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AI in Urbanism: Machine Learning and its Effect on Urban Development

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

by Jacob Rodriguez

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Innovation. It occurs not through the minuscule alterations of our approaches to problem-solving but rather is facilitated through the disruption of our collective understanding of life. In our very palms, the key that unlocks the gate to the proverbial flood of knowledge is Artificial Intelligence. A new way of thinking, in a new era where learning and intelligence are no longer distinctly human traits. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are the preeminent modes for the reinterpretation of our surrounding environment. From the ads on your iPhone to the traffic lights on the street, to the production lines that manufacture the clothes on our backs, the shoes on our feet. We have made machines behave in ways that would be considered intelligent if a human were so behaving.

AI has not only allowed for countless new efficiencies in everyday life but has simultaneously created a trophic cascade of new information within a multitude of disciplines and lines of work. AI has had a particularly profound impact on the views of urbanists and planners on the surrounding urban landscape and has completely altered many methods of data collection and analytics employed by the profession. The use of artificial intelligence in the realm of urbanism has prompted rapid growth in the urban design trend or ‘ideology’ appropriately titled Smart Cities.

Smart Cities

The harmonization between data analytics and cutting-edge technology and its application to the creation of city infrastructure and design has birthed the concept of the ‘Smart City’. Consequently, the use and implementation of AI have rapidly elevated and promoted this concept to where cities can more easily aggregate available data, distribute technology resources and create sustainable urban environments at quicker and more efficient rates.

The progressive interconnectedness facilitated through the technology present in Smart Cities or Smart communities has created highly networked and more informed populations and provided a multitude of efficiencies and niceties for residents. Take, for example, improvements in mobility or transportation such as more punctuality and improved public transit or less congestion through more accurate traffic updates and better modes of road navigation. Furthermore, improvements in energy distribution through automation systems; security through Smart surveillance; civic engagement and feedback through more accessible digital platforms and means of communication are all made possible through the implementation of technologies in city buildings and are now enhanced through the use of artificial intelligence.

The information exchange not only between fellow residents but also between people and their governments, people and their representatives, and people and their community organizers are all enabled through the Smart City model. What AI has allowed for is a more open and accessible pool of information and data so that the concept of Smart City building could blossom into an even more nuanced and convenient mode of building in the urban developments of the future.

AI and Machine Learning in Smart Cities

AI generates information. The very flow of large quantities of relevant and analytical information is what prompts innovation and progression within the realm of urban development. No more spreadsheets! The practice of scouring spreadsheet data on census information, demographic projections, or traffic congestion in a particular grouping of streets is outdated and tedious. Planners are able to tap into pools of relevant and useful information in regards to the issue they may be encountering without only factoring in a single finding at a time but taking into consideration entire new and redeveloped interpretations provided by artificial intelligence. AI has allowed for planners and urbanists to identify an urban dilemma and draw from the knowledge of all planners simultaneously to assess and then repair the issue at hand. Knowledge no longer perishes with the person who holds it, it now resides in a conglomerated pool of knowledge that can be used by a multitude of people to repair a multitude of dilemmas.

The information acquired through the use of artificial intelligence has a grandiose effect on spatial design and layout. Algorithms generated by artificial intelligence in the scope of city building offer foreign, in the best sense of the word, and potentially unimagined outlooks on spatial layouts of cities, population distributions, land uses and a multitude of other aspects. The new point of view provided by consulting artificial algorithms can inform a new spatial dimension to cities, particularly smart cities. Cities already heavily influenced by the use of technology are, causally, easier to adapt to many of the new algorithms created by artificial intelligence. It is about taking what you know and elevating it to the next level.

Take theoretically, that as a result of a new zoning code, new layouts for land use and density within the City of Miami's downtown district are susceptible to redevelopment. The technological ‘bones’ of the district such as presumed smart surveillance, updated transport infrastructure, dynamic energy and electricity distribution, and so on allow for a more smooth reinterpretation.

AI algorithms will be able to more effectively reinterpret and reimagine many aspects of the spatial design to ensure aspects such as density, pollution, or congestion are most efficiently dealt with and the integrity of the technological ‘bones’ are maintained. In essence, AI not only facilitates smart city growth in general but also allows for already many existing cities with ‘smart’ potential to have smooth and more straightforward transitions into their new urban fabrics.


Reimagined and largely improved urban development, environmental reinterpretation and innovation. All at the helm of what artificial intelligence provides to the realm of urbanism and sustainable city building. Nonetheless, it is impossible to truly implement until the stigma surrounding machine learning is addressed. Just like humans, AI searches for patterns in the scenarios it is given. AI can pick out many non-human aspects to the scenarios given which can, in turn, be used to have a major stake in the design process.

The worry resides not in the application of AI, but rather in the potential for removing any remnants of humanity and personality from our city designs through its unsupervised implementation. The pretense of artificial intelligence as being some sort of invisible, malevolent force of conscience aimed at extracting humanity from the natural world and implementing mechanized modes of design altering and potentially harming the sanctity of everyday life is false, at least right now and in the foreseeable future. Artificial intelligence, from my experience, is best thought of as a very diverse tool in an increasingly growing toolbox. AI is not here to take over, it is here to be used. As long as it is overseen by the human eye, it can be used to help emphasize and improve many of the human factors regarding urban development. Furthermore, human input on the social and political aspects of the planning process is not likely to go away. On the contrary, the role of the planner as both confidant and protector of the privacy of the people, with this new tool, will flourish.

The efficiency, and even more so the beauty of a new collective mind at our disposal acts not only as an affirmation of our progression and transcendence as a species but has allowed us to help others in ways not previously available or imagined. The promotion and application of Smart City planning through the introduction of artificial intelligence has not only made us more interconnected as a people but also more sustainable as a population. Something constantly overlooked within the lens of many business and government approaches to development. We have granted ourselves a particular opportunity as a species to think in ways no longer understood as “human”. To new heights of rationale and understanding not previously factored into the global equation. AI is innovation, but above all else, it is an opportunity to learn from something we have yet to fully understand.

Do not cower in fear of the future, for the future is now. Embrace it as it comes, and take advantage of it while it lasts. Be determined in its application, and through its application, we are called to preserve human interest and actualize our unforeseen longevity.

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