This smart city of the future first appeared in cutesy sketches. Drawn in a cheerful palette were a kayaker paddling in a harbor, a dad pulling a little one in a bike trailer, children running hand-in-hand through a carless streetscape. There were gondolas and pergolas, and underground robots carrying waste. And, vaguely, in the background, there were also buildings.
This was the vision for Quayside, a new waterfront neighborhood in Toronto conceived by “Sidewalk Toronto,” a partnership between a local public agency and Sidewalk Labs, a New York–based unit of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. “By leveraging technology and combining it with really smart, people-centric urban planning,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said at the time, “we could have really dramatic impacts on quality of life.”
Sidewalk Toronto was launched in October 2017. A year and a few months later, the vision for Quayside remains only slightly less vague than those initial drawings. The 3 million-square-foot project promises to include many of the hallmarks of smart-city ventures: “dynamic streets” designed for autonomous vehicles, “radical-mixed-use” buildings featuring “power-over-Ethernet,” and a novel approach to retail and service space that prioritizes pop-ups over long-term leases. The project also promises to inspire meaningful innovations in construction and real estate practice. “We’re putting forward new technologies that have not been integrated before,” says Karim Khalifa, a mechanical engineer who is the director of buildings innovation for Sidewalk Labs. “The project includes prefabricated mass timber at a scale that has never been attempted.”
Perhaps most importantly, Quayside promises to generate endless streams of data—from buildings, road sensors, traffic signals, and other sources—with the promise that they will make the development more efficient, safe, and pleasant. Local resistance to the plan has mounted, however, as residents of various political stripes have raised a provocative series of questions. Who will control that data? What does a tech-inspired, Google-affiliated city mean, technologically, socially, economically, and politically? What, exactly, is Sidewalk trying to build?
An Instigator, Not a Developer
Quayside is the first major project by Sidewalk Labs— a showpiece that the company hopes will define its reputation in the field of “urban innovation.” It’s one of the most prominent examples of the tech industry’s newfound ambition to disrupt urban planning. As Khalifa says, “We’re not a real estate developer. We’re not a contractor … you could call us an instigator or a catalyst in this space.”
The company was founded under the leadership of Doctoroff, the former CEO of Bloomberg LP and a deputy mayor of New York under Michael Bloomberg. Staffed heavily by Bloomberg administration veterans, the firm was seeking a site to test new approaches to mobility, construction technology and, most contentiously, the use of data from traffic and building systems, as well as personal data. They found their venue in Toronto, a city of nearly 3 million that is Canada’s financial, cultural, and tech capital.
Their partner? Waterfront Toronto, a public agency controlled jointly by the city, the province of Ontario, and the federal government. The agency was created in 2001 to redevelop 2,000 acres of Toronto’s port lands on Lake Ontario, a former industrial zone just a mile east of the city center. Waterfront Toronto has made considerable progress, building quality parks and public space, collaborating with public agencies and developers to create new mixed-use projects, and improving the site’s flood protection. Two years ago, it broke ground on a nearly $900 million project to reshape the flood-prone Don River. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the project will also create 200 acres of new parks along the river’s “renaturalized” mouth.
In 2017, when the agency released an RFP looking for a developer and “innovation partner,” almost no one noticed; my column in the Globe and Mail discussing this news made few ripples. But when it became clear that Sidewalk—or, as it was widely reported, Google—was the innovation partner, things suddenly heated up. This wasn’t simply a question of designing smart building automation systems or streetlamps, but something bigger and potentially more nebulous, even nefarious. Sidewalk, after all, has professed interest in the healthcare industry and even voting machines. Commentators, some of them wary of an American company imposing its will north of the border, painted the project as a fearsome corporate takeover or as a techno-utopia in the making. “Sidewalk Toronto is not a smart city,” wrote Jim Balsillie, a former chairman and co-CEO of Research In Motion (now BlackBerry) in a op-ed in the Globe and Mail published in October. “It is a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic, and political issues.”
