An old city in Toronto has been chosen to be developed into a futuristic metropolis. A Google corporate sibling will spend the coming years building and executing plans for the city and turn it into a major technology center. Yet, the early stage of the project has been facing a rather unusual challenge – the people.
The company, Sidewalk Labs, announced last year their promising plans about building the city of tomorrow. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada swore that the project would create “technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive” communities. The said project has great potentials that can even tame the wild weather off Lake Ontario.
However, while others felt excited about the news, some residents of Toronto have inevitable concerns about the company who’s known for collecting and analyzing data.
Sidewalk’s, Quayside, as the project is known, will need to place sensors and cameras around the city that will track everyone who lives, works, or passes through the area. According to the company, the step is necessary towards their goal of combining technology and Urbanism, where the data that will be gathered will be used to further shape and refine the new city. Sidewalk calls the Toronto project, “a platform.”
Many residents raise their privacy concerns. It’s no surprise, when the surveillance powers of the company, which were virtual then, are now pushing through the real world. Others caution that data driven decision-making can be misguided and undemocratic when it comes to building cities.
“There’s an enormous amount of interest and also quite a bit of concern,” said the director of the University of Toronto’s urban studies program, Shauna Brail. “It will be a political issue no matter what.”
Sidewalk Labs is part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. As an urban technologies company, the Quayside is by far their most significant project. Sidewalk was built in 2015, and headed by Daniel L. Doctoroff, a former New York City deputy mayor and former chief executive of Bloomberg.
Mr. Doctoroff saw it coming. He came to Canada expecting the criticisms and concerns about the Quayside project, which he talks about with references to “consultation” and “transparency.”
“If you’re going to convince people about new ideas, they have to be a part of it,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “The whole notion of this place as a platform is apparently more democratic than, we think, traditional place-making has actually been.”
The first two years of Sidewalk were spent looking for cities around the world, which they can turn into a futuristic metropolis. They evaluated 52 places in the US, and in different parts of the planet, looking for the right match. Mr. Doctoroff said, the company’s interests perfectly fit an area in Toronto. During that time, an agency that’s comprised the federal government, the city and the province of Ontario was looking for a developer for about 800 acres of federally owned waterfront just east of downtown.
The area was last developed during the 1950s when the government was hoping to turn the St. Lawrence Seaway as a trading center for Europe, which used to be an integral part of Toronto’s economy. Although, a part of that vision came true; now the area has become a parking for car dealerships, an abandoned grain elevator, and docks with small, slightly shabby cruise boats where high school prom parties are held. No one calls it home.
The current agreement between Sidewalk and three government entities is to develop the 12 acres within Toronto as an initial part of the experiment.
According to Sidewalk, they will spend $50 million for public consultations, and developing a plan for the area. However, the company has released a series of documents revealing its plan in detail. The company hasn’t yet unveiled the overall investment for the project.
Plans for Quayside generally involve a re-imagined metropolis. Buildings will be renovated to become highly energy-efficient. Unlike the conventional zoning ways, the new buildings will not have fixed uses. A Sidewalk drawing will stand as a low-rise structure where Toronto office workers and apartment owners will share space, like a large distillery. Some robots will deliver packages, while other robots will be collecting garbage.
Private cars will be restricted in able to encourage the use of self-driving cars, walking, cycling, as well as mass transit. The wires and pipes that connect cities will be placed inside tunnels that have access panels. Sidewalk claims this method of wires and pipes organizing will eliminate the need to dig up the streets. Electricity will be supplied by neighborhood mini-grids who don’t rely on fossil fuels.
When the rain pours or when the sun is out, awnings will unfold. During winter, paths will be heated to melt away snow, and make way for cyclists and pedestrian.
However, the greatest challenge, and source of opposition for the Sidewalk project in Toronto is its data-collection. Sensors will be built inside buildings to detect noises. Cameras and outdoor sensors will measure air pollution, as well as movement of people and vehicles. Almost everything will be monitored.
Toilets and sinks will report water use, while robots will report garbage collection. On the other hand, residents and workers will rely on Sidewalk-created software to gain access to public services. Every data that will be gathered will be used for long term planning and development.
Mr. Doctoroff believes, the binding of Urbanism and data is the key for the project to succeed. “We looked at literally about 150 different attempts to create urban innovation districts, cities of the future, smart cities.” he said. For Sidewalk, all of the attempts have failed due to the missing bridge between technology and traditional urban planning.
Just as expected, challenges emerged online soon after the announcement of the project last year around October. Included in those were the list of questions discussed on Torontoist, a local urban affairs website.
Pamela Robinson, an associate professor at the school of urban planning at Ryerson University in Toronto, said the data-gathering will all differ in its method and extent the collection, since data will be gathered by a private company rather than the government. One of the issues is about who will own the data, and how it will be accessed. Such inquiries haven’t been disclosed yet.
“We’ve never seen anything like this at this scale before,” Ms. Robinson said.
The main concern of Ms. Robinson is that the data gathered may not aptly represent the city as a whole. Furthermore, though one of the Quayside’s plans is to provide housing for people of all income levels, up to this point, only Google Canada is the only committed company who will be moving to the area. This could be an issue since an influx of young, affluent workers is expected.
Ms. Robinson also warned that the data might be used to limit or discourage the use of public spaces when needed by homeless people, teenagers or other groups.
“We don’t want to create what’s effectively a gated community,” she said.
Renee Sieber, a professor of geography and environment at McGill University in Montreal, also disagrees with Sidewalk’s belief that the data-gathering will be a great help in city-planning.
“Democracy and the rights of citizens is inherently political; it’s not something you should shy away from,” said Ms. Sieber, who studies about data-use by citizen groups. “Governments need to be all about fairness.” If city government were concerned only with efficiency, she said, “you don’t send buses where it’s rural or poor.”
Sidewalk has been managing the people’s concerns by holding public meetings. In fact, they held the first of the many meetings that will happen in the future, where they acknowledged various criticisms and concerns. It seems, politics, not technology, is the greatest challenge for Sidewalk in making their version of tomorrow come to life.
“We believe there’s enormous potential, but we also are very sensitive to the fact that there’s going to have to be an intense community conversation,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “We’re prepared to commit the money to do the planning over the course of the next year and leave it to the people of Toronto as to whether or not they are excited by the vision.”