Sidewalk Toronto: Tech-Utopia, Authentic Neighborhood, Or Disaster?

Google’s daughter company Sidewalk Labs will develop Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, starting with Quayside, Toronto’s newest neighborhood. Is this the neighborhood of the future, an improved authentic city neighborhood, or a recipe for disaster?

Google’s daughter company Sidewalk Labs is at the forefront of building a new city neighborhood for Toronto. The neighborhood will be built on a currently undeveloped 325 hectares plot of land at the south-east of the city’s waterfront which is one of North-America’s largest undeveloped urban area. Combining insights from technology experts, architects, and urban planners, Quayside should become a neighborhood that incorporates the latest technologies in order to create a true city neighborhood that is inclusive, diverse, collaborative, and truly Torontonian. Sidewalk Toronto’s website says that “Sidewalk Toronto will combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centred neighborhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.”

Establishing a sense of community, diversity, interaction, and open-ness that represents Toronto as a diverse city is put forward as one of the main objective of the project. The multi-ethnic and diverse composition that the city of Toronto has today is emphasized in the company’s promotional video that, among others, shows images of a gay couple walking hand in hand, a Japanese woman in a yukata, and a young black couple. While these images are playing, the voice of Ken Greenberg, former director of Urban Design & Architecture for the city of Toronto says, “Sidewalk Labs is using technology as a way of enhancing human interaction, enhancing community, bringing us closer together, supporting the activities of our daily lives, in a way that takes away a lot of the barriers that separate us”.

The open-minded or interactive culture that should be found in Quayside is emphasized further on in the video, as it is said that “technology, applied with the energy, passion of the citizens of Toronto will make this incredibly successful”. People should be able offer their ideas and concerns and what they love about Toronto, so that Quayside can “be authentic, can be Torontonian, can be real”. Another objective is to make Quayside a place to which everyone has access. On the technology side, Sidewalk Toronto should address issues like energy use, housing affordability, and transportation by using the latest digital technology. People-centered design, innovative construction methods, and sustainability solutions around waste and energy are aimed at protecting the planet.

Google is not the first tech company that aims to contribute to urban development. In 2011, Pop-Up City reported on IKEA’s idea of building a complete neighborhood in East London. Recently, in 2017, Airbnb teamed up with the Newgard Development Group to  “Niido powered by Airbnb,” a 324-unit building in Kissimmee, Florida. This building, and potential other buildings built by Airbnb would be designed in a way that optimizes space for Airbnb rental. Also in 2017, Facebook announced their plan to construct a ‘Facebook Village‘ in Silicon Valley for Facebook workers and other locals who work elsewhere. With the Facebook Village, called Willow Campus, Facebook wants to contribute to the community by filling the gap between services that local residents need and those that are offered by the government, like transportation and affordable housing.

Not surprisingly, these kind of developments, and Sidewalk Labs alike have received criticism. Wouter van Noort writes in a prominent Dutch newspaper how tech-critic Evgeny Morozov thinks Quayside “could become a nightmare”. Morozov thinks Quayside will become a “Disney-like storefront for Google’s self-driving cars”. Against Sidewalk Toronto’s idea, Morozov fears that the project will not solve affordability issues in the city. He predicts that the project will attract the richt and the creative class that “can afford to live in this utopia”, while the project puts increasing pressure on the housing market. Emily Badger of the New York Times is skeptical too. Badger and Morozov see the development of Quayside as a political issue. Badger argues that these kind of projects contribute to existing problems. In her eyes, cities are “cities inherently organic and unpredictable. They resist omniscient engineering”. However, Badger observes that Sidewalk Labs has embraced many criticisms by attempting to bridge the gap between urbanists and technologists.  The main challenge that Sidewalk Labs faces is whether “amid all the carbon-neutral, internet-enabled robot-monitor sensors will be to keep those humans in mind”, says Badger.

It is to be seen whether Quayside will become a true Torontonian neighborhood, or just a techie’s paradise. Details, like rental prices and renter’s requirements are yet to be announced, and it is to be seen who the first residents will be. Nevertheless, it could be that big tech companies will feel the need to continue to invest in cities as they find governments failing to address issues like affordability and sustainability.