Here’s what stands in the way of Sidewalk Labs’ plans for the Port Lands

OPINION: The company unveiled its plan this week. It’s bold and high-tech — but not everyone’s embracing it
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 25, 2019
artist rendering of proposed Toronto waterfront project
Rendering of Parliament Slip during summer. (Picture Plane for Heatherwick Studio for Sidewalk Labs)

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A confession of bias: on paper, I think the plan that Sidewalk Labs has produced for Toronto’s Port Lands is pretty neat. I developed my love of reading through science fiction, so a compelling vision of the positive power of new technology will always push just the right buttons in my brain. But Sidewalk Labs will have to convince more than just an admittedly dorky writer, and it’s not clear that it’ll be able to close the deal.

A good 90 per cent of the plan that Sidewalk Labs unveiled yesterday in Toronto is an attempt to answer two of the key questions facing 21st-century cities: How can we house people affordably, and how can we do so in a climate-friendly way?

That leaves the other 10 per cent, which focuses on the pervasive digital monitoring and communications that Sidewalk says are a necessary complement to the dense, walkable, transit-oriented neighbourhood it wants to build. They loom large in this debate: it’s difficult to imagine that Sidewalk would be interested in this exercise if it weren’t for the chance to build permanent digital infrastructure in one of North America’s fastest-growing cities; it’s just as difficult to imagine that its critics would be as fierce if the digital stuff — and the privacy concerns it raises — weren’t part of the equation.

The problem for Sidewalk Labs isn’t just its plan — it’s the company’s parents: Alphabet is the global multinational behind both Sidewalk and Google, and Sidewalk’s plans for a data-rich, high-tech district on the Lake Ontario shore have become bound up with the sins of massive corporations in the internet age. Sidewalk says that things like smarter traffic signals could prioritize pedestrians with mobility issues over car traffic; skeptics worry that, once Google gets its claws into the basic infrastructure of the city, those traffic lights will form part of a new panopticon, a new layer of surveillance that it’s not possible to opt out of. (Sidewalk Labs has enthusiastically adopted the idea of a publicly managed data trust that would manage all the data gathered by the proposed development and has adopted “guidelines” indicating that data won’t be used for advertising. Critics like the grassroots-opposition group BlockSidewalk aren’t convinced.)

But the most important revelation on Monday had nothing to do with the glossy plan unveiled by Sidewalk Labs — it had to do with the reaction from Waterfront Toronto (which is nominally in charge of this process). Last fall, the Ford government purged the provincial appointees from the Waterfront Toronto board in the wake of a damning report from the auditor general, and it’s taken a while for those bodies to be replaced. Developer Stephen Diamond was appointed as the agency’s new chair in February, and a new permanent CEO — George Zegarac, a long-time provincial public servant — was named only last week.

In a letter made public yesterday afternoon, Diamond raised a number of concerns about Sidewalk Labs’ plan — among them, that the company’s expressed interest in developing the broader Port Lands (rather than simply the small slice Waterfront Toronto had previously agreed to) is “premature,” that the plan requires policy changes from other levels of government, and that Sidewalk can’t be guaranteed the role of lead developer. If the folks at Sidewalk Labs were hoping to be greeted with chocolates and champagne, they were in for a disappointment.

Meanwhile, at Queen’s Park, it’s status quo, and that’s more bad news for Sidewalk Labs. The recent cabinet shuffle hasn’t changed much. Newly minted minister of labour Laurie Scott told TVO.org via email, “Our government continues to be guided by three principles when it comes to waterfront development: respect for taxpayer dollars, strong administrative oversight and the protection of people’s privacy.” That’s nearly the same thing then-minister of infrastructure Monte McNaughton said back in February, when the government was also saying things like “Never in a million years would we provide our approval” for Sidewalk’s plans. (Though Scott omitted that part yesterday.)

A lot of the argument over the future of the Port Lands will happen at the local level, and that’s reasonable enough: it’s Toronto residents and politicians who will be most directly affected by the outcome. But, in the background, you’ve got a provincial government that is skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, the entire Sidewalk Labs endeavour. Those attitudes are reflected, to an extent, in the province’s appointees at Waterfront Toronto, who are taking a much more cautious line with the Quayside plan than did their predecessors (who, remember, started this whole ball rolling in ways that Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found disquieting).

Can Sidewalk Labs get Queen’s Park to yes? And what would that look like? We still don’t know.

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