On the Waterfront: Inside Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto Quayside Project

Earlier this year, Google sister company Sidewalk Labs revealed its plans to create a smart city on Toronto’s eastern seafront. From snow-melting pavements to sensors and cameras, the project pledges to make “urban life better for everybody”. But questions over privacy remain unanswered, writes Ross Davies 

Images courtesy of Perkins+Will

As far back as the start of the last century, the eastern waterfront of Toronto – Canada’s largest city – has drawn considerable interest from local developers.

Back in the early 1900s, the idea had been to create a new lakefill home to supplement the city’s growing industrial base. However, that plan – and others that followed it – fell by the wayside, blamed on poor economic timing and lack of supporting infrastructure.

Consequently, the modern story of the eastern waterfront is one of missed opportunities. Today, its Quayside area is defined by low-slung buildings and disused silos dating back to the area’s history as a bustling industrial port.

Notwithstanding such setbacks, the waterfront’s growth potential for downtown Toronto is unparalleled. At more than 300 hectares, it remains the largest underdeveloped parcel of urban land in North America. The Quayside – which connects the city to the water – has an area of five hectares.

It was therefore somewhat inevitable that developers would return to the neighbourhood sooner or later. This time, it is the turn of Sidewalk Labs to unveil its blueprints and plans. In June, Sidewalk – a spinoff of Alphabet, Google’s parent company – released a master innovation and development plan (MIDP), which it claims could “unlock the potential” of the waterfront.

Smart city: Building a neighbourhood “from the internet up”

The 1,500-page proposal details the creation of a “smart city”, providing new jobs and housing while boosting economic growth. According to Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff, the goal is to make “urban life better for everybody”.

“[This is] a groundbreaking project that generates extraordinary numbers of jobs and economic benefits for Torontonians, while achieving new levels of environmental sustainability, pioneering a 21st-century mobility network, producing record numbers of affordable housing, and establishing a new model for urban innovation,” wrote Doctoroff in his overview of the plan.

“ The goal is to make ‘urban life better for everybody’. 

It is approaching two years since Sidewalk was first invited by Waterfront Toronto – the governmental agency responsible for breathing new life into Toronto’s shoreline – to develop a new smart city. In that time, said Doctoroff, the group has spoken with “more

than 21,000 Torontonians; all levels of government; dozens of meetings with local experts, non-profits, and community stakeholders; and the research, engineering, and design work of more than 100 local firms.”

So, what is Sidewalk proposing? In short, if realised, the Toronto Quayside could be the “world’s first neighbourhood build from the internet up”, says the group, which was founded in 2015.

Nothing if not ambitious: What exactly is Sidewalk promising?

The proposal contains everything from adaptive traffic lights and snow-melting pavements to a fossil fuel-free thermal energy grid and connected cameras and sensors. It would also be the first district in the world to be constructed entirely out of timber. “Advanced energy systems” would help create “the largest climate-positive community in North America” while keeping costs the same – or lower – for local residents and businesses.

Despite scaling down its original plan from redeveloping the entire Eastern waterfront to just the Quayside, Sidewalk’s vision for the area is still nothing if not hugely ambitious. If approval is granted, the group is hoping construction could begin as early as 2022, with a completion date pencilled in for 2040.

“ Sidewalk forecasts the project would create 93,000 new jobs, with the potential to generate around $14.2bn in annual GDP. 

According to Doctoroff – who was Deputy Mayor of New York City between 2001 and 2008 – the potential economic windfall for Toronto, Ontario and the Canadian Government could be sizeable. Sidewalk forecasts the project would create 93,000 new jobs, with the potential to generate around $14.2bn in annual GDP.

Sidewalk and its partners have pledged to put up $1.3bn in funding, which it believes could bring about roughly $38bn in investment from third parties.

However, not everyone is convinced by Sidewalk’s motives. While big-name architectural practices – including Snøhetta, Heatherwick Studio, and Michael Green Architecture – have signed up to create new designs, others have serious reservations round privacy issues.

A matter of privacy: Charges of “surveillance capitalism”

Just as its sibling company has found itself under fire for its handling of user data security, so Sidewalk’s plans have been met with much local opposition in the shape of Block Sidewalk, a citizen-led campaign group against the development. Speaking to Business Insider earlier this year, Bianca Wylie, a leader of the campaign, accused Sidewalk of “turning neighbourhoods into profit centres”.

Elsewhere, Roger McNamee, Silicon Valley investor-turned-activist, branded Sidewalk guilty of “surveillance capitalism”. Last year, privacy expert Dr Ann Cavoukian resigned from her consulting role on the project due to concerns over privacy issues.

“ Sidewalk maintains it has no intention to use or sell personal information collected from the project on to advertisers. 

Sidewalk, however, maintains it has no intention to use or sell personal information collected from the project on to advertisers.

“We heard lots of concerns about privacy,” said Doctoroff. “The approach we’ve developed is in direct response to those conversations, vesting the control of urban data in a democratic, independent process that would apply in addition to existing privacy laws in Ontario and Canada.”

As Sidewalk waits on a decision by the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto’s board of directors, it leads us to speculate whether the concept of the smart city is set to transcend buzzword status and define urban life.

Given its forays into everything from self-driving cars to biotech, the idea of Google branching out into city planning is hardly surprising. But as people become more conscious of the fact their data is now the greatest commodity of all in the world of big tech, Toronto should be careful over what it wishes for on its eastern waterfront.

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Images courtesy of Sidewalk Labs