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Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, unveils specific ideas for its smart city project and how it wants to build its neighbourhood

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The exterior of the Sidewalk Labs building in Toronto photographed on Aug. 9, 2018.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Shadows and light dapple my arms, and I hear the warbling of birds somewhere above. I am not, however, out in the trees: I’m inside 307, a former industrial shed on Toronto’s waterfront, talking with staff of the smart-city project Sidewalk Toronto. That scattered light is coming from LEDs, and the birdsong is synthetic.

“Here, you feel sheltered, and yet open,” says Karim Khalifa, the director of buildings innovation for Sidewalk Labs, the sister company of Alphabet Inc.'s Google that is working on Sidewalk Toronto. (A low warble sounds from a speaker.) “That’s one of the ideas that we are trying to use in creating a really nice place to live.”

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The inside display space at Sidewalk Labs in Toronto.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

This faux-nature is one of many ideas in play as the 12-acre neighbourhood project moves forward. Sidewalk Labs – in a complex partnership with the public agency Waterfront Toronto – is pursuing innovations in architecture, urban design and construction technology.

Working with a series of outside consultants, Sidewalk Labs (SWL) has begun to articulate a vision for the physical form of its development, and explore specific construction and real estate models it can export to other cities. In recent interviews, several of the people working on the project explained those ideas, which will be presented at public meetings on Aug. 14 and 15.

Their work raises serious questions about the relationship between public and private space, and how those areas of the city – which could be intermingled – would be managed.

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Drawings of wood building prototypes, designed by Michael Green.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

First, SWL hopes the buildings themselves will involve lots of wood. The neighbourhood, dubbed Quayside, would be a 12-acre district of mid-rise buildings. (Toronto’s BBB Architects are the master planners.) Mr. Khalifa says SWL intends to use mass timber widely. “If we can make it technically work, we’ll use it everywhere,” he says. To that end, they’ve called in Michael Green and his Vancouver-based firm, Michael Green Architecture, who are mass-timber specialists.

Why use wood? Because people love it. As with that faux-forest installation, SWL is betting on “biophilic design” – in short, the idea that a connection to nature makes people healthy and happy. Ideally, the Quayside buildings will show off chunky, fragrant spruce beams, glued together and cut from small, sustainably harvested trees. “They could become the heart and soul of the community,” Mr. Green says.

But mass timber is also highly sustainable, and has practical advantages. “It is a toolkit to increase speed and drop the cost,” Mr. Khalifa says. It can be made in factories – such as those of Quebec’s Nordic Structures, which is in talks with SWL – to precise sizes and dimensions, allowing for fast construction on site.

Second: These buildings would mash up residences, offices and other uses, even on the same floor. This is unconventional in new developments. To make it possible, Mr. Green’s office is designing high-ceiling structures, much like the urban industrial lofts of a century ago. These would have floor plans that can be efficiently divided and rearranged. “It’s a magnificent puzzle,” Mr. Green says. “What are the optimum distances between columns? What are the optimum floor-to-ceiling heights? Wood allows for a lot of flexibility there.”

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A diagram shows the wood structural systems and potential arrangements of loft-style buildings that Sidewalk Labs aims to build.

SWL’s staff and consultants are working out business models for this sort of mashup – a real challenge in itself.

At street level, SWL is imagining double-height spaces that can be filled in by smaller separate buildings that will house shops, “public uses, cultural uses and production uses,” says Jesse Shapins, SWL’s director of public realm.

These would be lined by what SWL calls stoa – a term borrowed from classical Greek architecture that denotes a covered arcade. Along those arcades, elements that Mr. Green calls “kinetic architecture” would regulate wind, sun and rain, moving to create the ideal microclimate depending on the season and the weather. One model: a “raincoat” for a building – in other words, a lightweight, waterproof fabric curtain.

Toronto architects Partisans, and engineers RWDI, are working on a set of portable shelters which can be deployed across public spaces as wind breaks. “We know that in Toronto winter can be tough,” RWDI’s Goncalo Pedro says. “But we’re trying to extend the number of hours people will dwell in a public space, particularly in the shoulder seasons.”

And what’s the ideal result? “A seamless public life, much more than we’re used to, where public realm and private overlap in time and space,” says Ken Greenberg, an urban designer who is working with Sidewalk Toronto. Local residents, office workers, tourists; all of them, on different rhythms, will bring life to the area.

Mr. Greenberg is imagining, with landscape architects Public Work, a physical design that involves movable objects – such as loose chairs – but also “ideas that go much further than that, that allow people to improvise with a variety of activities.”

Back at SWL’s 307 centre, I get an idea of what this might look like. Mr. Shapins points me to a green bench resting in the middle of the space; then he pecks at an iPad, and the bench starts to edge forward on invisible wheels, moving around to face us. “Imagine if you had furniture like this that could understand where people are on the street and move towards them, responding to the crowd,” he says.

In theory, the street could know where you are. The floor beneath us is a set of hexagonal modules, studded with coloured LED lights and – theoretically – controllable by a remote server that’s linked to cameras or pressure sensors.

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A prototype of the 'dynamic street model' hexagonal pavement module, theoretically controllable by a remote server that’s linked to cameras or pressure sensors.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Conceived by Carlo Ratti Associati, this dynamic street is the third of SWL’s big ideas at present. Its lights, Mr. Shapins says, could serve as traffic signals. He taps the iPad, and a set of white lane markings appear. Another tap; the whole street turns red, ready for a street festival.

Of course, this scene could make many people uncomfortable. As I stand on a public street, am I anonymous? Who determines that, and who regulates it? This sort of question is largely why Sidewalk Toronto has met a bumpy reception since the project was announced last year. There has been vigorous debate over its governance model and about its main goal, a sensor-laden neighbourhood whose traffic systems and building operations are informed by data.

The project passed a milestone two weeks ago, when Waterfront Toronto announced a “Plan Development Agreement” with Sidewalk Labs. But the political push-back has been considerable, particularly around data governance.

It’s clear that these design ideas raise parallel questions, which Sidewalk has not yet answered. Who owns the real estate? Who manages it? Who leases it out, and under what terms? Under what conditions will the ground floors of buildings be open to the public, and who exactly does that “public” include?

The answers could be attractive; in the end, it might be that this neighbourhood presents more public and quasi-public space than a conventional private development. But the terms and the details are everything. Lights and birdsong are not a forest. And there are some problems that tech won’t solve by itself.

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