Sidewalk Labs to Build the City of the Future in Toronto

©. Sidewalk Labs

What's not to love about a mix of 19th century planning and building mixed with 21st century technology?

A few years ago writer Taras Grescoe tweeted that "the future of the city is 21st century communication (smartphone apps, twitter, texts) and 19th century transport (subways, streetcars, bikes)." Looking at the proposal from Alphabet's (formerly Google) Sidewalk Labs for a new neighbourhood in Toronto, it appears that Grescoe was right.

The project is the result of a proposal call by Waterfront Toronto to redevelop part of its 2000 acres of seriously contaminated land. Daniel Doctoroff and Eric Schmitt describe the 19th century part of the vision in the Globe and Mail:

sidewalk vision

© Sidewalk Labs

Imagine Toronto before cars ruled the city. Streets bustled with a lively mix of residents and businesses all day and night. An ever-changing array of shopkeepers peddled their wares. Kids played safely in the streets and parks. We can reclaim that hyperdynamic sense of community – and we can do it in a way that puts people, not technology, front-and-centre.
street queens quay

© Sidewalk Labs

Their vision includes a range of street types that are designed to be pedestrian friendly, with no private cars. Instead, it will have self-driving "taxibots" and buses. Renderings show lots of bikes and streetcars too.

Sustianability vision

© Sidewalk Labs

Like Disney World, it will have an underground network of services, including robot delivery trucks. This will all be a challenge as it is below water level in a toxic soup, but that's why governments are spending a billion and a half bucks to clean up the site.

adaptable building

© Sidewalk Labs

The buildings have some 19th century characteristics, too; like old manufacturing loft buildings, they will be made of wood and be designed for flexibility, adapting to different uses as required. Putting a brewery up on seventh floor may not be the best idea, but most other uses would be fine.

construction sidewalk

© Sidewalk Labs

They may also be modular, possibly with the nearby decommissioned Hearn generating station acting as a factory. No word on whether the food in the jiffy truck will be organic or vegan.


© Sidewalk Labs

They will be very energy efficient, and will be "the largest cluster of large-scale Passive House buildings yet constructed in North America." Sidewalk is confident "that the incremental cost of Passive House will decline significantly if it is deployed in several buildings at once." It is all part of a plant to make it "the first truly climate positive community on earth" with an advanced microgram for electricity and a "thermal grid."

The thermal grid will capture heat and cool from multiple sources, balance it in a thermal energy centre, and distribute it to buildings via hot and cold water pipes, just as the energy grid taps multiple sources of electricity generation and manages the electric grid to match demand.
digital overlay

© Sidewalk Labs

There are, of course, 21st-century technologies laid over all this, including a whole bunch of sensors in everything, because "the first step in improving quality of life and efficiency in a city is understanding it." It will be overlaid with a "digital layer" which "allows efficient operation of the neighbourhood by providing a single source of information about what's going on." This concerns critic John Lorinc, who writes in Spacing:

I’m not fussed about the vehicle counts or sensors that gauge and assess how much waste material is going into Sidewalk’s high-tech recycling systems. But there are other elements in this plan that are potentially far more troubling. For example, sensors on street furniture (are we going to monitor how well a bench is used?) ... But let’s not sugarcoat what’s being proposed, which is the commodification of living in and moving through urban space — something that only becomes possible if the traces of said movements can be captured and processed.

© Sidewalk Labs

Lorinc raises some valid concerns about it being a company town, and worries that Toronto might "become Google’s version of Dearborn, Redmond, or Cupertino." Perhaps. Writing in the New York Times, Emily Badger has a few reservations too.

The prospect of a city designed by technologists, at least as a thought experiment until now, has made some nervous, urbanists especially. The tech industry is better known in its Silicon Valley backyard for contributing to, rather than solving, urban problems like unaffordable housing and traffic. And its corporate campuses are mostly models of how not to build cities, with mega office parks (and spaceship designs) dependent on cars and detached from their neighboring communities.

She points out that cities are inherently unpredictable.

They resist omniscient engineering. And past efforts at doing that — whether through the urban renewal of individual neighborhoods or the wholesale development of utopias — have invariably failed for that reason.

But they have thrown everything at this, and sitting as I do in Toronto, it is hard not to be excited. This is very different from Amazon's recent proposal call for its second headquarters, but is a larger vision. Let's give the last word to Doctorow and Schmidt:

The eastern waterfront will be a place where residents, companies, startups and local organizations can advance new ideas for improving city life. It's where a self-driving test shuttle will take its first steps toward becoming a next-generation transit system that's cheaper, safer and more convenient than private car-ownership. It's where new insights into advanced construction methods will start to reveal a path toward more affordable housing development. It's where explorations into renewable energy and sustainable building designs will show promise toward becoming a climate-positive blueprint for cities around the world.

What's not to love about that?