evolve, reflecting the democratic ideals the public has envisioned.

In this participatory framework, AI is an enabler, a bridge between aspirations and actions. It empowers citizens to be co-architects of their city, facilitating the transformation of qualitative expressions into tangible urban landscapes. However, the success of this journey depends on ethical considerations, accessibility, and education, ensuring that the voice of every citizen is heard and amplified, leading to a more inclusive, vibrant, and democratic urban future.

Balancing the Promise and Peril: AI in Urban Planning

As AI tools become integrated into urban planning, a dual narrative of promise and potential pitfalls emerges. These tools offer unprecedented efficiency, creativity, and data analysis, yet if not guided by ethical considerations, they could inadvertently lead to exclusion, manipulation, and surveillance.

While AI, exemplified by tools like NovelAI, holds the potential to aggregate and synthesize public input, there’s a risk of suppressing genuine human voices in favor of algorithmic consensus. This could create a future urban landscape devoid of cultural depth and diversity, echoing historical authoritarianism.

In a potential dystopian scenario, an AI-based planning software gains access to all smart city devices, amassing data to reshape communities without consulting their residents. This data-driven transformation, devoid of human input, risks eroding the essence of community identity, autonomy, and shared decision-making. Imagine AI altering traffic flow, adjusting public transportation routes, or even redesigning public spaces based solely on data patterns, disregarding the unique needs and desires of the people who call that community home.

However, an optimistic approach guided by ethical principles can pave the way for a brighter future. Integrating AI with democratic ideals, akin to Fishkin’s deliberative democracy, can amplify citizens’ voices rather than replacing them. AI-driven deliberation can become a powerful vehicle for community engagement, transforming Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation into a true instrument of empowerment. In addition, echoing the calls for alignment to be addresses holistically for AI, there will be alignment issues with AI as it becomes integrated into urban planning. We must take the time to ensure AI is properly aligned so it is a tool to help communities and not hurt them.

By treading carefully and embedding ethical considerations at the core, we can unleash AI’s potential to construct communities that are efficient, diverse, and resilient, while ensuring that democratic values remain paramount.

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