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Here’s what Sidewalk Labs’s Toronto smart city could look like

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Sidewalk Toronto features timber towers, dynamic streets, and outdoor spaces that can be used year-round

Sidewalk Labs’s plans for a Toronto neighborhood features timber construction and streets that prioritize walking and biking.
Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs has revealed its first peek at a plan to convert a slice of Toronto’s waterfront into a hyper-connected, sustainable neighborhood of the future.

Almost a year ago, Sidewalk Labs chose an 800-acre tract of land along Lake Ontario to prototype a brand-new community in partnership with local redevelopment agency Waterfront Toronto. The plan is to invest $50 million in smart city solutions—“mixing people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology”—to create a place where anyone can live, work, or visit.

While some renderings of specific Sidewalk Toronto elements have been shared, namely of the streetscapes featuring transportation solutions, there hasn’t been much showing the proposed cohesive look and feel of the entire community. This week, in a presentation to local residents which was shared with Curbed, Sidewalk Labs gave the first idea of what the development could look like.

Michael Green Architects for Sidewalk Labs

One key component of the vision is more timber buildings, drawn up here by industry leader Vancouver-based Michael Green Architecture for Sidewalk Labs. Mass timber construction is a more sustainable building process that’s healthier for both construction workers and future occupants. Plus it’s easy to procure and replenish thanks to nearby Canadian forests.

Sidewalk Labs says the wood structures will also be cheaper to build than those using typical construction methods and can more easily be changed or adapted over time. By 2021, Canadian building code will likely allow timber buildings to reach 12 stories.

Cold, rainy climates have a tendency to shut down outdoor activities, but Sidewalk Toronto’s planners want to keep the city activated in all four seasons with a series of engineered shades and shelters. The result will be climate-controlled public spaces designed to block rain and snow, but also keep out wind and heat. According to Sidewalk Labs, this would double the amount of “usable outdoor hours.”

The signature moves here are “stoa”—a Greek term for a covered walkways—accordion-like canopies, and heated streets to keep more of the city’s public spaces accessible.

Although Sidewalk Toronto is a waterfront property, the parcel itself is shaped in a way which only part of the land has access to the water. The proposal shows a plan to extend that waterfront deeper into the development, connecting the neighborhoods on either side by a series of bridges, recreation areas, and public beaches.

Sidewalk Labs

Another way to keep the neighborhood tied to the waterfront is with sightlines: Streets that travel in the direction of Lake Ontario will have unobstructed views of the water.

Sidewalk Labs is also reinventing the sidewalk. Experimental architecture firm Carlos Ratti Associati created a “dynamic street” prototype of interactive, modular pavers for the development. The kit of parts includes a variety of surfaces and tiny embedded LED lights that can denote use—walk vs. bike vs. basketball court—and create “lanes”.

Not only can Sidewalk Labs track the way streets are used and adjust the design of the right-of-way on the fly, the pavers can also be changed out by season or even replaced as technology evolves.

One more notable innovation is Sidewalk Toronto’s street hierarchy, which creates a system of larger and smaller streets that prioritize movement by modes. So laneways (alleys) are wide enough to allow vehicles to make deliveries in the morning or evening, but transform into people-friendly plazas during the day.

While these are the latest physical updates, the city will also be powered by other Sidewalk Labs technology products, which continue to evolve. Over the last few years, Sidewalk Labs has deployed its digital kiosks that provide free wifi, real-time transit information, and historical photos (or image of what buildings might have been). More recently, the Alphabet subsidiary introduced the data mobility startup Coord with the multimodal trip-planning Router app.