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Sidewalk Labs’s updated smart city plan aims for ‘people-first public realm’

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New details on Toronto neighborhood’s streetscape, affordable housing, and privacy protection

The updated Sidewalk Labs plan for Quayside, an 800-acre site under development on Toronto’s Lak Ontario waterfront.
Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, will present a new plan for Quayside, its pioneering smart city development on Toronto’s east waterfront, further demonstrating how it aims to improve how cities operate with a bottom-up reimagining of tech’s place in urban living.

Dogged by privacy issues earlier this year, the updated plan enshrines the idea of a Civic Data Trust for all urban data, guaranteeing that “no one has a right to own information collected from Quayside including Sidewalk Labs.” It also provides more details on the systems and structures that will form the backbone of the neighborhood, which will fill in an 800-acre tract on Lake Ontario.

“Torontonians want more affordable housing, faster ways to get around the city, safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists, [and] a cleaner and healthier environment,” said Jesse Shapins, Sidewalk Labs’s director of public realm, in a statement released yesterday. “That’s what we are aiming to do by creating this new neighbourhood. This draft site plan released today demonstrates what we are envisioning for Quayside and how we aim to address these critical challenges facing Toronto.”

The new plans call for the creation of the largest collection of mass timber structures in the world.
Michael Green Architects for Sidewalk Labs

The largest mass timber development in the world

The mixed-income, mixed-use development will be anchored by a series of 12 buildings, ranging from three to 30 stories, all built utilizing mass timber construction and powered in part by a system of photovoltaic panels, battery storage, geothermal wells, and sewer heat recovery.

Not only will this be a more sustainable project—Sidewalk estimates carbon emissions from construction will be cut by 75 to 85 percent—but it’ll be the biggest collection of mass timber structures in the world, a massive bet on this new construction method and the Canadian timber industry.

While Quayside is certain to be a highly desirable neighborhood, boasting a tech innovation center and an estimated 3,000 office jobs, the new proposal makes a strong commitment to affordable housing, including 40 percent below-market housing; half of which will be affordable, and half will be middle-income. It also aims for variety. The plan also calls for coliving, a wellness center, and community spaces including an elementary school and day care, as well as flexible housing options to support families and seniors.

Quayside is designed around the idea of a “people-first public realm.”
Sidewalk Labs

A people-first, tech-powered pedestrian plan

These buildings will be threaded together by what Sidewalk Labs calls a “people-first public realm,” with a focus on transportation infrastructure designed to support active, walkable streets all year round. A series of stoa, or covered walkways, will extend from the buildings, providing cover for ground-floor shops and commerce. Two main thoroughfares, including Quay Street and a large public walkway, will run parallel to each other and the Lake Ontario waterfront.

Parliament Slip, a small inlet on the edge of the neighborhood, will be transformed into a public centerpiece, surrounded by plazas and a new Silo Park, as well as bridges and a floating walkway connecting Quayside to nearby Promontory Park, an under-development green space overseen by American landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.

Additional updated transit infrastructure includes a planned light rail connection, and a flexible streetscape designed with Vision Zero goals in mind, intended for eventual conversion to support autonomous vehicles. Earlier, it was reported that Sidewalk Labs was working with MIT professor Carlo Ratti to create a dynamic street prototype.

While the technology around these digital streets is still under discussion, new plans suggest the flexible nature of the streetscape will be a boon to pedestrians. The curbless streets will expand and contract the area open to cars, providing more space to pedestrians during off hours. The neighborhood will also support increased biking and mobility options via forthcoming apps.

In addition, the neighborhood will contain an Urban Consolidation Center, which will distribute freight and collect waste centrally via robots and a tunnel system, eliminating noise, pollution, and congestion. Sidewalk Labs suggests these new systems can improve recycling and composting, leading to 80 percent of waste being diverted (the current average is 27 percent in Toronto apartments).

Confronting a privacy problem

Ever since Sidewalk Labs announced its intentions to create a smart and sustainable neighborhood, in effect “reimagining cities from the Internet up,” questions have been raised about privacy and digital surveillance. Could the company realize the promise of a smart city neighborhood in Toronto—using an array of sensors to create ”the most measurable community in the world” and help moderate energy use and infrastructure—while overcoming skepticism about the tech giant’s data and privacy practices, which have been under constant scrutiny this year?

Earlier in October, project advisor Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada, resigned, citing privacy concerns, and reports about how data partnerships would align with the company’s corporate mission. In response, Sidewalk Labs proposed a civic data trust that would create an independent oversight group and open standards for sharing information. The proposal further sparked conversation about who should set up such a trust, how it should be overseen and organized.

Sidewalk Labs says the new proposal, which fills in some of the gaps from renderings released in August, will create 9,000 new jobs in construction and house 3,900 jobs once finished.

The plan will be officially presented to the public at the scheduled 4th Public Roundtable this Saturday, where feedback will be collected to incorporated into a future Master Innovation and Development Plan, set to be competed in 2019. The final plan will be reviewed next year by Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto.