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The Many Sides of Sidewalk Toronto
The Alphabet subsidiary tasked with developing a significant chunk of Canada’s biggest city from scratch has released its design and planning details. While the utopian vision of what a 21st-century neighbourhood can be is compelling, will it come at the expense of democratic oversight? In our October 2019 issue, Elizabeth Pagliacolo, John Lorinc, Bianca Wylie and Stefan Novakovic weigh in.
An Ambitious Design Model Sets the Scene for Sidewalk Toronto’s Proposal
Sidewalk Toronto governance challenge
Sidewalk Toronto Poses a Major Challenge to City Governance
Sidewalk Labs Bianca Wylie
The Missing Dimension in the Sidewalk Toronto Vision
The Tricky Optics Surrounding the Entire Sidewalk Toronto Bid
The Many Sides of Sidewalk Toronto
The Many Sides of Sidewalk Toronto

June 2019: the Alphabet-owned, Google-affiliated firm that responded to an international request for proposals for an “Innovation and Funding Partner” to develop Quayside, a five-hectare elbow of land in a much larger parcel of the public-owned Port Lands, releases its proposal. The RFP required respondents to describe their “ability and readiness to take the concepts and solutions deployed on Quayside to scale in future phases of waterfront revitalization.”

After months of controversy surrounding the proposed development’s scope as well as its privacy and governance implications, Sidewalk has laid out its ambitions – and, yes, its lens captures a vision that includes future development phases beyond Quayside. Together, they comprise what Sidewalk has termed the Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (or IDEA) District: 77 hectares that would also include an innovation hub on Villiers Island, complete with a Google headquarters.


Let’s start with some praise: Sidewalk Toronto’s proposal is a welcome compendium of enlightened design thinking today, presenting a wealth of core design ideas that read like genius solutions and no-brainers all at once. Reading through Volume 2 of the MIDP, I often found myself asking, Why aren’t we already doing this? 

At 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East, Sidewalk’s Quayside hub, those ideas find form in a physical model: a mock-up of the Quayside site abounding with wood mid-rises. The model’s buildings are skeletal and meant only to convey that mass timber is the main building block of this potential development. But in the MIDP, Michael Green Architecture, Snøhetta and Heatherwick Studio have visualized voluptuous renderings of a Parliament Plaza (the central gathering node) where tall wood performs feats – forming fan-like balconies, creating a giant swooping hull – we’ve never seen the material achieve.

Sidewalk’s ambition to build exclusively with wood, including the realization of the world’s first 30-storey mass-timber tower, dovetails with another ambition: to establish an Ontario-based nexus for the production of cross-laminated-timber structural panels and glulam beams. The economic benefits would include an estimated 2,500 jobs created over 20 years and the reduction of project timelines by a third. Ontario would become a leader in tall timber. As Jesse Shapins, Sidewalk Toronto’s director of public realm, explains, “this is really about how you build that whole ecosystem locally. A couple of smaller factories and the carpenters’ union here are incredibly excited about the next generation of jobs.”

Sidewalk Toronto design model

1TALL TIMBER Sidewalk’s boldest idea is to build almost exclusively with cross-laminated timber and glulam beams

2PUBLIC REALM The social hub of the Quayside site, Parliament Plaza, would seamlessly connect with Parliament Slip

3PEOPLE-FIRST MOBILITY By designating four street types, the mobility plan addresses the needs of pedestrians and cyclists

It’s impossible to talk about the design aspects of Sidewalk Labs without discussing the concurrent economic and social possibilities. Quayside would be mostly residential, combining condos and purpose-built rental. And it’s pretty cool that the units are designed as multi-purpose “lofts” with movable walls that allow spaces to be expanded as required and also for the buildings themselves to evolve into new uses over time. But while Sidewalk aims to invest $77 million in affordable housing, only half of what it deems “affordable” meets the city’s definition. And let’s not even wade into the novel financing models, such as shared equity.

The interconnectedness of the built realm with these other types of innovation – new technologies as well as financing and governance models – is embedded, most controversially, into the public realm. The guiding principle here is ultimate flexibility. There are transformative ground levels called “stoa” (after the ancient Greek markets) where businesses can co-tenant a retail or culinary space, plus multi- program barges off Parliament Slip for restaurants, ecology research field stations and aquaponics systems. Everything down to the smallest details – including the modular hexagonal pavement, outdoor comfort shelters and dynamic curbs – would require new coordination tools, from purpose-built apps and an “urban USB” (or Koala mount) that would provide outdoor spaces with rapid-fire Wi-Fi to a proposed Open Space Alliance for operating, maintaining and programming those spaces.

