by Aaron Kloke, Casper, Wyoming
On October 4, 2017, the Wall Street Journal announced that Alphabet Inc.’s (Google) Sidewalk Labs was in the final stages of forming a partnership with Waterfront Toronto. The goal of this partnership is the development of a digital-city project with the initial investment of $50 million for planning to serve as a testbed for new technologies along a 12-acre section of Toronto’s eastern waterfront. Since October 4, further details have come out regarding the project, particularly an editorial by Daniel Doctoroff, chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs and Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet. I’ll leave this with you to get a sense of the new neighborhood, Quayside:
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.
First of all, let me get this out of the way. Yes, Toronto is far away from the American West and the communities we serve. But, if any of these ideas stick, the technologies and building methods of Quayside may soon find their way to places like Denver, Boise, Jackson Hole, and Missoula soon enough. Furthermore, there is always something to learn from our peers in other cities.
So who exactly is behind this push for this experimental neighborhood? There is a former government sustainability consultant, a founder of a real estate capital investment firm, a software engineer, a designer of digital communication platforms, and a former president of a digital media outlet, to name a few. Notice something missing? These are not city planners. And they weren’t educated as planners, but they are urbanists in the most contemporary sense.
If you feel indignant or anxious, you are not alone. If this excites you, you are not alone either. If you are wondering what I’m getting at, let me show you, and I’ll start with a question. Does it ever cross your mind that those outside of our profession have executed many of the greatest contributions to cities? We are not the only ones invested in the success of our built environment.
If Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Labs is the prime example of city innovation today yet it doesn’t employ city planning educated professionals on its team, then where do we fit in the city of the future? Enter Waterfront Toronto. Contrary to the myriad reports on the project that suggest Sidewalk Labs is the main actor, it was the Waterfront Toronto government agency that developed the initial RFP looking for a partner in funding and innovation. Sidewalk Labs just won the contract. Waterfront Toronto’s website describes itself as ”…the public advocates and stewards of Toronto's waterfront revitalization. Created by the Governments of Canada and Ontario and the City of Toronto, our mandate is to transform our city's waterfront by creating extraordinary new places to live, work, learn and play.” Waterfront Toronto’s role as master developer for this particular project is further described by Doctoroff and Schmidt here:
Of course, we don't claim to understand local needs, as well as Torontonians, do. That's one of the many advantages to having a partner like Waterfront Toronto, with its long history of close public engagement and community development in places like the West Don Lands. Together we will devote the next year to extensive long-range planning efforts, working closely with residents, community leaders, government officials and trusted advisers through town halls, design charrettes, open houses and other forms of public engagement.
Planning efforts, funded by Sidewalk Labs, begin Nov. 1 and will take approximately one year at which time each party, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, both have the option to back out of the partnership. And this is what is so interesting about the development of a neighborhood of the future: the roles in which we take part. So far, the roles have been clearly laid out in the RFP and initial proposal but will be evolving as time goes on and the project goes beyond planning phases.
Whether you believe this is an exercise in arrogance by Silicon Valley elites or an exciting push for the future of cities, the Quayside neighborhood development will be viewed by millions of people as the future of innovation in city building. As is typical, the sexy Sidewalk Labs will receive much of the credit due to the technologies employed in the project. But, it will be impossible to ignore (especially by locals) the role of Waterfront Toronto in bridging the gap between these technologies and those that live and govern. It is a rare opportunity to see how the media and the public view the planning profession, as our peers in Toronto stand side-by-side with the exemplar of contemporary innovation in the unprecedented development of a neighborhood of the future. I suggest we sit back and see how this unfolds.
Aaron Kloke is a planner in Casper, Wyoming. Aaron’s interests include from real estate markets, civic innovation, economic development, transportation, and urban design. He graduated with a Master’s of Community & Regional Planning from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. While Kloke bleeds Husker red, he has found that there is no place like the West. Aaron is a member of the Western Planner Resources, Inc. Board.
Published in December 2017