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Sidewalk Labs publishes 1,500-page Toronto smart city plan: More questions than answers?

Sidewalk Labs has put forward a detailed 1,500-page plan, but Waterfront Toronto has raised concerns in a number of areas.

How Sidewalk Labs envisions the Toronto of tomorrow with the Quayside project
How Sidewalk Labs envisions the Toronto of tomorrow with the Quayside project

Alphabet-owned Google sibling Sidewalk Labs has released the long-awaited plan for its Toronto smart city development.


"The successful execution of this highly detailed plan would produce the most innovative district in the world," said Dan Doctoroff, CEO, Sidewalk Labs.


However, Waterfront Toronto, the public steward of Toronto’s waterfront revitalisation, has registered concerns over the draft master innovation and development plan (MIDP).


It has also stated that with some of the proposals, it is clear the two sides have "very different perspectives" about what is required for success.


Sidewalk Labs’ proposal spans 1,500 pages and three volumes, and was developed in consultation with 21,000 Torontonians. Sidewalk Labs is proposing two smart neighbourhoods – Quayside and Villiers West – which are within a broader area called the Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) district.


The 12-acre Quayside would be the first part of the project, and house 4,200 residents, followed by a proposed partial redevelopment of Villiers Island, called Villiers West (19.2 acres), that would house an ‘innovation cluster’.


Sidewalk Labs contends that the project will create an estimated 44,000 jobs, $4.3 billion in annual tax revenues and have a $14.2 billion impact on GDP.


Open letter response


In an open letter, Stephen Diamond, chairman of the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto, which was created by the Governments of Canada and Ontario and the City of Toronto, said there are a number of “exciting ideas” that respond to the challenges faced, especially in the area of environmental sustainability and economic development.


Among its concerns, though, are that Sidewalk Labs proposes to be the lead developer for Quayside. “Should the MIDP go forward,” wrote Diamond, “it should be on the basis that Waterfront Toronto lead[s] a competitive, public procurement process for a developer(s) to partner with Sidewalk Labs.”


Speaking on a briefing call, Dan Doctoroff, CEO, Sidewalk Labs, said this issue was largely "semantics".


"We would expect to play the lead role, investing $900 million to get Quayside and Villiers West done," he commented.


"But," he said. "What we are going to have to work out is what the relationship is between Waterfront Toronto and us. We would expect to work with them to make sure that they and their government constituents are comfortable with [any] partners. We expect to bring in local Canadian partners for the development of Quayside and Villers West."


The letter also expressed concerns about the geographic scope of the project.


“Critical to that is the proposal that we have made for a government sanctioned independent urban data trust”


“Waterfront Toronto has told Sidewalk Labs that the concept of the IDEA District is premature and that Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas,” wrote Diamond. “Even then, we would only move forward with the full collaboration and support of the City of Toronto, particularly where it pertains to city-owned lands.”


Addressing this, Doctoroff said: “Sidewalk Labs and local partners would only do the vertical development of Quayside and Villiers West, which make up less than seven per cent of the Eastern Waterfront.


“If the innovations piloted in Quayside and Villiers West are successful, at government’s option – not ours – they could choose to apply them to the broader IDEA area.”


The MIDP includes detailed plans for dozens of innovations which include the first neighbourhood built entirely from timber, raincoats on buildings that block rain and wind, heated bike lanes and adaptive traffic signals.


Half of all housing units in the plan would be purpose-built rentals and 40 per cent of all housing units would be offered at below market rates with half of those meeting traditional definitions of affordable housing.


Vision for cities of the future


Doctoroff said the plan outlines a new vision for how cities can “integrate physical, digital and policy innovations to produce dramatic improvements in quality of life and generate significant economic opportunity”.


The development has been dubbed by some as the “city of surveillance” and concern has been raised over the amount of data that will be collected and what it will be used for. Doctoroff said Sidewalk Labs was responding to this with the “strongest governance regime of urban data in the world”.


“These proposals raise important implementation concerns. They are also not commitments that Waterfront Toronto can make”


He added that "critical" to the proposal is a government-sanctioned independent urban data trust, which would, over time, have the responsibility for approving and overseeing "every single use of urban data in the district," and he added: “We will not use personal information for advertising. We will not disclose personal information to third parties without explicit consent.”


While Waterfront Toronto acknowledges these initial proposals, it said it will require additional information to establish whether they are in compliance with applicable laws and “respect Waterfront Toronto’s digital governance principles”.


Doctoroff commented: "We are quite convinced that what we have proposed exceeds, quite substantially, existing Canadian and Ontario privacy laws.


"That said, we also expect government to determine what the appropriate regime will be. We are absolutely prepared to comply with whatever regulatory or legal regime that they think is warranted."


Concerns over future commitments


Waterfront Toronto’s other main area of concern is that Sidewalk Labs’ proposals require future commitments by governments to realise project outcomes. It points out that this includes the extension of public transit to Quayside prior to development, new roles for public administrators, changes to regulations and government investment.


“These proposals raise important implementation concerns. They are also not commitments that Waterfront Toronto can make,” said Diamond.


Past controversies


The project has been beset by controversy in recent months: tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel of Waterfront Toronto because of concerns around personal data, followed by privacy expert, Ann Cavoukian, from her position as advisor to Sidewalk Labs; in February Canada’s National Observer obtained an internal document which it said “raises new questions” about the transparency of Sidewalks Labs planning process; and earlier this year citizens launched the Block Sidewalk campaign.


Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 85 per cent and the project could become the largest climate-positive district in North America


Meanwhile, in April the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) announced it is suing Waterfront Toronto and the federal, provincial and municipal governments over the project, saying the three levels of government had "sold out" citizens’ constitutional rights to freedom from surveillance “to the global surveillance mammoth of behavioural data collection, Google”.



Model of innovation and sustainability


Despite the controversy surrounding the overall project, there are many promising ideas in the MIDP, especially in the area of environmental measures and sustainability.


The integrated set of environmental innovations detailed include sustainable building materials and designs, an advanced power grid for electricity, a clean thermal grid for heating and cooling, a smart disposal chain designed to increase recycling and active stormwater management.


The plan claims greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced at the site by 85 per cent, compared to the rest of Toronto, and, with public sector cooperation, Sidewalk Labs believes the project could become the largest climate-positive district in North America.


The project now moves into the review and evaluation stage and in consultation with the public, technical experts, and all three levels of government, Waterfront Toronto will determine if the ideas in this proposal are in the public interest.


The MIDP is available on Waterfront Toronto’s website.


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Quayside's Parliament Plaza
Quayside's Parliament Plaza
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