Toronto Wants To Kill The Smart City Forever

The new Waterfront Toronto project in Toronto, dubbed Quayside 2.0, is tipped to be a bucolic retreat rather than a technological utopia, which may kill the smart city forever.

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The city of Toronto unveiled plans for a brand-new waterfront development in February. 800 affordable apartments, a two-acre forest, a rooftop farm, a new arts center specializing in indigenous culture, and a commitment to being zero-carbon seem like a wish list for any passionate urbanist.

An accessible, off-the-grid Eden in the middle of the city sounds wonderful. But just a few years ago, a totally new urban utopia called Quayside was slated to be built on this same 12-acre site. It would be the setting where Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s division for urban innovation, would showcase its concept of the smart city.

Quayside shouldn’t have been that difficult to develop given its location between the elevated Gardiner Expressway and Lake Ontario, where it is surrounded by a few one-story commercial buildings and an abandoned grain silo. However, debate started almost as soon as Waterfront Toronto, a governmental organization in charge of the reconstruction of 2,000 acres along the lake shore, said that Sidewalk had submitted the best concept in October 2017.

Flashy new technology was Sidewalk’s main concept. An optimal urban experience with robo-taxis, heated sidewalks, autonomous garbage collection, and a thick digital layer to track everything from traffic crossings to park bench use was planned to be centered in this unassuming area of Toronto.

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An aerial view of the new proposed plan for the 12-acre site situated along the Toronto waterfront.

If it had been successful, Quayside might have served as a proof-of-concept, introducing a fresh approach to urban planning for all cities. It might have shown that more democratic societies can adopt the sensor-­laden smart city model popularized in China and the Persian Gulf. Instead, Sidewalk Labs’ two and a half year effort to create a neighborhood “from the internet up” was unable to convince anyone that they would want to live there.

The Sidewalk project was abandoned by May 2020 because to “the unprecedented economic uncertainty brought on by the covid-19 pandemic,” according to the company. But that economic uncertainty appeared at the end of years of heated discussion in the media about its $900 million vision for a data-rich city within the city.

Citizens frequently protest new developments, and utopias fall short for a variety of reasons. But unlike the traditional causes of public protest, such as architectural preservation or the height, density, and design of the proposed buildings, opposition to Sidewalk’s vision for Toronto wasn’t based on these issues. The project’s tech-first philosophy offended many, and its seeming lack of respect for Torontonians’ privacy concerns was probably the biggest factor in its demise.

The private sector’s control over public roadways and transit, as well as companies’ collection of data on people’s everyday activities, are both tolerated even less in Canada than in the US.

The shift signaled by the new plan, with its emphasis on wind and rain and birds and bees rather than data, seems like a pragmatic response to the present moment.

“In the US it’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” says Alex Ryan, a senior vice president of partnership solutions for the MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto nonprofit founded by a consortium of public and private funders and billed as North America’s largest urban innovation hub. “In Canada it’s peace, order, and good government. Canadians don’t expect the private sector to come in and save us from government, because we have high trust in government.”

Sidewalk’s top-down approach prevented it from understanding Toronto’s civic culture. The word “hubris” or “arrogance” was almost generally used to describe the company’s attitude by the people I spoke with regarding the project. Both were used by some.

The end of the smart city?

We constantly convince ourselves that the current big idea would not only make our daily lives better but also solve all of society’s problems. The “garden city” idea, started in England in 1898 by the urban planner Ebenezer Howard, sought to combine the advantages of both the city and the country while avoiding their drawbacks. The City Beautiful movement in America aimed to restore the splendor and beauty of cities as a means of achieving a more harmonious social structure. In the never-built Ville Radieuse (Radiant City) in Paris, Le Corbusier’s strict, high-density plan pursued urban nirvana through rigorous architectural design. More recently, a global movement known as the “15-minute city” has emerged in support of designing cities such that everyone can access work, school, retail, and recreation within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. 

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The project, located on the shores of Lake Ontario, aims to be zero-carbon and includes buildings by Alison Brooks Architects (1) and David Adjaye (2), an urban farm (5) atop a mass timber building, and acres of public green space (4) and more than 800 affordable housing units.

Over the past two decades, the smart city concept has possibly dominated urban planning. The phrase was first used by IBM to express the expectation that technology could enhance how cities operated, but as a strategy for city development, it has been most successfully applied in authoritarian regimes (Putin is a fan). According to critics, it often disregards the value of people in the pursuit of technology solutions. The concept of the smart city has never been without issues, even when the architectural renderings were stunning. Even while existing cities have historically been centers of culture, ideas, and intellect, the phrase itself implies that they are lacking in brainpower.

