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Toronto Looks To Google Sister Company To Build The City Of The Future

Sidewalk Labs’ winning proposal for a smart city on Toronto’s waterfront reads a little like extremely detailed science fiction.

Sidewalk Labs Waterfront Toronto Quayside
The initial Sidewalk Toronto plan calls for the smart city development of Toronto's Quayside on the waterfront.

At almost 200 pages, the document conceives of all aspects of living, working and playing in a high-tech community of a not-so-distant Toronto. While the ideas are firmly based in existing concepts and infrastructure, the sheer ambition of it looks to the future.

“We believe it’s possible to accelerate urban invocation by creating a new type of place where cutting-edge technology and people-first design are built into the foundation,” said Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, at last week’s official announcement.

“We looked all over the world for the perfect place to bring this vision to life and we found it here in Toronto.”

In partnership with Waterfront Toronto, the initial plan is to develop a 12-acre waterfront property known as Quayside, an area that will eventually include Google Canada's Toronto headquarters.

But the pitch document makes it clear that the goal is to eventually expand to include 800 acres of Eastern Waterfront land that would form a dozen smaller communities.

At this point, Sidewalk's initial commitment is for $50M toward a year of development and discussions on all the legal, legislative, logistic and privacy issues that will inevitably emerge out of its radical digital community wish list.

Already, pundits here and in the U.S. are raising alarm bells about bringing technology to an unpredictable urban environment, and especially the privacy issues at play in this new brave new community.

“You read the criticism and hand-wringing, and it’s a little premature at this point,” said Toronto writer/documentarian Christopher Hume, a former architecture critic for the Toronto Star. 

“We’re not signing over the city to Google. [The proposal] is now more about the process than the product; more about how [Sidewalk] would do it than what is going to be done.”

Sidewalk Labs Google Waterfront Toronto sustainability
Sidewalk Toronto would operate as much below ground as above.

Even as an untested theory, the Sidewalk proposal paints a vivid picture. 

“When people look around Quayside, they might see a retail shop turning into artist housing as part of a flexible building pilot,” begins the proposal. 

“Or a self-driving shuttle dropping off passengers during a test ride. Or a community group using a digital kiosk to provide feedback on a local planning discussion. Or a new urban innovation institute, home to a campus of entrepreneurs itching to solve the toughest problems facing cities.” 

As a digitally integrated community, Sidewalk Toronto would feature 24-hour monitoring that would deal with everything, including weather, traffic lights, waste management, power usage, personal safety or even a broken park bench. 

Freight and garbage would be moved underground robotically. Self-driving shuttles would help people move about as private cars would be limited. A robust walking and biking infrastructure and better integrated transit is in the plan, providing citizens with one less hour a day of commuting, according to the proposal.

“It’s a city of the future that looks a lot like the city of the past,” Hume said. “Things are at a smaller scale and pace. There would be no more garbage trucks blocking the way. Without traffic, people would be able to chat to neighbours on the street.”

In the proposal, lower-cost, quicker-to-build modular housing would be the rule. And owning or renting a home would be tailored to individual needs and finances with partial homeownership programs, rental subsidies and facilities that cater to a range of resident incomes.

Sidewalk places the projected cost-of-living reductions for the community at 14%, while its rigorous green plans would make its climate footprint among the lowest in the world. 

As for jobs, the proposal estimates that the initial Quayside neighborhood will be host to more than 5,500 jobs and generate more than $50M of annual property taxes. The expansion to the Eastern Waterfront could up that 10 times. 

“We believe that modern technology could help cities address their biggest challenges,” Doctoroff said at the launch.

That includes the families that cannot afford a home or the service worker who spends hours commuting in traffic.

Waterfront Toronto Quayside Sidewalk Labs
The Sidewalk Labs' proposal calls for the expansion of the initial Quayside community to encompass 800 acres of the Toronto waterfront.

Hume cautioned that this is all still a concept that is a long way from realization. The first step in the first stage of development begins Nov. 1 with a town hall meeting. 

“They [Sidewalk] are not in total control. They will be working with the city and other partners. There are all kinds of figures involved,” he said.

And while Hume has no idea how this will all play out, he welcomes the effort to try something different, especially when it comes to Toronto’s waterfront. 

“It’s always a battle to do something that isn’t the same old, same old,” he said. “They seem to want to try to do things better than they’ve been done in the past. And this is only 12 acres to start. This is empty land. What do we really have to lose?”