Book Excerpt: Toronto Reborn by Ken Greenberg

Advances in technology inevitably play a critical part in the evolution of cities and have always been reflected in places we share, for good and for bad. In mid-twentieth century it was the impact of the car separating and isolating us. This time it is digital. When Waterfront Toronto issued an RFP in 2017 for the L-shaped 12-acre site at Parliament Slip, the opportunity presented itself to seek an ‘innovation partner’ rather than select a developer in the traditional way. The team at Sidewalk Labs was chosen in large part because it had been doing truly integrated thinking around how can a ‘human-centred’ urbanism could be aided by new technology not be subverted by it. This commitment is what drew me to the project where I have served as an advisor to the design team. Since Toronto Reborn was published, Sidewalk’s MIDP (Master Innovation and Development Plan) has been released. Many big questions are being addressed as the MIDP is carefully assessed by Waterfront Toronto and the City.
-Ken Greenberg, August 2019

From the book Toronto Reborn by Ken Greenberg (Dundurn Press, 2019):

Sidewalk Labs has committed to spending an unprecedented US$50 million on an intensive exploration of the possibility of bringing innovative technology to bear on some of the biggest challenges Toronto is facing. Their process has included meeting with citizens, governments, universities, and others about what the Sidewalk Toronto project should be. The goal is to come up with a model that Waterfront Toronto, the city, and Sidewalk Labs will find worthy to continue through a partnership that could also have implications for the rest of the Port Lands. This will not be a stand-alone effort. Sidewalk Labs says it would have an “insatiable” appetite for partnerships with other companies, including local tech start-ups, as well as universities and others on the build-out with the goal of serving as an “enabling catalyst” for innovation.

This is, in my view, is why the Sidewalk Labs project is worth the risk for Toronto. We are in the throes of an astonishing growth spurt. Our systems are strained; established ways of doing basic things are under stress and are failing to meet needs today, let alone address the challenges of tomorrow. We need breakthroughs, and we need places to experiment and innovate and overcome traditional silos. But as we know, change is hard. Regulatory structures and operating mechanisms that may have served us well in the past are now impediments. We have a need to test them against new realities; to modify, innovate, and introduce creative tension between what is and what could be; and to ask the what-if questions in fundamental ways. The Sidewalk Labs partnership may just provide the catalyst, R & D resources, and the time and space we urgently need to help us make the leap in critical areas.

The ground floors in the proposal include flexible interior walls and retractable façades that allow market stalls to be moved outside.

While nothing has yet been approved, numerous ambitious plans and ideas have been put forward for buildings, streets, and urban infrastructure; they range from familiar ideas to radical departures. The Quayside site can serve as a place for “kicking the tires” of many of these new ideas and concepts, which include but are by no means limited to the following interwoven themes. While most of these innovations probably exist in some form somewhere already, the Quayside site has the potential to combine all of them in one place.

For a start, there is a plan to create, aided by cutting-edge technology, “radical mixed-use” developments. Elements would include housing for all ages and incomes with spaces for a broad range of businesses — including offices, workshops, studios, stores, and cultural spaces — in a more malleable, fungible building fabric than we are accustomed to. Aided by a performance-based form of regulation that would serve to loosen up familiar, defined land-use restrictions, smart buildings could monitor temperature, light, sound, structural integrity, and other characteristics in ways that would allow for dynamic new forms of occupation within buildings and neighbourhoods. With the ability to make adjustments, housing, working, and retail spaces can be made more affordable and environmentally friendly; also, there will be an opportunity to expand the flexibility and capacity of buildings over time.

A rendering of the rain screen concept. A prototype was developed by Toronto firm PARTISANS.

Inspired by the adaptability of the traditional industrial loft, Sidewalk Labs aims to reinvent how buildings are constructed and subdivided. Like the robust, highly adaptable, and still useful warehouse loft buildings of the Kings built a century ago, these new buildings would have a strong structure, but their interiors would be outfitted with standardized building components, allowing “ongoing and frequent interior changes.”

