Posted by Brandon Copeland
Working out of Toronto this past week has been refreshing. As someone who loves exploring and understanding what makes cities tick, its very inspiring to shake up my atmosphere. Working out of coffee shops I’ve never before seen, and tasting lunch at take-out places I would otherwise never find makes for a very exciting work day.
I also love tapping into development news outside of my bubble, and in Toronto I’m asking everyone that will talk to me about Sidewalk Toronto – the recently-announced initiative spearheaded by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs.
Having partnered with Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk Labs has received the mandate to explore redevelopment of a large swath of downtown waterfront land in Canada’s largest city. Starting with a small territory known as “Quayside”, Sidewalk Labs will begin developing a neighbourhood from the ground up focusing on intelligent design and high-tech integration. Over time, their focus will transition to the larger – but equally as enticing – Port Lands. At least, that is the dream that they are selling.
To quote from the Sidewalk Labs website, “The Eastern Waterfront will be a new type of place that combines the best in urban design with the latest in digital technology to address some of the biggest challenges facing cities, including energy use, housing affordability, and transportation.
This all sounds great, and excites me as a person who is interested in city building. What I didn't expect to learn as I talked to locals in Toronto, is that there is actually quite a bit of skepticism around the initiative. This is an excellent example of how the best intentions can be slightly marred by misunderstanding public perception. Given the very public nature of real estate development, managing public opinion is key. Unfortunately, it seems, the messaging and execution of this project has been anything but clean.
With the announcement of Quayside, and the Waterfront Toronto partnership, a lot of excitement was generated. Global planners and real estate development enthusiasts turned their attention to Toronto. You can imagine how difficult this might be for a city who wasn’t fully in the loop regarding what was happening.
Since the launch, more details have been revealed regarding how the arrangement became solidified. Waterfront Toronto, the entity that partnered with Alphabet, has the ability to strategize about revitalization plans and approve agreements having to do with the government-owned land that they oversee. The non-profit corporation inherited the right to the land 20 years ago, when Toronto decided to develop its eastern waterfront. Waterfront Toronto appears to be a steward for the municipal, provincial, and federal government land owned in Toronto. It also appears to have signed off on this agreement with Alphabet with little input from the City of Toronto. Now the municipality is playing a very public game of catch-up.
Sidewalk Labs has been criticized for a lack of a clear plan. Alphabet has apparently agreed to spend $10 million on developing plans for the area – provided that city authorities agree with their findings. That’s a tough sell, and despite soliciting feedback from residents they have certainly found themselves battling for public trust. It's hard to ask for agreement before the partnering entity can be told what they are committing to agree with.
Many aspects of Alphabet’s agreement with Waterfront Toronto aren’t publically known. While a summary of the framework document has been released, the full details haven’t been disclosed. Tax-paying citizens seems skeptical about partnering with an organization hesitant to explain to them exactly what they are buying into.
In light of the recent public scrutiny that Facebook has endured, it is not surprising that concerns about Privacy as front-and-centre as Sidewalk prepares for the first “smart neighbourhood”. A recent article on CBC suggested that Sidewalk Labs “hadn’t foreseen” how important privacy issues would be to residents of Toronto. Questions about where data will be stored, how it will be used, and who will have access to it have gone unanswered by Sidewalk Labs – the company adopting a “wait and see” approach and advising that answers to these questions will come from the public engagement process.
Quite frankly, all of these questions are more than valid. Creating that district that learns from the actions of citizens requires a district that intimately observe those citizens. As an urbanist, I love the concept and think that as we move towards a smarter, greener, more functional world this sort of tech is inevitable. Society can save so much time, money, and waste if we better understand how we, as a collective mass of humanity, function. However, there is rational concern about privacy and why its important. There are also philosophical questions about how much privacy people are entitled to when out in public. When we are walking down the street, any one could see us. Why are we opposed to being seen in a more structured way?
Regardless of where you stand on the privacy issue, Sidewalk’s challenge is going to be convincing people that they are responsible stewards of this information. Given that so much of their intended purpose is still being developed, there are a lot of unknowns for people to swallow.
Thinking About Local Engagement
Sidewalk Labs demonstrates how even the greatest of ideas need to clearly articulate their intent and their value to the public. With every development application, is up to the proponent to convince the residents that moving forward with the project will impact their life in a better way than not moving forward with the project. Sidewalk Labs’ waterfront project is no different. This is an important point that I think is often missed. The value of community support can be monumental when looking for assistance in pursuing a real estate project. Subsequently, the concerns of residents are valid and real, and good developers will address them. Attempting to slip through a public approval process unnoticed can be dangerous and costly – moreover if you think that your project can’t hold-up to public scrutiny then I question if it should really be built at all.
I’ve never believed that Sidewalk Lab is trying to pull a fast-one on citizens. All of their rhetoric very clearly indicates that they value public feedback, and will work to address concerns. I’m sure Sidewalk Labs will ensure that the people of Toronto are comfortable with any plans the organization intends to enact.