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Smart City or City Smart?

Thursday, Juli 7, 2022

Toronto is trying to move beyond Sidewalk Lab’s failed attempt to build a tech-laden smart city block by emphasising nature instead of tech.

The derelict 4.9-hectare area of Toronto, known as Quayside, sits between an expressway and Lake Ontario. It is a prime area for development: only 1.5 kilometres from the city centre, right on the water edge, in a thriving city with high demand for housing. That was no doubt the reason why this location was identified in 2017 as an excellent spot by Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet urban innovation company, for creating a smart city in a city. 

Sidewalk’s plans were high-tech and designed to maximize efficiency and data. There were going to be robotaxis, autonomous garbage collection, and many other services that built upon a layer of data collection that would be built into the infrastructure. But the plan was hotly contested from the get-go. Residents didn’t like it. “The project’s tech-first approach antagonized many; its seeming lack of seriousness about the privacy concerns of Torontonians was likely the main cause of its demise.” In 2020 Sidewalk Labs left the project, claiming “unprecedented economic uncertainty brought on by the covid-19 pandemic.” 

Waterfront Toronto, the agency formed in 2001 and tasked with developing the waterfront areas of Toronto, is approaching the development of Quayside in a different way. The renderings it released in February emphasize greenery and people. Noticeably missing are high-tech gadgets that are so often seen in promotions of city planning these days, such as, drones and autonomous vehicles.  

Personal Comment:

Cities today, such as Toronto, are facing pressures from several directions. Often mentioned, from a transportation perspective, are congestion, emissions, and accessibility. Reducing congestion and emissions while simultaneously increasing accessibility are usually front and centre when it comes to the transportation dimensions of smart city proposals, and this was no different for Sidewalk Labs. 

The Waterfront project is less direct about these issues but does address them, or at least two of them. The project promises to deliver carbon-neutral buildings and full electrification, which implies a well thought out charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. This, along with extensive greenery would reduce emissions. It also obliquely says something about accessibility, claiming that the development will be “one that is truly liveable, affordable, and sustainable” as well as promising 800 affordable homes. With respect to congestion there is no word yet. The lack of details, for example there is no specified number of buildings yet might not be surprising, seeing as the planned projects won’t be approved until late 2022.

As the article points out an overemphasis on technology and technical solutions can lead to mismatches between solutions and those who actually need to use the product or system, in this case, live in the city. However, too little emphasis on technical aspects and solutions is possible as well. When the more detailed plans are released, it will be interesting to see how they plan to address congestion, emissions, and accessibility in this greener, maybe even smarter, version of a city. 

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems