Aug 3, 2022 - Technology

Meet the artist using AI to imagine better cities

An AI-generated image of a pedestrian roundabout in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy of Zach Katz

What would the busiest street in your hometown look like with fewer cars and more people, and bike lanes, and light rail? Urban planning advocate Zach Katz cannot only tell you, he can show you — using the AI image-generation platform DALL-E, Alex Fitzpatrick reports.

  • Katz, a 28-year-old Brooklyn-based artist and musician, is all the rage on urbanist Twitter, thanks to his AI-generated images that show real-world, car-dense streets in cities like New York and Boston as pedestrian and public transit utopias.

Why it matters: Images are powerful tools for imagining what's possible in urban design — and Katz's work is already being used by advocates across the country to push for the changes they want.

The details: While DALL-E is remarkably good at generating images based on users' text input, Katz says it can take 40-50 attempts and a few minutes to a few hours to render exactly what he wants in any given scene.

The big picture: "When I got access to DALL-E, just for fun, I plugged in some streets in my neighborhood in Bushwick and was blown away by how it could turn this ... normal street for cars into this lush cobblestone pedestrian promenade with ornate stone water fountains," Katz says.

  • "So, then I was like, well, this could have serious transformative potential for safe streets advocacy, livable streets advocacy worldwide."

Katz is trying to be thoughtful about what actually makes sense in a given neighborhood, he adds.

  • "It would be horribly embarrassing if I were to put a bus lane where there's no bus currently, or pedestrianized a street where there needs to be a bus lane or a light rail or a streetcar."

Yes, but: It's one thing to visualize changes, but getting the political support, community consensus, safety approval, and money to implement them is another.

What's next: Katz has around 1,000 requests to map specific streets or neighborhoods — some from transportation advocacy groups and city officials, including one Wisconsin mayor.

  • "It's really cool how easy it is now to get the conversation started, whereas before it would have taken weeks and months of planning and on the ground advocacy, talking to people — just theoretical words flying back and forth," he says. "Now it's just one or two pictures, and all of a sudden people are talking about it and are excited about it."
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