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Sidewalk Labs’ ‘smart’ city was destined to fail

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The Google company has abandoned its plan to remake Toronto’s waterfront

A rendering of a vibrant cityscape on a waterfront with people boating and sitting at outdoor cafes.
Sidewalk Labs conducted 18 months of public engagement for the Quayside project, which was first proposed in 2017.
Sidewalk Labs

Less than a year ago, the Alphabet company Sidewalk Labs unveiled plans to test fantastical urban innovations across a 12-acre swath of Toronto’s waterfronthigh-rise timber towers, a pneumatic trash collection system, and heated streets that melted snow. Now, the most ambitious project from Google’s urban-planning arm has been called off.

Sidewalk Toronto is the latest megaproject spearheaded by a tech giant that’s been quashed by a faltering economy, second thoughts from local officials, or dogged opposition from advocates. In the case of Sidewalk Toronto, it’s likely all of the above. Like Amazon’s failed attempt to woo New York City, cities might extend generous tax breaks to lure the tech companies in, but the people who live in the neighborhoods to be ‘revitalized’ are increasingly uniting to lock tech companies out.

The genesis of Sidewalk Labs goes back at least five years to a time when venture capital-flush CEOs envisioned building self-contained technotopias to showcase their products, or maybe just have a cool place to hang out. Sidewalk Labs, to its credit, approached its “city within a city” with a bit more nuance, opening a community space for events, working through issues in public, and spending 18 months conducting engagement.

Thanks to that feedback, Sidewalk Toronto would have been much more than just a tech campus. The “largest climate-positive development in North America” planned to carve out much-needed green space, create waterfront access, and deliver 44,000 new jobs to a former industrial corridor. But concerns about how those decisions were made—and who benefited from such high-tech amenities—plagued the proposal from the start. In the end, it still wasn’t enough to satisfy Sidewalk Labs’s detractors.

The timing makes it easy to blame it on the pandemic. A post by Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Dan Doctoroff cites “unprecedented economic uncertainty” as the reason for the project’s cancellation. “It has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.”

It’s not the only high-profile real estate deal that Sidewalk Labs’ parent company Alphabet had pulled out of in recent weeks, as COVID-19 introduced new volatility to the market.

According to The Information, several of Alphabet’s Bay Area projects have been put on pause, including negotiations to lease 1.5 million square feet of office space at San Francisco’s Pier 70, which would have been the largest-ever real estate transaction in city history.

But for the activists who’ve worked for years to stop the project, the announcement has been claimed as their victory. Since the development was first proposed in 2017, privacy groups contended Sidewalk Toronto’s data-gathering methods would equate to living in a surveillance state. A local coalition named Block Sidewalk fought for increased transparency from both Google and the city, in a process that they claimed had left local residents in the dark.

“This outcome is a testament to the principled and courageous stance taken by citizens to protect Toronto from Google’s corporate takeover,” says Block Sidewalk’s Thorben Wieditz. “Without the on-the-ground organizing and the commitment of so many individuals, groups and organizations, this would have not been possible.”

In a move perceived by its critics as evidence of that takeover, Sidewalk Labs had previously warned that its innovations “can only become effective or financially feasible” at a scale larger than 12 acres. In February 2019, the Toronto Star obtained internal documents showing that Sidewalk Labs was planning a much larger 190-acre district that would potentially include a new Google campus, and was seeking a cut of future development fees for building out transit and utility infrastructure.

The redevelopment of the site will continue without Sidewalk Labs, according to Waterfront Toronto, the public agency overseeing the development, which issued a statement committing to “continue to seek public and expert input as we make a next-generation community at Quayside a reality.”

As part of its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent, Quayside development was designed to prioritize walking, biking and transit.
Sidewalk Labs

As part of its research process—all documented in a 1,500-page plan document that was mailed to journalists (and is also available online)—Sidewalk Labs launched a half-dozen startups which will continue to explore urban innovations. (A spinoff of Sidewalk Labs, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, just got $400 million in funding.) Earlier this year, the Sidewalk Labs team revealed plans for a new all-wood modular building method that’s intended to be cheaper, faster, and less carbon-intensive than traditional construction. This could be a game-changer for making new housing radically more affordable.

It’s possible that some of those innovations might find a new home in another Alphabet community-building initiative. Last year, Google announced a $1 billion investment to address the Bay Area’s housing shortage by building an estimated 20,000 homes on or near its Mountain View, California campus. It was the first of four major commitments from tech companies—including $500 million from Microsoft, $1 billion from Facebook, and $2.5 billion from Apple—pledging to make homes more affordable in cities where the arrival of their campuses had driven up housing prices. But this also highlights the problem with tech companies suddenly reimagining themselves as developers. If the tech companies had been required to pay more taxes to the cities in the first place, the cities might have had plenty of money to build more affordable housing themselves.

While tackling the housing crisis in Sidewalk Labs’ own neighborhood might prove more broadly popular than an attempt at navigating Toronto politics, the cancellation of the project foreshadows a more systemic problem with the way U.S. cities are built that will be made even more evident as the country recovers from the pandemic. If a well-funded Google subsidiary can’t build affordable, low-emission housing, who can?