Waterfront Toronto was unprepared for this storm. The agency, then headed by urban designer and real estate developer Will Fleissig, can do little without the agreement of all its public masters, and it had always prized a methodical, consultative approach. Sidewalk Labs, with few local staff and limited political connections, also seemed unprepared for the blowback. The company’s initial message, with those sunny drawings, was vague but cheerful. “We want to mix technology and cutting-edge city planning, and bend the curve on quality of life in cities,” Doctoroff told me before the launch. He also said: “We’re humble. We know how to listen.”
Those qualities have certainly been put to the test. One problem was the deal’s unusual structure. The two partners began working together to create policy around “digital innovation,” and the resulting public outreach seemed to blur Waterfront’s public agenda with Sidewalk’s spin, raising questions about who exactly was driving the agenda. It didn’t help that the agreement called Sidewalk an “innovation partner” for much of the port lands beyond Quayside—750 acres—without spelling out exactly what this would mean. And then there was the question of data. How would information from Quayside be collected, how would it be stored and used, and who would have access to it and for what purposes? Would a resident’s movements, captured by cameras or geolocation data, truly remain private? And would Sidewalk be able to extract huge economic returns from its intimate knowledge of the community? Critics panned the initial public meetings for being unreasonably vague about these questions. One of Waterfront’s board members and two members of its digital strategy advisory panel have resigned in recent months, unhappy with Sidewalk’s handling of data and privacy concerns and the way the public-private partnership was operating.
A Vision in Timber
Meanwhile, Sidewalk has been working to translate its vision into actual development. The company has been reluctant to release designs in a coherent way, and in December, when it revealed specifics of its Quayside master plan for the first time, the drawings remained frustratingly vague. Designed by a team including Neil Kittredge, AIA, a partner and director of planning and urban design at Beyer Blinder Belle in New York; Toronto-based urban design consultancy Urban Strategies; and urban planner Ken Greenberg, Assoc. AIA, the scheme is a mix of mid-rise and low-rise buildings between five and 30 stories tall. It’s meant to support 3,900 new jobs and house about 5,000 residents, 40 percent of them in some form of affordable housing. A pedestrian-only street runs through the middle of the block, and the site features a “water plaza” designed by emerging Toronto landscape architect firm Public Work that connects the development to the waterfront. “There is this really interesting geography of where the downtown meets the lake,” says Jesse Shapins, Sidewalk’s director of public realm. “And so from an urban design perspective, we’re looking to blend as much as possible the relationship between land, water, and buildings.”
As for the buildings themselves, they are what Sidewalk is calling “radical mixed-use,” with residential, office, retail, and light industrial alongside each other in loft-like structures—a plan that would require significant zoning changes. Inside the buildings, one of the innovations will be the use of power-over-Ethernet, which Khalifa’s team is working on with consultancy Interface Engineering. This technology supplies low-voltage DC current through Ethernet cables, which can be run inside the cavity of an interior wall and then easily moved when there’s a change in tenancy or use. Early sketches of the project featured fourth-floor workshops alongside apartments; more recent iterations had separated residential and office spaces into different floors.
One thing that has remained consistent is Sidewalk’s commitment to mass timber. As Khalifa argues, cross-laminated timber panels and glue-laminated beams especially are less carbon-intensive than steel or concrete; they are lightweight and relatively easy to transport long distances; and they lend themselves to off-site panelization or prefabrication. He says that Sidewalk is planning to “invest in the supply chain” of mass timber in Ontario, to make it easier for the Quayside project and future development to rely on the material. The company has partnered with Michael Green Associates Architecture (MGA), whose principal Michael Green, AIA, has become a leading proponent of mass timber. In an interview last year, Green said that he has designed a “kit of parts” for the project that can be manipulated to “allow for the changing way we all want to live”—a solution “that is, on the one hand, not complicated, but on the other hand it’s quite complicated when you try to get into structural and programmatic details.”
Who will work with that kit of parts, in addition to the architectural expression of the buildings themselves, remains undecided: Sidewalk executives haven’t yet revealed who the architects will be, but they have engaged Snøhetta and Heatherwick Studio to explore possibilities. “We’ve asked them to test the model, and see whether it can be used to create beautiful architecture,” says Andrew Winters, Sidewalk’s chief operating office for development. “And the answer is yes.”
