Back to the future: Google’s vision for Toronto is straight out of the 19th century

OPINION: For all their whiz-bang technological promise, the company’s waterfront plans are built on Victorian wisdom, writes John Michael McGrath. So why do we need Google’s help?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on October 20, 2017
aerial view of the eastern waterfront in Toronto
The plan from Sidewalk Labs involves almost five hectares of new development that would both anchor and open up the larger Port Lands area. (Sidewalk Toronto)

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Say this for Google: it’s no Amazon. While the online retailer is making cities line up and beg for its new headquarters, the online search giant’s latest big announcement has left the City of Toronto more or less in the driver’s seat.

Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google (both are owned by Alphabet, and that’s enough corporate taxonomy for now), announced alongside Waterfront Toronto and the leaders of three levels of government that it’s proposing to build a new “smart city” neighbourhood along Toronto’s eastern waterfront. In contrast to Amazon’s strategy of announcing its intent to build a new headquarters and then having cities bid for the privilege, Sidewalk is responding to a process Waterfront Toronto initiated.

The announcement this week won’t put a shovel in the ground any time soon: rather, it’s the start of a year-long consultation and planning process that will inevitably result in many of the details of Sidewalk’s plan being changed or negotiated away. The glossy imaginings of this week will not, in all likelihood, be reflected in what actually ends up being built.

The proposal, laid out in hundreds of pages on Waterfront Toronto’s website, is certainly ambitious. The data-rich neighbourhood it imagines would combine new data and sensor technology with advanced building techniques and energy technologies, providing almost five hectares of new development that would both anchor and open up the larger Port Lands area, which makes up of hundreds of hectares of post-industrial land along the lakeshore.

But scratch the surface a bit — beneath the wifi and fibre optics and glossy promises of a 21st-century city — and you’ll find that the bones of Sidewalk’s proposal for the neighbourhood, dubbed “Quayside,” are surprisingly Victorian.

When it comes to transportation, for example, the plan relies overwhelmingly on long-established methods: streetcars (Toronto’s had streetcars for longer than Canada has been a country); bicycles (mass ownership in the 1880s); and walking (hominid bipedalism: 4 million years and counting).

It goes on like this. The core green-energy technology in the Quayside plan is an updated form of district heating: multiple buildings share steam from dedicated plants, or use the waste heat from things like power plants or sewage treatment facilities (fortunately, the city’s eastern waterfront has both). But it’s not a new technology. New York’s steam utility has been operating since the 1880s, and it isn’t even the oldest system of its kind out there. Sidewalk is proposing a more flexible system, one combining energy from multiple sources of heat and intelligently balancing demand, but the basics would have been understood by anyone reading about President Rutherford B. Hayes in their morning paper.


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Things get more complicated when it comes to the buildings themselves: Sidewalk is proposing mass-produced, modular structures that will (hopefully) reduce real estate costs. The real-world example of the kind of spaces envisioned in the Quayside plan? The industrial lofts and warehouses that litter pre-Second World War city cores and have in recent years been repurposed for multiple new uses.

This aspect of the plan draws on one of Toronto’s greatest strengths — the “Two Kings” plan from the 1990s, which explicitly encouraged the re-use of old industrial zones, has been arguably the city’s biggest planning success — but it also suggests that what Google is really looking for is a city built the way we used to build them. What the data mongers of the 21st century are drawing from here is the wisdom of the ancients.

Building a better city along the lines of Toronto’s vibrant core won’t be an onerous undertaking, or at least it shouldn’t be. What is likely to create acrimony, both public and administrative, are the governance issues related to Quayside, and potentially the rest of the Port Lands.

Take those flexible modular buildings: Sidewalk’s vision document suggests collapsing 80 per cent of the city’s zoning categories into one single type so that an office or microbrewery could be changed into a daycare or an apartment without having to seek the city’s permission for every change. But the whole reason the existing zoning rules came to be is that the city wants to be consulted about every change, and wants the option to say no.

Then there are the inevitable privacy questions: Google wouldn’t own every building in Quayside, but the tech giant could certainly end up wired into the intensely wired community. The company’s home speakers have already been linked to privacy breaches, but people can at least choose not to buy them. What happens if the company ends up integrated into utilities people can’t opt out of?

All that said, Waterfront Toronto clearly thinks Sidewalk’s vision is a compelling one. But there’s literally nothing in the plan that requires it to work with Google to pull off the most important parts. If the three levels of government who were present at Google’s big unveiling this week are interested in testing out a district with radically simplified zoning and regulations to allow property owners to meet shifting market demands more easily, they could do so on their own tomorrow. But it’s not clear that any level of government actually thinks it’s a good idea, even if they are willing to entertain the possibility when it’s proposed by a corporate giant promising money, technological wizardry, and new jobs.

Similarly, if the city wants to extend the existing transit network into the eastern waterfront, it could use the funds already obtained through development charges to do just that. All that’s needed is a city council willing to live up to the promises of the transit plans that already exist.

If a multinational corporation is what it takes to kick Toronto in the pants and think about these things seriously, fair enough. But working with Sidewalk is going to come with costs, too: at minimum, some level of explicit corporate input into city planning. Toronto has usually been hostile to such an arrangement — but maybe it will realize it was worth it if the impressive Quayside vision materializes in its most ambitious form.

Even if the negotiations fall apart thanks to Google’s demands or the city’s recalcitrance, there’s still good news: the most important parts of Sidewalk’s plans, the parts that would most determine whether the city’s eastern waterfront becomes a livable, green place that could accommodate Toronto’s burgeoning growth, don’t require Google’s impressive piles of money at all. The city could do it on its own — if it actually wants to.


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