Planners have a lot to wrestle with as ChatGPT comes to code drafting.
“In the era of rapid urbanization and evolving urban landscapes, the development of effective zoning ordinances has become an essential aspect of urban planning. These regulations shape the future of cities, determining land use, building codes, and overall community development. Traditionally, crafting a zoning ordinance required countless hours of manual research, analysis, and drafting, by teams of urban planners and legal experts. However, with the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP), a groundbreaking new approach has taken center stage: ChatGPT, an advanced language model developed by OpenAI.”
So, would begin this article, if I let ChatGPT have its way. When asked to write an article about AI writing zoning ordinances, it produced the above paragraph and five more. It helpfully added the title “ChatGPT Revolutionizes Zoning Ordinance Creation: A Step Towards Efficient Urban Planning.”
Though touting its “remarkable precision and efficiency, providing urban planners and decision-makers with valuable insights and recommendations” the actual output of ChatGPT’s attempt to write a zoning ordinance will assure every planner that their job is safe. Unless they don’t want it to be.
Asking ChatGPT for a zoning ordinance is kind of astounding. Using the prompt “you are a code writer for a local government, prepare a text of a zoning ordinance to produce dense, affordable housing, with plenty of trees, greenspace and walkability.” The bot offered 750 words defining terms, developing zoning district designations, and setting penalties for failing to comply with the ordinance. A second prompt added a similarly sized and detailed subdivision ordinance. I’ve included the text at the end of this article. If only our adopted land use ordinances topped out at five pages.
The AI ordinances sound pretty good and mostly complete on first read. The new rules create a high density residential district, a mixed-use district, and a greenspace district. There are provisions for adoption, a spiffy sounding purpose section, and severability clauses. It throws in floor area ratios and some bioswales that no one requested. And dang if that AI doesn’t hit on the Planners Love for Abbreviating Things (PLAT).
But like fingers on a generated painting, a few misnomers and the fake becomes apparent. It defines tree. The structure is an outline without a purpose, dropping into ordered lists at weird places. The greenspace zone is missing in later parts, among other incomplete distances or useful definitions of concepts like “close proximity.” In general, it fulfills the assessment that ChatGPT (at least the publicly available 3.5 version) writes like a checked-out 11th grader. Or Master of Urban Planning (MUP) intern. So it would be an absolute mistake to try and apply this to a city.
The exercise, however, is quite useful. It uses the weaknesses of natural language processors like ChatGPT to highlight the weaknesses of planners.
Natural language processors like ChatGPT are trained on reams of data. It looks for logical connections between the words presented, and pulls them out when presented with a prompt that demands it. Or, when asked (then asked again for a 20-word response) ChatGPT puts it: “The process involves understanding the prompt, retrieving relevant knowledge, reasoning, generating a response, iteratively refining it, and delivering it effectively to the user.” That retrieval part is important, because it’s a dataset fed to the machine by humans.
The problem here is that the AI is accessing a lot of data, so it’s necessary to identify what the data is to make any sense of the output that’s been offered. In her book You Look Like a Thing And I Love You, AI researcher Janelle Shane points out the disconnect while discussing predictive policing, or using past records to predict time and location of crimes to allot more patrols: “The algorithm is not predicting where the most crime will occur; it’s predicting where the most crime will be detected. If there are more police sent to a particular neighborhood, more crime will be detected there than in a lightly policed but equally crime ridden neighborhood.” Like corporate boardrooms.
ChatGPT was filled with data from across the internet in September 2021. That includes a lot of ordinances and land use legislation of a specific flavor: the text of ordinances that passed or were considered. There’s little history because the codes get overwritten and few new ideas because they don’t get published, just passed legislation and most of it current. We can see that in the technical severability and effective date clauses the AI felt fit to include.
So the bot is not drawing words from ordinances that successfully built cities. It’s drawing words from ordinances that successfully ran today’s political gauntlet and got adopted. There is no tie between the success of these words and the successful development of good neighborhoods. This is a best practices document in politics, not in urbanism.
These are also the words on average likely to follow the one before. It excludes outliers and drifts towards most probable. In his book Team Human, Douglas Rushkoff highlights the issue with algorithms trending towards the middle. He uses the example of hollowing the punk ethos to a mohawk and patches because 80% of punks wore them. Thrash all you want, it was the 20% of punks who likely skipped the look that made the anti-establishment, mutual aid ethos important. “We are using algorithms to eliminate that 20%: the anomalous behaviors that keep people unpredictable, weird and diverse.”
Unfortunately, pseudo best practices and average thinking are what planners do best. The history of zoning in America is copy-paste of the things that get passed and work just good enough. We’re doing it again in Washington with a complete farce of a missing middle housing handbook. It’s an issue Jane Jacobs warned about, calling urbanists to seek the “unaverage,” leaving behind the city-as-math problem to reveal the essential processes of the city’s organized complexity.
