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The Tedious Parts of City Planning Could Be Turned Over to AI

A New Hampshire city joins a growing list of local governments that are turning over some of the more time-intensive tasks of planning operations to artificial intelligence technologies.

The exterior of the Lebanon, N.H., City Hall building.
Lebanon, N.H., City Hall.
Measuring setback distances or sidewalk widths are some of the more tedious tasks city planning officials dread. They are also the tasks ripe for automation.

Cities like Lebanon, N.H., and Gainesville, Fla., are using technology from AutoReview.AI to process development applications and conduct site-plan reviews.

“Right now, we are still in the implementation stage with AutoReview, which means we are still providing feedback and training documents to the AutoReview.AI team,” said Melanie McDonough, chief innovation officer for Lebanon, N.H. “We anticipate significant time savings once we are up and rolling, with expansion into our residential building permits and tools such as the Vera chatbot to help staff find answers quickly.”

The technology from AutoReview automates building and development codes to help “reduce the amount of time, the laborious work that it takes to review these plans,” said Rob Christy, CEO of AutoReview.AI.

“We want government to be able to focus on the things that they really enjoy doing,” said Christy. “I really feel this is going to give them back some time, let them reallocate staffing, and really streamline their departments.”

The technology is also used by the private-sector developer community, so that projects they submit are designed with local building and design regulations built into them.

“We’re getting everybody on the same page, so that there’s very little left to review,” said Christy. “The drawings are more accurate on their way into the system. They’re then verified and run through by the government side. And then they focus on the important parts.”

Machine learning technologies like this one are part of a movement to allow technology to perform more tasks that have traditionally been done by people. Christy compares it to the innovation the calculator brought to long division.

“The tasks that can be automated, should be,” he remarked. “Technology is always about reducing friction.”

The company currently has six clients, and about 100 more in the pipeline.

“It’s really starting to take off. It’s very, very exciting,” said Christy.

“There was definitely a little bit of, ‘what the heck is this,’ at first,” he added.

Beyond moving projects through the plan review process faster, officials in Lebanon also hope to use AutoReview to “apply consistent standards, making the reviews more accurate while leaving our staff as the ultimate decision-makers,” said McDonough, adding this aligns with the city’s own AI policy and strategy.

“In addition to AutoReview, the city is actively engaged in finding ways to use AI to assist our staff and to provide better communication and services to the public,” McDonough added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.