Editorial: Farewell, Sidewalk Toronto

Last week, Google-affiliate Sidewalk Labs announced that it was canceling its pursuit to build Quayside, a smart city on Toronto’s waterfront. According to a statement by Sidewalk lead Dan Doctoroff, the decision was due to the economic uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, which has made it too difficult for the project to be financially viable.

A rendering of Sidewalk Toronto’s planned Quayside development, from the Master Innovation and Development Plan released in 2019.

The news has been greeted by a decidedly mixed reaction: from frustration at a missed opportunity at urban greatness from some Torontonians, to relief at dodging a data surveillance experiment that would have impinged on civil liberties. All levels of government have pointed to the massive opportunity that still exists to develop an ambitious waterfront project, without the partnership of the tech behemoth—both on the 12-acre Quayside site, as well as on the real prize, the 880-acre Port Lands area to the east.

Sidewalk had pressured the city to include a 180-acre chunk of this larger area in their plan—presented last June in a 1,500-page tome. They also asked for other special dispensations: among them, a share of property taxes and development fees to build transit and underground infrastructure, the housing of information collected from embedded sensors in an “urban data trust,” and a role as lead developer—despite presenting no previous development experience.

The Waterfront Toronto board rejected these proposals. They’d be glad to move forward with the project, they reported in the fall: but on the original 12-acre site. Sidewalk agreed to partner with established real estate developers, and no special financial arrangements would be made. As to data collection and storage, Sidewalk would need to comply with all existing and future legislation and regulatory frameworks. Waterfront’s decision on whether to move forward was expected on May 20, 2020.

A close look at the architectural elements of the saga raises the question: was Sidewalk’s proposal ever feasible? The proposed district was a checklist of pre-pandemic urbanist dreams: mass timber high-rises, affordable housing, underground waste collection, robotic package delivery, self-driving cars, all rendered in airy sketches and cheerful graphics. According to some critics, it was all too much: “Urban trends from the last two decades piled up like a bike messenger crashing into a street juggler,” writes researcher Shannon Mattern.

A rendering of Sidewalk Toronto’s planned Quayside development, from the Master Innovation and Development Plan released in 2019.

Several people who have waded through Sidewalk’s 1,500-page document note how, despite its heft, it lacked the substance of a serious development proposal. Bruce Kuwabara, former chair of the Waterfront Toronto’s Design Review Panel, noted some basic errors—the all-timber buildings didn’t fit in with the surrounding waterfront, besides which, they seemed to propose having an exposed structure. “Before Sidewalk released its plans, designers wondered if this would be a case of the emperor having no clothes,” he wrote in Toronto Life. “Now it appears its all-in-wood scheme literally has no clothes.”

All along, there were questions about the financial viability of the ambitious proposal—none of the proposed systems would come cheap. The proposal ultimately relied on the idea that parent company Alphabet would provide a generous amount of “patient capital,” using Quayside as a demonstration project for realizing returns over a longer term.

Ed Hore, a former litigation lawyer and lobbyist specializing in intellectual property, speculates the purpose of Sidewalk’s Quayside venture was “not really to build a development on the Toronto waterfront” at all—but rather “mostly to help its sister company Google think through privacy and data ownership issues, with an eye to the U.S. political process.” A member of Waterfront Toronto’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee, Hore writes that “the data and privacy regime developed by Sidewalk, set out in the [500-page Digital Innovation Appendix] and honed through public consultations, was always the point. […] It is exactly what Google needs: the fruit of intensive background work for a possible regulatory regime it may ultimately propose in the U.S.”

A rendering of the dynamic curb in Sidewalk Toronto’s planned Quayside development, one of many innovations described in the Master Innovation and Development Plan released in 2019.

Data policy aside, Sidewalk seems to have gotten plenty of return for its investment in the Toronto scheme. It’s spun off several side projects, including a generative design tool for urban planning, a community-based healthcare network, and continued work on factory-made mass timber construction. It’s led financing of a robotic furniture company and a digital electricity start-up.

Last fall, the company launched Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, a group which aims to address urban needs throughout North America, including plastics recycling, digital networks, and highways for driverless cars. The entity has raised $400 million from Google parent company Alphabet and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

Almost at the same time as Sidewalk walked away from Toronto, New York governor Andrew Cuomo enlisted former Google CEO Eric Schmidt to head a commission to “reimagine” a tech-forward New York after the pandemic. Such a vision, points out Naomi Klein, would doubtless include many of the urban data collection mechanisms the company had hoped to deploy on the Quayside site.

As for Toronto and Canada, we’ve tangled with some seductive ideas for urban development. Hopefully, the most promising elements of the Sidewalk scheme—ambitious sustainability goals, dynamic curbs that can change the use of streets with the flip of a switch—will be part of future waterfront developments. The design consultants hired by Sidewalk—many of whom are Canadian companies—have built internal expertise. The best minds in the country have contended with data privacy, a topic that is particularly pertinent as global cities deploy urban surveillance to defend against the spread of COVID-19. Whatever comes next for Toronto’s waterfront, we’ll be prepared.