There is a way to have artificial intelligence unleash a truly groundbreaking approach to zoning, and that’s to do the things humans just are not able to undertake. It could be deep-dive research into deed records over time. It could be untangling zoning terms from economic cycles. It’s just not writing ordinances. As Janelle Shane points out, “To take the best way forward with AI, we’ll have to understand it – understand how to choose the right problems for it to solve, how to anticipate its misunderstandings, and how to prevent it from copying the worst of what it finds in human data.”
Planners can unleash AI, but only when we can honestly identify the worst of what we do. That’s because, when we try to extract lessons from a giant Voltron of zoning ordinances we wrote, we’re talking to ourselves. Land use ordinances are reflections of our biases, whether its against a certain style of development or towards the politically expedient. These AI zoning and subdivision ordinances are just yelling them back at us.
PROMPT: You are a code writer for a local government. Prepare the text of a zoning ordinance to produce dense, affordable housing with plenty of trees, greenspace, and walkability. Zoning Ordinance: Promoting Dense, Affordable Housing with Trees, Greenspace, and Walkability Section 1: Purpose The purpose of this zoning ordinance is to promote the development of dense, affordable housing while ensuring the preservation and enhancement of trees, greenspace, and walkability within our local government. By creating vibrant, sustainable communities, we aim to improve the quality of life for residents, foster social cohesion, and protect the environment. Section 2: Definitions 2.1 Dense, Affordable Housing: Residential developments characterized by a higher number of housing units per acre, designed to provide affordable housing options to individuals and families across various income levels. 2.2 Trees: Mature woody perennial plants typically characterized by a single stem or trunk supporting a crown of branches and leaves. 2.3 Greenspace: Open areas within residential developments that are primarily covered by vegetation, including but not limited to parks, playgrounds, and community gardens. 2.4 Walkability: The ease and safety with which pedestrians can access amenities, services, and public spaces within a neighborhood or development. Section 3: Zoning Districts and Designations 3.1 High-Density Residential Districts (HDRD): These districts shall be designated to encourage the development of dense, affordable housing with an emphasis on providing an adequate number of housing units per acre. 3.2 Mixed-Use Districts (MXD): These districts shall encourage a mix of residential, commercial, and recreational uses, promoting walkability by allowing residents to access essential services within walking distance. 3.3 Green and Open Space Districts (GOSD): These districts shall be designated to preserve and enhance greenspace and ensure the availability of public parks, community gardens, and other recreational areas. Section 4: Development Standards and Guidelines 4.1 Density and Affordable Housing Requirements: 4.1.1 HDRD: Minimum density requirements for high-density residential developments shall be [insert specific number] housing units per acre. A certain percentage of these units shall be designated as affordable housing, as determined by the local government's affordable housing policy. 4.1.2 MXD: Mixed-use developments should allocate a portion of residential units for affordable housing, in accordance with the local government's affordable housing policy. 4.2 Tree Preservation and Planting: 4.2.1 All new developments shall conduct a comprehensive tree inventory to identify and protect existing mature trees within the project area. 4.2.2 For each unit constructed, developers shall be required to plant a minimum of [insert specific number] trees, as determined by the size of the development site. 4.3 Greenspace Requirements: 4.3.1 For every housing unit constructed, developers shall allocate a specific percentage of the site as greenspace, including areas for parks, playgrounds, and community gardens. 4.3.2 Greenspaces shall be easily accessible to residents and designed to promote outdoor activities and community interaction. 4.4 Walkability: 4.4.1 Developments shall incorporate pedestrian-friendly design elements, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, and pedestrian pathways, to ensure safe and convenient access to amenities and public spaces. 4.4.2 Mixed-use districts should prioritize a walkable layout, with a mix of residential, commercial, and recreational establishments located within close proximity to each other. Section 5: Incentives and Benefits 5.1 Density Bonus Program: 5.1.1 Developers who exceed the minimum density requirements set forth in this ordinance may be eligible for density bonuses, such as increased floor area ratios, expedited permitting processes, or financial incentives. 5.2 Expedited Review and Permitting: 5.2.1 Affordable housing developments meeting the local government's criteria shall be given priority in the review and permitting process, ensuring a streamlined process for their construction. 5.3 Fee Waivers and Reductions: 5.3.1 The local government may consider waiving or reducing certain fees associated with the development of affordable housing or projects that incorporate significant trees, greenspace, and walkability features. Section 6: Implementation and Enforcement 6.1 Planning and Zoning Department: 6.1.1 The local government's Planning and Zoning Department shall be responsible for administering and enforcing this zoning ordinance, ensuring compliance with the specified requirements. 6.2 Compliance and Penalties: 6.2.1 Failure to comply with this ordinance may result in penalties, fines, or the revocation of permits. The local government shall have the authority to enforce these penalties as deemed necessary. Section 7: Severability If any provision or section of this ordinance is found to be invalid or unenforceable, the remaining provisions shall remain in effect. Section 8: Effective Date This zoning ordinance shall become effective immediately upon approval by the local government and shall apply to all new developments and substantial renovations from the effective date onward. Note: The above zoning ordinance is a generalized framework. Please consult with legal experts, urban planners, and other relevant stakeholders to tailor the ordinance to your specific local government's needs, legal requirements, and community preferences.