Sidewalk Toronto will pilot the use of construction techniques like mass timber construction, using a renewable Canadian resource and new types of wood technology that allow for safe construction of large and tall buildings, which can be quickly modied for a variety of uses. These structures could be fabricated in the area, prototyping the use of new materials. Picking up on a long-standing ambition in the world of construction, Sidewalk Toronto would establish a program of modular construction, creating sections in a controlled factory setting for rapid on-site assembly.

Sidewalk’s proposal includes towers consisting of modular units that can be quickly renovated to take on residential and non-residential uses.

The potential is to enable the construction of “whole neighbourhoods of lower-cost, quicker-to-build housing,” possibly with a nearby manufacturing plant for local production of the modular units. These would form buildings that could be serially occupied by an evolving mix of offices, retail, and residences, including small-scale start-ups and makerspaces. Along with innovations in construction, innovations in regulation and financing will be pursued to identify areas that need to be changed or modied to allow for desirable outcomes that current regulations never anticipated.

One of the project’s greatest opportunities lies in the enriching of the “commons,” the indispensable shared public realm in a dense, compact, and diverse city. Making it the vital heart of the neighbourhood, more responsive, seasonally adaptable, enriched with both temporary and permanent expressions of art and culture, multivalent and welcoming to all is a key objective. This in turn combines with the idea of a true “community hub” where a full array of public services, from daycare to school, library, community centre, and health care delivery can be integrated into the building fabric in new and flexible ways in this expanded commons.

A shared public infrastructure is envisaged, with A/V, utility hook-ups, and the like enabling the community to easily transform public space.

With more people living in the downtown core, the city needs to explore more transportation options as adjuncts to existing public transit, as well as active transportation to make getting around safer, more affordable, and more convenient than relying on private motor vehicles. is could be an opportunity to expand that range of mobility options while supporting current transit plans; privileging walking and cycling, and exploring innovative solutions like sensor-operated traffic lights that can track volumes to make cycling safer and more convenient but also exploring the operation of self-driving fleets and buses.

With changes like these in place, parking as we have known it becomes a moving target. rough an app developed by Sidewalk Labs, it could “pilot a program that keeps parking prices high, but offers discounts to people who are coming from areas, or at times, when transit options are limited. Technology will enable pricing to vary in real time based on transit availability.”

Sidewalk envisages a heavily pedestrianized district with a range of street types and scales that privilege the pedestrian and an intimate human scale. Street design itself is a fertile eld for innovation. Distribution of users within the right-of-way, new materials, and technology that enables the street itself to physically and operationally sense and adapt to different conditions and levels of use can be introduced. Animation of the street as a social space can be activated by more dynamic retail, including pop-ups that would come and go within indoor and outdoor spaces.

Flexible pick-up/drop-off zones can be used as passenger areas during rush hour, and become public space during times when there is less traffic.

Improving the microclimate of the public realm of streets, parks, and squares in an expanded, highly walkable, and universally accessible commons is another key ambition. Weather mitigation can be achieved by careful arrangements of buildings and adaptable canopies and windbreaks and, possibly, heated surfaces that significantly expand the times when it is comfortable to be outdoors in Toronto’s climate, and also encourage year-round cycling and walking.

We still live in a world where we have large, cumbersome garbage trucks taking up the streets in our cities. Recycling is also taking up a lot of space, and it can be quite inefficient. Major advances have already been made in the introduction of underground vacuum systems and industrial robots that manage the collection of trash and recyclables in a number of selected waste streams. Although these are not yet in Toronto they have been developed in Scandinavia and are now in over a hundred cities around the world. Sidewalk Toronto offers an opportunity to introduce these alternative means of collecting and sorting waste using new technologies that can improve cleanliness and pest control and eliminate the need for large bins on the street and large storage rooms and loading docks in buildings. 

