Critics of Sidewalk Labs were not impressed when it unveiled its detailed plan for Toronto’s waterfront this week. Since Monday’s announcement, they have only stepped up their attacks. Some said the plan was too vague, others too ambitious. One city councillor called it a blatant “land grab.” Jim Balsillie of BlackBerry fame went as far as to say that the project could affect “our autonomy, our democracy and our security.”
In the jaded eyes of its opponents, Sidewalk is a freebooting tech giant that threatens to steal our personal data, gobble up our most precious real estate and supersede our elected governments, making itself lord and master of the waterfront. A booming, dynamic city such as Toronto, they say, simply doesn’t need the help of a high-handed foreign company such as Sidewalk, a cousin of Google.
About that, in particular, they are surely wrong. The city needs a partner such as Sidewalk precisely because it is booming.
The growth of Toronto is nothing less than astonishing. Mayor John Tory said in a release this week that the city’s population “grew by more than 77,000 people last year, exceeding the combined growth of Phoenix, San Antonio and Fort Worth – the top three U.S. cities experiencing the most growth.” It has become the fourth-largest tech-job hub in North America with more than 200,000 workers. More than 200 tall buildings are under construction in the city. Only this week, a developer announced another huge project downtown, just north of the CN Tower. The provincial government expects Greater Toronto’s population to increase by 2.8 million by 2041, reaching nearly 9.7 million.
This is wonderful news for the city. Toronto has become a magnet with good jobs and great way of life to offer. But it brings obvious problems. Governments at all levels are straining to make sure the city can house and move so many people. They need all the help they can get. The arrival of a deep-pocketed, forward-looking company such as Sidewalk is a godsend. Its plan for the eastern waterfront is ambitious in the best way. It prods Toronto to move beyond the latest fight over which transit line to build and how tall the next condo tower should be and think about tomorrow.
Toronto desperately needs two things: space to grow at the crowded centre and new ideas about how to manage its growth. Sidewalk can help with both.
Toronto is nearly out of land in its core. Just about every parking lot or car dealership has been developed. So now, it’s looking to a new urban frontier at the eastern end of the waterfront. The huge swath of property in the Port Lands, a run-down industrial zone, is ripe for development.
Sidewalk, which first proposed to develop a 12-acre corner of the waterfront known as Quayside, now wants more space to put a new Canadian headquarters for Google down there. Next to it would go a new “urban innovation campus” for start-ups with good ideas about making cities function better. It’s not the massive takeover the critics fear - other developers would build on the bulk of the Port Lands - but it could help kick-start the growth of a second downtown for Toronto, one with more parkland and a more human scale. Sidewalk is prepared to help finance a new light-rail transit line to boot.
Sidewalk’s overarching goal is to develop ideas. The “smart cities” movement has been mostly talk so far. Sidewalk’s leaders want to turn it into reality -- and, of course, money. More power to them. Without the profit motive to drive them, governments are slow to adopt new, more efficient ways of doing things. Sidewalk plans to experiment with everything from adjustable curbs to timber construction to removable paving stones that would make underground repairs easier. If some of its ideas seem unformed or far-fetched, that is the nature of any experimental venture. Blue skying is what it is all about. Not every idea will work. Every idea is welcome.
Those who visit Sidewalk’s open house on Queens Quay are bound to come away feeling inspired. The place brims with energy and can-do spirit. In a town used to quarreling, foot-dragging and endless circular debates over how to overcome its problems, the atmosphere is like a gust of fresh air from the lake on a muggy day. Toronto should welcome it.