Contributed by Andre Bermon. At the foot of Parliament Street, a tech giant seeks a futuristic, data driven “smart city,” the likes of which Toronto has never seen. In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs, the urban design division of Google, announced a plan with city agency Waterfront Toronto to transform a 12-acre property, known as Quayside, into a laboratory for experimentation in new urban technologies.
The purpose of these new technological innovations is to collect and process the data of a controlled urban environment. Various sensors will track, analyze and inevitably predict urban activity such as vehicle and pedestrian traffic, waste management, air quality and noise pollution. To sweeten the deal, Quayside promises to include Google’s new Canadian HQ, affordable housing and green built communities.
Infrastructure projects are key to the area’s mobility. Sidewalk Labs has recently proposed financing a large portion of an LRT network to ferry resident and office workers in and out of the eastern waterfront. A deal that lands Google a portion of future property taxes and developer fees in appreciating land value. Specially designed streetscapes will accommodate the testing of autonomous taxi and bus vehicles, a product of utmost importance to the private sector’s transportation agenda.
For Sidewalk Labs, data collection is only a means to an end. In order to perfect the full potential of Google’s urban programme a larger scale testbed must be created. Sidewalk Labs’ vision extends beyond the 12-acre plot of Quayside as it plans to incorporate an additional 800 acres of Toronto waterfront. Afterwards Google will move to implement similar enterprises beyond and cement its grip as a power player in the future of urban design.
If a society is to reflect the sensibilities of its citizens, it is imperative that a common understanding be realized as to who and what influences our surroundings. However, when the sovereignty of our waterfront is threatened by the notion of a private-public partnership predicated on monetization models and experimentation, the collective needs of the people cannot remain secondary when business alone dictates the future of urban planning.
Toronto’s eagerness to become “world class,” an epicentre of tech, entertainment and high finance, has produced unwieldy relationships with foreign enterprise. The city must re-examine its priorities or risk losing the future independence of our neighbourhoods and communities to faceless global conglomerates.