When it comes to the transportation plan, Sidewalk proposes four different types of streets: boulevards and transitways for cars (and future autonomous vehicles) and the (still theoretical) eastern Light Rapid Transit extension as well as accessways and laneways favouring bikes and pedestrians. What happens beneath these streets is just as important. To limit the number of traffic-clogging delivery vehicles, Sidewalk proposes an underground freight delivery system and neighbourhood logistics hub (or urban consolidation centre) where everything from incoming packages to waste is sorted and dealt with by robots and other nascent technologies. The buildings would be connected by an intricate tunnel system and, of course, a new entity to coordinate the entire system. 

The Quayside model at 307 is lit up with pulsating beams that communicate the mechanisms at the heart of this future all-electric neighbourhood, perfectly calibrated and replicable. It’s difficult to imagine people living here, as if living in an experiment. The best kinds of urban experiments have historically sprung up, Jane Jacobs–style, from the grassroots – the abandoned warehouses turned into art studios, the patch of lawn cultivated into a communal vegetable garden. Sidewalk Toronto borrows from these precedents and is attempting, in its own way, to provide multiple stages for this kind of street ballet. It would be silly to expect a tabula-rasa master plan such as Sidewalk Toronto’s to achieve the messy urbanism that can only be choreographed by individuals adapting to gritty conditions. But that one developer could ideate so much space, dotting every i and crossing every t, feels at odds with the dynamism that the proposal works so hard to sell.

Elizabeth Pagliacolo is Azure‘s Executive Editor.

Sidewalk Toronto governance challenge

For a project that’s had to navigate choppy political seas since it surfaced two years ago, it’s perhaps appropriate that Sidewalk Labs devotes so much of its MIDP’s attention to stormwater management. 

The cluster of tall timber buildings the Alphabet subsidiary has proposed for the five-hectare Quayside district will include so-called “blue roofs” that rely on sensors to mitigate the effects of unexpected flooding. In typical projects, developers must build subsurface holding tanks to contain excess runoff. Sidewalk’s plan, by contrast, is to create rooftop reservoirs and use a combination of weather forecasting technology and sensors to continuously regulate the amount of water they’ll contain. Up top, that water may be used to irrigate green roofs, or it can be released into swales and other planted areas at street level in advance of storms, thus freeing up additional storage capacity to reduce the pressure on municipal storm sewers and the lake during heavy rains.

This system represents just one element of Sidewalk’s broader sustainability strategy for Quayside and, eventually, the IDEA District. These include a smart electrical grid, a district heating and cooling network, a pneumatic waste-collection system and building components designed to capture and recycle waste heat. 

For many years, Waterfront Toronto has included sustainability goals in its development plans for the brownfield sites along the eastern waterfront and the Port Lands. But, as Sidewalk points out in its 1,524-page pitch, many green building projects satisfy various sustainability and energy efficiency standards while still on the drawing board, but then underperform after they are completed. 

To tackle such performance gaps, Sidewalk has proposed setting up a new regulator, dubbed the Waterfront Sustainability Association (WSA), which will have a mandate to ensure compliance and deliver a low-emission community. Developers and the private firms that will eventually manage the area’s smart grid and district heating and cooling system will have to enter into performance contracts with the WSA. “The operators will be held to account by this new entity,” says Simon Brandler, Sidewalk’s director of public policy innovation. As with regulators like the Ontario Energy Board, he adds, “it will be invisible to the end user.”

The rapidly evolving world of sustainability technology – from rooftop solar and the stormwater management systems proposed for Quayside to Internet-of-things-connected smart thermostats – is very much a part of the global smart-city industry, which generates billions in revenue each year. But smart-city technologies extend into a range of other urban domains. Some systems, like traffic signal optimization or low-energy street lighting, generate little controversy, while others, such as predictive policing systems, have become lightning rods in intense debates about civil liberties. The governance of these systems is a work in progress: Some cities, like Barcelona, have been assertive about democratic oversight of smart-city technology. But many others haven’t cracked the accountability riddle.

Much of the controversy around the Sidewalk plan has focused on privacy: Given that the company’s proposal envisions an extensive deployment of data-gathering sensors in both public and private spaces, critics and privacy experts alike have asked how residents of and visitors to this new district will be assured that information gathered about their activities isn’t sold or misused.

To address such concerns, Sidewalk insists that it will not capture identifying details such as faces. The company has also proposed the creation of an “Urban Data Trust,” an arm’s-length entity that would house all the information gathered in Sidewalk’s projects, ensure privacy protections and make anonymized data available to software developers intent on creating new urban applications. 

But the MIDP also envisions a range of other operating entities, including the WSA and associations tasked with regulating open spaces and transportation networks. They will all answer to what Sidewalk calls a “public administrator,” which has a mandate to work with the City of Toronto to regulate this new community. 

According to Sidewalk, these entities will need certain exemptions from existing municipal or provincial regulations in order to deliver the project. They are also meant to be self-financing, with operating costs generated by user fees, charges to developers and financing provided by Sidewalk on commercial terms. While Sidewalk officials have insisted these entities don’t represent any kind of privatization of public services, there’s no doubt they’ll rely heavily on Sidewalk for technical expertise and will operate at a remove from the city’s bureaucracy. 

Part of the objective, says Pino Di Mascio, Sidewalk’s director of planning, is to better integrate services that typically operate in municipal silos. The Waterfront Transportation Management Association, for example, will coordinate transit, road allowances and parking while also delivering a mobility subscription service. While Di Mascio’s operational diagnosis is on point, the bigger question is whether the special status conferred on Sidewalk’s various governance bodies will deliver the promised benefits or unintentionally undermine the city’s ability to regulate in other communities if developers choose to seek similar exemptions. 

As the City of Toronto proceeds with an extensive evaluation of Sidewalk’s plan, it remains to be seen just how much municipal authority it will be prepared to relinquish in the name of smart-city innovation. 

John Lorinc is an award-winning journalist specializing in urban affairs.

Sidewalk Labs Bianca Wylie

Some of the urban-design and technology ideas in Sidewalk’s plan, from tall timber to automated shuttles, get a lot of attention. But there’s something else about the plan to consider, something less easy to grasp or see: time.

Technology companies have an interesting strategic relationship with time. When Uber arrived in Toronto years ago, it wasn’t explicitly announced as a competitor to public transit. Political leadership embraced the company, despite the way it steamrolled civic stakeholders, doing what it wanted and begging forgiveness later. In recent months, as Uber prepared a regulatory filing prior to its IPO, it stated that “its growth depends on better competing with public transportation, which it identifies as a $1 trillion market it can grab a share of over the long term.”

Beyond the fact that Uber is now competing with public transit, the regulatory vacuum from which it emerged created other unresolved issues that have become clearer over time, including its impact on congestion, public safety and labour. With Uber, corporate capture of our regulatory environments occurred in two distinct ways through the use of time. First, time went fast: The company went directly to the public to build a user base and support. But concurrently, time was slow to reveal the company’s long-term plan. Uber has been burning through hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital over the years to establish market position and compete with public transit. Earlier this year, it lost over a billion dollars in its first quarter as a publicly traded company. 

Uber is an example of the direct-to-consumer threat that Internet-enabled businesses pose to the democratic governance of the city. Through software and the use of time, tech companies can go straight to their users via the Internet. They build a supportive constituency for their product before it’s regulated. People get used to something they enjoy and don’t want it to change. Social norms are established before policy is created and cities are left to clean up the mess. 

Airbnb followed a similar cycle. Policy-makers are playing catch-up to deal with negative impact on rental stock and quality of life for those living in buildings with a lot of Airbnb activity. As with Uber, a supportive constituency – property owners – was created, presenting the same political challenge for regulators. The business strategy here is consistent: Tech companies use time to wedge themselves between residents and government, painting governments into difficult corners when it comes to dealing with any negative consequences that fall onto the collective. When tech companies invariably need to be reined in, political leaders are fearful of appearing anti-innovation or anti-progress.

Many potential cases of long-term privatization exist in the Sidewalk plan. In the mobility space alone, where Alphabet has a deep portfolio of subsidiary companies, there are several proposed urban innovations that fit the pattern: dynamic curbs, mobility management subscription plans, parking. The integrated mobility package subscription idea, for example, imagines a monthly plan that integrates various modes of public and private transportation, one that would “enable residents and workers to see all their trip choices in real time and pay in one place.”

A number of Sidewalk Labs’ urban innovation ideas merge the physical with the digital at a high level. Public assets are combined with hardware (such as sensors and mobile phones), software and data to create a layer of digital infrastructure. These urban innovations turn what were once publicly managed infrastructure assets into markets where mediating companies can make money. Now extend this thinking and pattern to any of the products that could be sold directly to a resident or commercial buyer in a more relaxed regulatory environment: energy, waste management, telecommunications – the list goes on. 

None of these technologies appear as privatization plays in the plan. They are presented as seemingly neutral technology products. Urban innovations. But time is the unknown. And just as with Uber and the taxi industry, the public administration regimes overseeing these infrastructures are dysfunctional. Or, as the tech industry likes to say, “ripe for disruption.”  

Sidewalk Toronto is the continuation of an arc created by decades of neglect and privatization of public assets. This round adds new features: the ruthless instincts of venture capital and monopoly power. The project as a whole brings Toronto to a distinct fork in the road. Do we want to reorganize the status quo of public infrastructure asset management through democratic or through corporate thinking? Speed has given corporate capture the advantage, but there’s time yet to correct course. 

Bianca Wylie is an open-government advocate with a dual background in technology and public engagement. She is the co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

From the foot of Yonge Street, the short trip to Sidewalk Toronto’s central office captures a city in transformation. All around the Quayside district, surface parking and vacant lots are rapidly giving way to development as construction reinvents the lakefront with new housing, offices and schools. But past the cranes and concrete, the formerly nondescript, now brightly coloured building at 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East envisions another kind of city. 

Inside, an ambitious concept of future life plays out in renderings, prototypes and scale models. Promising a mix of public and market-rate housing tailored to diverse demographics, prefab timber-frame buildings are complemented by dynamic, pedestrian-oriented public spaces. Futuristic servicing and water-management innovations round out this staggeringly comprehensive view of urbanity – one where even washing machines are streamlined into Sidewalk’s on-site power generation.

How can we assess it all? On urban development merits, it’s a compelling pitch. Writing in New York magazine, Justin Davidson argued that “Quayside is the new city that Hudson Yards might have been: mixed, flexible and humane.” Urbanist Richard Florida took it a step further, writing in the Globe and Mail that Sidewalk “can be the catalytic anchor company that can propel Toronto to the top of the heap in…‘urban tech.’ ” Though we only have hypothetical renderings to go by, it’s hard not to get excited when the likes of Snøhetta, Heatherwick Studio and the mass-timber pioneers at Michael Green Architecture have had a hand in creating them. Even disparaging editorials take on an implicit note of optimism when paired with these images of utopia. 

Sidewalk Labs, Sidewalk Toronto, wood framed buildings rendering

All the while, Sidewalk struggles to control the narrative. Despite community engagement efforts far beyond the scope of most Toronto development projects, Sidewalk Toronto remains mired in controversy. A robust public consultation process has helped refine the plans, with some 21,000 Torontonians having participated in community meetings. Sidewalk’s 307 hub – opened in 2018 – provides a year-round venue for discussion and debate. In the name of transparency, Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff has even repeatedly invited Torontonians to “Ask Me Anything” via Reddit. But for all the outreach, doubts persist.

Compared to the myriad construction projects on the site’s doorstep (which shy away from Sidewalk’s architectural and urban ambitions), the project has faced outsized scrutiny. Understandably so. Cameras and sensors would be everywhere, capturing a wealth of data to “optimize” everything from the layout of the street to the availability of retail space. The spectre of surveillance capitalism continues to dominate the discourse – a problem that’s plagued the project from the start, despite Sidewalk’s deepening commitment to protecting privacy through an externally managed data trust. Outside 307, an Apple billboard looming over the site addresses the dissension, proclaiming, “We’re in the business of staying out of yours.” 

While data privacy monopolizes the public consciousness, the project’s problems are far more fundamental. They are rooted in the very first step taken to create the partnership between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs: In early 2017, a request for proposals from tripartite government agency Waterfront Toronto called for “an innovation and funding partner” to spur the development of the five-hectare Quayside site. With the goal of developing a test bed for new urban technologies, the RFP also touts the sharing of revenue from new intellectual property derived from the project. The government sought a partner to develop ideas and share in revenue. Sidewalk Labs fit the bill.

Before Sidewalk’s bid was selected, the RFP should have anticipated what was to come. The innovation and funding partner was tasked with both identifying urban problems and proposing their solutions, partially divorcing the terms of innovation from public control. Sidewalk’s technologies and its proposed model of revenue-sharing and governance merely fulfill the request of all three levels of government. In exchange for accepting a degree of risk, responsibility, monetary investment and stewardship, the Google affiliate has promised Toronto the city of the future. Is it worth it? 

The Quayside project’s awkward genesis makes any points of comparison fundamentally incongruent. Can we weigh ostensibly progressive urbanism against corporate control of governance and tax revenue? How much privacy should we give up in exchange for sustainable architecture or pedestrian-friendly streets? The questions are frustratingly abstruse, but the impasse in answering them is itself illuminating. In Toronto, the debate about the future of the city cannot hinge on the merits of urban technology alone; it must also consider the corporate forces that shape its implementation. Long before a single brick – or high-tech prefabricated wooden beam – is placed, Sidewalk Labs laid out the terms of the smart-city era. 

Stefan Novakovic is Azure’s web editor.