Perhaps the most difficult part of the project revolves around fire safety and code compliance in wood buildings. In Ontario, as in most jurisdictions, in order to achieve an adequate fire rating for homes, the wood structure must be covered by drywall or other materials whose fire-separation capacity is well understood. Sidewalk is attempting to solve this issue, Winters says, with a fire-resistant finish that can be applied to the surface of the wood. Still, regulatory challenges remain: the local building code forbids wood structures taller than six stories, although two groundbreaking wood projects in the city (10 and 14 stories high) are currently seeking approval.
If Sidewalk does secure the necessary permits, its timber architecture could frame an unusual sort of public life. The company’s master plan for Quayside allots almost all of the 400,000-square-foot ground floor to what it calls “stoa” spaces—semi-enclosed “flexible envelopes” where retailers or restaurateurs could build climate-controlled structures or set up kiosks that would lend themselves to pop-ups. Although short-term tenancies aren’t typically favored in a developer’s pro forma, they seem less and less risky financially as retail is increasingly disrupted by e-commerce. Shapins acknowledges this, and adds: “We want to drive a really integrated vibrant expanded public realm that moves between the buildings and the streets and the plazas.”
In order to support that objective in Toronto, with its bitterly cold winters and hot summers, Sidewalk is pursuing something called microclimate mitigation. Local architecture firm Partisans and engineering firm RWDI are working on a series of freestanding shelter structures and “raincoats” for the buildings—adjustable soft surfaces that make the extremes of wind and rain more tolerable.
There is a coherent urbanism here: mutable, mixed, and fine-grained. But the project’s most controversial aspect, at least from an urbanistic perspective, could be what it does with public streets. One of Sidewalk’s first specific proposals was for “dynamic streets,” which would feature a system of paver units containing sensors and lighting components. The lights would signify which lanes are available to pedestrians and vehicles and could be altered depending on the time of day or for special events. Sidewalk hopes to limit traffic by building an “urban consolidation center,” where packages would be received and routed to their destination through robots in underground tunnels, which would also be used to transport garbage in the opposite direction, eliminating the need for delivery or garbage trucks. And parking capacity would be shared between different buildings, with autonomous vehicles providing a valet service. “We are designing with an autonomous vehicle future in mind,” says Rohit (Rit) Aggarwala, the company’s head of urban systems. “There are huge implications for architecture. … If you think about the curb pattern at a major airport, you have multiple curbs to handle pickups and drop-offs.” Accordingly, the company is reimagining a major street—Queen’s Quay—as a one-way, with a large pickup and drop-off zones that can be defined by street furniture that moves itself into position.
An Unfortunate Reality
All these plans—the radical mixed-use idea, the wood towers, the dynamic streets—remain hypothetical. The entire scheme still needs to be approved by Waterfront Toronto before city officials actually start to consider it, a process that won’t formally begin until the middle of this year. In a city where development approvals can typically take four or five years, it seems unlikely that any aspect of the Sidewalk plan will take shape anytime soon.
If it ever does. Most critics agree that Sidewalk’s main goal is to gain access to data, as a resource to be mined and leveraged. Saadia Muzaffar, one of the advisers who stepped down from Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy board, complained in an open letter about the “blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure.” She wrote that public meetings were spent “talking about buildings made out of wood and the width of one-way streets” and other “things no one has … expressed material concern for in this entire process.”
That last point is an unfortunate reality of the project. Even as the physical picture of Sidewalk’s master plan has filled in, local residents haven’t seemed to care much. A substantial and novel development project has been largely cast as a Trojan horse for “surveillance capitalism.” It’s hard to tell whether the government will—or even can—respond adequately to this challenge. After all, Sidewalk is trying to change so many things at once: privacy law, construction technology, retail strategy, logistics, mobility, the housing market. Its ambitions and its assumptions in each field aren’t clear—even, I think, to Sidewalk itself. It will take years to assess how the project will actually take shape or who benefits.
Which ought to come as a lesson for Sidewalk: Tech might move at a lightning pace, but development moves much more slowly. In trying to combine the two, the company is learning just how hard it is to build a real-life community.