A modular mass timber system is proposed, that can be deployed in different ways in Toronto and elsewhere. Here, a rendering by Thomas Heatherwick’s studio shows one means of deploying the system. (Image by Picture Plane for Heatherwick Studio)

These and many other ideas are not technological gimmicks. They go to the heart of how we will live together in the city. Combined in a test bed area like Quayside, their cumulative impact can be vastly greater than if they are scattered throughout the city. But ultimately, these technologies are scalable and exportable, and will have application in the Port Lands, throughout the urban region, and around the world as we learn to use and manage the array of new means available to us as we move toward a more sustainable urban future. They also have the potential to produce cost savings by being more nimble and adaptable, and thus increasing affordability.

Operating at the neighbourhood scale, in between the individual “smart building” and a broad policy framework aimed at the entire city, Quayside provides an opportunity to innovate and a sufficiently concentrated focus to implement meaningful change. It has the potential to demonstrate what a digitally enabled, mixed-use precinct that combines the latest technologies with strongly held community values for an inclusive, equitable, and prosperous city can look and behave like. But to be truly meaningful and viable, many of its innovations will need to be scalable and extend beyond the boundaries of the twelve-acre site. 

The modular mass timber system can be deployed with different aesthetic results, as seen in this design by Snøhetta.

There are, of course, many very big questions and challenges to be addressed during this exploratory period, including legitimate concerns around privacy, data security, the use of data and trust. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have given assurances that security and privacy protection will be baked into the new infrastructure with the creation of an independent data trust. But ultimately, with many eyes on the project, the city and civil society will weigh in to negotiate the rules of engagement. At this point, this is clearly a work in progress, and many legitimate questions and concerns have yet to be fully addressed.

Furthermore, when a company such as Sidewalk Labs develops a device or process for use in a city, who owns the intellectual property? And what access will competitors or start-ups have to the platform? Sidewalk says it wants to make its “digital layers” widely accessible, describing themselves as an urban innovation platform “whose role is to create the conditions for others to innovate on top of it.” And in fact, that’s what great cities have always done: a street grid is, after all, a low-tech shared platform. The critical ingredient is a credible process that satises the concerns of the community and elected officials as it takes appropriate advantage of the historic opportunity represented by the Sidewalk initiative.

What can Toronto learn from this experience, and how can that knowledge be applied? As other cities have demonstrated, we are part of a great collective learning curve as we innovate in different ways in response to the arrival (or onslaught) of technology. Every city — small, medium, large, and extra large — now has to articulate its aspirations and proactively consider how these inevitable technological advances are impacting its territory and quality of life. The advances are forcing us to rethink how we do everything from organizing municipal services to engaging the public in decision making and implementing new projects, to take a few examples. It is critical at this point for Torontonians to get involved in these conversations. With Sidewalk Labs, we have a rare opportunity to imagine, discuss, debate, and evaluate how our future will look and how technologies will shape it. This may be Toronto’s turn to take the lead.

A rendering of buildings designed by MGA (Michael Green Architecture) using the modular system. Michael Green’s office developed the modular mass timber system for Sidewalk Labs.

In February 2018, I was invited to be one of the keynote speakers at the Future Cities Forum in Ottawa co-hosted by the National Capital Commission’s Urbanism Lab, the Artengine arts and technology collective, and Impact Hub Ottawa. We were asked to share our perspectives on what our future cities will look like, as new technologies take more and more space in our daily lives. In the conversational scrums that took place afterward, it was clear that the young audience felt a mixture of great excitement, anticipation, and some apprehension. At the time of this writing, the draft Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) that Sidewalk must bring forward for consideration has not yet been submitted. It will be carefully scrutinized and will go through the same rigorous process of public consultation that Toronto is known for, and Waterfront Toronto and the city have demonstrated elsewhere on the waterfront. Its primary focus will be the twelve-acre Quayside site as a test bed where Sidewalk would be the actual developer. It will also propose a role within the larger Port Lands, like assisting in the financing of transit, enabling things to happen that would otherwise likely not be possible. This new form of partnership raises many new critical questions that will need to be addressed but also has many benefits. The review of the MIDP will result in a decision as to whether to proceed. The jury is out.

Excerpt from Toronto Reborn: Design Successes and Challenges by Ken Greenberg 2019. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press Limited.