PROMPT: Based on the above zoning rules, please prepare a subdivision ordinance. Subdivision Ordinance: Promoting Sustainable and Vibrant Communities Section 1: Purpose The purpose of this subdivision ordinance is to establish regulations and guidelines for the orderly and sustainable development of subdivisions within our local government. By promoting thoughtful design, preserving natural resources, and ensuring the provision of essential infrastructure, we aim to create vibrant, livable neighborhoods that enhance the quality of life for residents. Section 2: Definitions 2.1 Subdivision: The division of a tract or parcel of land into two or more lots or parcels for the purpose of sale, lease, or development. 2.2 Developer: The individual, group, or entity responsible for proposing and implementing the subdivision project. Section 3: General Requirements 3.1 Preliminary Subdivision Plan: 3.1.1 Prior to the commencement of any subdivision project, the developer shall submit a preliminary subdivision plan to the local government's Planning and Zoning Department for review and approval. 3.1.2 The preliminary plan should include proposed lot layout, road networks, utilities, greenspaces, and provisions for tree preservation and walkability. 3.2 Lot Design and Layout: 3.2.1 Lots shall be designed to ensure efficient land use while considering environmental factors, such as topography, drainage patterns, and existing vegetation. 3.2.2 Minimum lot sizes and dimensions shall be established, taking into account the desired density, greenspace requirements, and affordable housing objectives. 3.3 Infrastructure: 3.3.1 Adequate provisions for water supply, sewage disposal, stormwater management, and utility services shall be incorporated into the subdivision design. 3.3.2 Road networks shall be planned to accommodate anticipated traffic volumes, promote connectivity, and ensure pedestrian safety. Section 4: Environmental Considerations 4.1 Tree Preservation: 4.1.1 Developers shall conduct a thorough tree inventory to identify and protect significant trees within the subdivision area. 4.1.2 The subdivision design should strive to retain existing trees and incorporate them into the layout to preserve the aesthetic value and environmental benefits they provide. 4.2 Greenspace and Recreation: 4.2.1 Subdivisions shall include dedicated greenspaces, such as parks, playgrounds, and community gardens, designed to enhance the overall quality of life for residents. 4.2.2 The size and location of greenspaces should be determined based on the anticipated population density and the need for accessible recreational areas. Section 5: Design Standards 5.1 Road Design: 5.1.1 Roadways within subdivisions shall be designed to accommodate safe and efficient vehicular circulation, pedestrian walkways, and bicycle lanes, promoting walkability and connectivity. 5.1.2 Sidewalks and street trees shall be incorporated to enhance the streetscape and provide a comfortable environment for pedestrians. 5.2 Stormwater Management: 5.2.1 Subdivisions shall incorporate stormwater management techniques to mitigate potential flooding, erosion, and water quality impacts. 5.2.2 Stormwater retention ponds, bioswales, or other appropriate measures should be included to manage and treat stormwater runoff. Section 6: Review and Approval Process 6.1 Subdivision Review: 6.1.1 The local government's Planning and Zoning Department shall review the preliminary subdivision plan, considering compliance with the provisions outlined in this ordinance. 6.1.2 The review process may include consultation with relevant agencies, public hearings, and opportunities for public input. 6.2 Approval and Conditions: 6.2.1 Upon satisfactory review, the local government shall approve the subdivision plan, subject to any necessary conditions or modifications to ensure compliance with applicable regulations and the best interests of the community. Section 7: Compliance and Enforcement 7.1 Inspections and Monitoring: 7.1. 1 The local government shall conduct inspections at various stages of the subdivision project to ensure compliance with the approved plans and applicable regulations. 7.1.2 Non-compliance may result in penalties, fines, or the suspension of further development activities until corrective actions are taken. 7.2 Maintenance and Bonding: 7.2.1 The developer shall be responsible for maintaining and repairing subdivision infrastructure, including roads, utilities, and greenspaces, for a specified period after completion. 7.2.2 The local government may require the posting of performance bonds or other financial assurances to ensure the fulfillment of maintenance obligations. Section 8: Severability If any provision or section of this subdivision ordinance is found to be invalid or unenforceable, the remaining provisions shall remain in effect. Section 9: Effective Date This subdivision ordinance shall become effective immediately upon approval by the local government and shall apply to all new subdivision projects initiated from the effective date onward. Note: The above subdivision ordinance is a generalized framework. Please consult with legal experts, urban planners, and other relevant stakeholders to tailor the ordinance to your specific local government's needs, legal requirements, and community preferences.
Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.