In Toronto, Alphabet Inc.’s smart city is dead. It turns out there is no magic fix to be pulled from the cloud.
Sidewalk Labs is withdrawing its Quayside development proposal on Toronto’s waterfront, ending a long period of spin and hustle that began in the fall of 2017. Back then, the Alphabet subsidiary and Google sister company showed up in Toronto with extravagant promises: It would use technology to make cities better.
With tech and good planning, company leader Dan Doctoroff said, Sidewalk could “have really dramatic impacts on quality of life.” Affordable housing. Better transportation. Climate mitigation. The company had answers to all of these problems.
But it didn’t, really. Sidewalk spent the next months and years floating ideas, from subterranean garbage robots to digitally fabricated wood buildings to innovative funding arrangements. The promise was that these things all fit together, and that some magic recipe of enlightened policy and digital wizardry would make a better city. That promise is the basis for Sidewalk’s still-vague business model.
But Sidewalk’s Toronto ideas had little coherence, and although some were good, it became clear that many others were irrelevant one-offs (like the robots) or impractical. Technical and financial details were vague. When Sidewalk Labs released a "plan” last summer, it was not a plan so much as a 1,500-page brochure.
And this – aside from very valid concerns about digital surveillance and data governance – is the real lesson of the Sidewalk epic.
The good news is that the basic problems that Sidewalk Labs meant to address can be fixed without all the digital-panopticon baggage, and without doing anything particularly complex. Housing? Toronto, like many cities, makes it artificially scarce, leaning on ancient classist views to ban apartment buildings. Ordinary construction can solve the housing shortage, along with smart land-use planning and public spending.
Transportation? Building bike lanes and redesigning streets is simple. It takes paint and concrete and plants. As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, changes in behavior are possible with zero tech.
If Toronto needs to fund all this innovation, it can begin right next to the Quayside site. The reconstruction of the eastern Gardiner Expressway is a useless exercise, burning both carbon and dollars while squandering valuable downtown land. Tear it down. The $1-billion in savings would build a city’s worth of bike lanes.
Then there’s Toronto’s waterfront. Mr. Doctoroff repeatedly said the area was “stubbornly resistant to development.” Fantastical illustrations, unrealistic architectural renderings, and even the company’s photo editing strategy evoked a barren present and a utopian future.
In truth, the place was already changing, and Sidewalk had much to gain. A partnership with Waterfront Toronto could have given Sidewalk an incomparable development site near the heart of North America’s fastest-growing city. Sidewalk attempted to rewrite the existing plans to cover a 190-acre area of the port lands. They reserved for Google Canada the best site on the waterfront, overlooking the skyline and next to a new set of parks. But Sidewalk wasn’t going to build those parks. Their 80 hectares of magnificent green space is under construction right now. The $1.2-billion port lands flood-protection project is reshaping the landscape, accompanied by pipes and bridges and streets that will turn fallow land into a whole urban neighbourhood. It’s a rare example of three levels of government getting together and doing something right.
Now Toronto has a second chance to use these assets – the 12-acre Quayside site, and the larger waterfront area – better. All the activist energy put toward stopping Sidewalk should now turn to a new set of questions about the planning and use of the waterfront. How much can this place do for the city? How much truly affordable housing, and how many jobs, can it provide? Is that unique land being used to its full social value?
The era after COVID-19 will be full of personal and civic hardship. But now that the pandemic has given Sidewalk a reason (or a pretext) to back out, the city has an opportunity to begin again. A fresh start, with an emphasis on good design at all scales and on equity. That’s the smart way to build a city.