Sidewalk Toronto is here. But what is Sidewalk Toronto, exactly? At a public meeting Wednesday night, locals got a chance to ask questions about the partnership announced Oct. 17 between Google sister company Sidewalk Labs and the public agency Waterfront Toronto.
And they had plenty of questions. The attendees (the 868-seat Bluma Appel Theatre was officially sold out) came loaded with concerns about affordability and inclusion, about privacy, about what Sidewalk is, and what it’s doing to Toronto as it imagines a sensor-wired, future-ready, pedestrian-friendly urban neighbourhood.
What is it doing? Just talking – and for now the mammoth company and the small government agency are talking as equals. It’s clear that Sidewalk is wooing the community, rather than making demands. What it wants, in the end, is an open question.
The meeting did make clear what was widely misreported two weeks ago: Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto have merely signed an agreement to agree. Over the next year, Sidewalk and Waterfront will collaborate on a public consultation that will set the terms of their partnership and future physical development of homes, offices and retail on a 12-acre site. Sidewalk will spend an initial $10-million (U.S.), potentially followed by an additional $40-million, to fund that planning process over a full year. If the project goes ahead, other real-estate developers will work within the plan.
“We will develop that plan in consultation with all kinds of stakeholders, in the community, in industry, in academia,” Will Fleissig, CEO of Waterfront Toronto, told the audience.
Dan Doctoroff, head of Sidewalk and former deputy mayor of New York City, presented himself as a non-threatening figure: he smiled a lot and kept using the word “humble.” “He seems really nice,” one young man whispered to a neighbour during the event. Doctoroff said: “We’re confident you guys will be excited by what we do.”
What could go wrong? Well, lots. This will be a new form of public-private partnership. If Sidewalk gets its way, it will involve some sort of collaboration on new civic infrastructure including utility tunnels, new systems for traffic control, and a variety of sensors that will capture data, including people’s movement. And, maybe, a collaboration with government on health care. There are many questions to be solved. Sidewalk’s proposal, released two weeks ago, is full of pie-in-the-sky ideas that will be difficult if not impossible to execute.
“What we can do with the plan,” Fleissig said, “is look at best examples and best practices and in Quayside” – the development area – “try some new approaches.”
Pilot projects in the short term could include autonomous-vehicle buses, and Sidewalk trying to build something – presumably temporary – with new forms of wood technology.
What’s encouraging about this process is that Waterfront is setting the terms. Fleissig took charge of the city/provincial/federal agency two years ago, and where it had been extremely cautious, he brought a risk-taking spirit. “Our goal is to use the waterfront as a test-bed for how we construct the future city,” he said in March. Sidewalk’s effort to rethink how cities are built, which it has been pondering for more than two years, fits nicely with that ambition.
But its ambitions are not totally clear. Sidewalk explicitly does want to move beyond the Quayside project to become involved in planning a larger 750-acre zone of waterfront land, which was opened up for development by a $1.185-billion (Canadian) flood-protection program announced in June. But is it simply a real estate developer with a research and development arm? Or is “the intersection of tech and urbanism,” as Doctoroff said, really a site for new profit-making ventures? If it uses this zone of Toronto to develop technologies and processes for the planning and operation of cities, who will profit from those innovations, and how?
None of that was apparent at the public meeting. Neither Doctoroff nor Fleissig explicitly addressed what might happen when public and private interests diverge. “Our challenge to ourselves is to tackle the hard questions,” Doctoroff said. “And we’re ready to listen.”
That sounds like politician’s language, and Doctoroff kept using the pronoun “we” to represent him and his colleagues and their work in the New York City government – many of Sidewalk’s leadership team, like him, served in then mayor Michael Bloomberg’s data-obsessed municipal administration. As in: “Under my leadership and Mike Bloomberg’s leadership in New York, we created the largest affordable housing program ever done by a city in American history.”
But he’s not in government any more, and that slippage is significant. Real estate developers don’t make policy; they lobby for it. Do the Sidewalkers understand that the buildings they want to create, never mind the new types of civic infrastructure, won’t happen until they complete a long slog of public consultation? Or do they expect governments to roll over and rewrite the rules, making way for a money-spinning juggernaut? The next year will bring answers, and surely more questions.