The real issue is that smart cities appear to be designed to eliminate the same qualities that make cities amazing since they place so much attention on optimizing everything. New York, Rome, Cairo, and Toronto are not great cities because they are efficient; rather, people are drawn to the chaos, captivating interactions, and serendipitous happenings among a vastly different mix of people residing nearby. Instead, proponents of the smart city have embraced the notion that the city is something that can be measured and managed.

By making building technology more efficient and offering less polluting transportation alternatives to the car, smart city technology should be able to reduce carbon emissions, speed up the construction of affordable housing, improve the effectiveness of public transportation, and shorten commute times. But frequently, rather than focusing on what it ought to accomplish, its supporters emphasize what it can do. The failure of Sidewalk’s Quayside has taught us that these technologies must be more responsive to human needs.

If not euphoric, the initial reactions to the Sidewalk project were nevertheless rather positive. The Toronto Globe and Mail’s architecture critic, Alex Bozikovic, thought Sidewalk Labs would provide a more exciting method of development. The initiative was listed as one of the 10 most innovative innovations in 2018 which said that “Sidewalk Labs could reshape how we live, work, and play in urban neighborhoods.”

But over time, even those who ought to have been Quayside’s supporters and allies began to feel increasingly alienated.  Ryan, who works with the MaRS Discovery District and promotes “innovation for the benefit of all,” says there was “a hubris to the way that they thought that they could solve all the problems in house.”

By 2020, the project, which had not yet begun, appeared to be untenable. And Sidewalk walked on May 7, two weeks before the Waterfront Toronto board was supposed to vote on whether or not to close it down.

In a farewell letter published on Medium, Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff stated that it had “become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.” “So, after a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed with the Quayside project,” he concluded.

Most Quayside watchers find it difficult to accept that covid was the true cause of the project’s demise. Sidewalk Labs never truly created a vivid image of the place it wished to create.

Quayside 2.0

There is little doubt that the new Waterfront Toronto project has learned from the past. Illustrations of the new Quayside plans—dubbed Quayside 2.0—released earlier this year show trees and other vegetation growing out of every balcony and protrusion, with no autonomous vehicles or drones to be found. The project’s highly accomplished design team, which includes the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, the Mohawk architect Matthew Hickey from the Six Nations First Nation, and the Danish firm Henning Larsen, describes this new area of Canada’s largest city as a bucolic retreat rather than a technological utopia.

Quayside 2.0 actively supports the idea that an urban neighborhood can combine elements of the natural and man-made world. The models are so densely packed with trees that they imply that foliage is a new type of architectural ornament. The proposal audaciously claims that we now want our cities to be green, both symbolically and literally. Adjaye, who is most renowned for designing the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, mentions the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world” in the project’s promotional video. The focus has shifted back toward Howard’s garden city, as Quayside 2022 is a blatant rejection of both the 2017 proposal and the idea of smart cities in general.

This retreat to nature in some ways reflects the times we live in, as society has transitioned from one of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs unveiling the iPhone) to one of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online abuse, and outright techno-fraud. Over the past two decades, the tech sector has undoubtedly increased productivity, but has it also improved life? Sidewalk was never able to answer that.

According to Jennifer Keesmaat, a former chief planner for Toronto who gave advice to the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to make this next iteration successful, “To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake.” She is excited about the area’s revised plan: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”

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Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto (left), and Alex Ryan and Yung Wu of MaRS, North America’s largest innovation hub (all of whom are working on the new waterfront project), believe that less tech reliance and more civic engagement could be the new way forward.

In fact, the new plan’s philosophical shift, with its focus on wind, rain, birds, and bees rather than data and more data, appears to be a practical response to the demands of the present and the immediate future. The question is if this new urban utopia actually offers a plan to slow down global warming, or if it is simply “green” in the same sense that a smart city is “smart.” How many backyard farms and pocket forests will it take to keep the planet cool?

Whatever its practical implications, Quayside’s new design appears to be a more livable place. The project promises to make daily living more enjoyable, which is something that the proponents of the smart city neglected. “What is the vision that inspires people to want to live here, to work here, to raise their families and children and grandchildren here?  asks MaRS Discovery District CEO and tech entrepreneur Yung Wu. ” What is it that inspires that?”

“It’s not a smart city,” he concludes. “It’s a city that’s smart.”

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2 Responses

  1. It’s digital colonialism, with smart cities being the equivalent of the reservations indigenous Americans found themselves obliged to occupy after the white man arrived.

    Wake up – it’s your turn next.

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