Quayside illustration

Thoughts on the Sidewalk Labs Vision for Waterfront Toronto

If you’re an urban planner, city official, or just an aspiring urbanist like me, you’ll no doubt have heard the big news from Toronto – Waterfront Toronto recently chose Sidewalk Labs as their partner to redevelop Quayside, a neighbourhood with enormous potential right to the east of the downtown core.

I’ve followed Sidewalk Labs for some time as they sought a site to build out their vision for the future of cities, and I’m a fan of Canadian cities overall – so this is a particularly exciting development for me. Canadian cities already rank astoundingly high for livability (Toronto recently came in 4th in a global livability report), and this new endeavor is likely going to solidify their place for decades to come.

As an active student of modern urbanism (who should have pursued a minor in planning when I had the chance), I’m always eager to stay abreast of all the current trends and best practices in city planning. I knew that Sidewalk’s response to Waterfront Toronto’s RFP would contain a forward-thinking vision that could push the field of urban innovation in new directions, and it did not disappoint.

I went through the 196-page (!!) public vision document and found quite a few intriguing ideas – some that were new applications of existing technology (e.g. self-driving taxibots) and some that were radically ambitious (e.g. overhauling building codes to be metric outcomes-based). I’ll share some of my feedback for the vision below, including questions I’d raise with Sidewalk regarding the feasibility/scalability of some of their proposals.

Digital Layer

Digital Layer

The “digital layer” refers to Sidewalk’s open platform upon which applications (both first and third party) are built. They are promising APIs to allow access to the following services:

  • Sense – the (anonymized) fine-grained data that comes from a network of IoT devices embedded all over the district
  • Model – the “SimCity” component that allows simulation of new solutions without actually deploying them
  • Map – a real-time record of all physical objects (buildings, taxibots, etc) to enable efficient mobility and resource management
  • Account – user details for each resident and municipal staff, including access permissions and social features

While I applaud Sidewalk for building this as a platform from the ground up (thus enabling anyone to add value and innovate in ways even Sidewalk can’t imagine), there are a lot of inherent risks in this approach. Some of the things Sidewalk will want to consider and design for:

  • Hackers. Creating open APIs naturally means there will be more surface area to attack in the system. Sidewalk will need to make their services robust against spammers as well as those that see this as an opportunity for user data and infrastructure access. (Terrorists shutting down utility services comes to mind.)
  • Excessive data access. The temptation to make everything open will be strong, but expose too much and eventually user privacy is compromised. Sidewalk has a great stance on safeguarding and anonymizing user data already, but more data exposed = more risk in general. (Example that comes to mind: Facebook originally offered developers unfettered access to Friend Lists but had to scale that back after users discovered they were being used for spam.)
  • Stable API definitions. One surefire way to piss off developers is to announce a set of APIs and then change them often as your platform evolves. (Facebook is another example here where many early versions of apps suddenly became unusable as API-breaking changes were implemented.)

That said, I’m sure Sidewalk will consult or hire those with experience building platforms as this is a central piece of their vision for Quayside. I am particularly encouraged that they are willing to engage the University of Toronto for advice as well as to create a pipeline for students’ ideas.

Longer term, I’m also impressed that the team is thinking about transferability – that is, the potential for the platform to be exportable to other cities, thus sparking the birth of a new “urban innovation” industry. I believe their efforts to draw entrepreneurs to Toronto for this purpose will be successful, given that they are prepared to lead the way by ‘seeding’ their platform with compelling applications first. I do wonder how transferable the platform will be in the end, given that it will certainly take a lot of upfront infrastructure work to set up the same physical baseline that Quayside will have.

Buildings and Affordability

It is certainly admirable that Sidewalk aims for a truly ‘inclusive’ community that has housing for all income levels. Housing affordability is certainly the #1 challenge for North American cities today. However, I’m not quite convinced that the implementation of Sidewalk’s plan will result in the broad availability of affordable housing the way they imagine.

Modular construction, tall timber, and the very intriguing “Loft” concept (where every building can be easily and cheaply reconfigured for different purposes) will certainly drive down costs of building new housing, but the high costs of housing are due to so many factors beyond that. Foreign money, government policies that encourage homeownership-as-investment, and the physical land limitations of a singular downtown core are all factors that drive up prices. Of course, I wouldn’t expect Sidewalk to have the ability to address these all on their own, but it would help if they did some studies on how much housing prices in Toronto are driven by these different factors to compare with Sidewalk’s expected impact.

While Sidewalk states that they don’t want Quayside to turn into a tech enclave, I’m not sure they can entirely prevent that – especially if Google Canada is the first anchor tenant. :O Demand for housing in Quayside will be through the roof, given how limited space is (I’m not seeing as much density in the concepts as in the downtown core) and how Quayside positions itself as an extremely desirable place to live. How does Sidewalk prevent the wealthiest from outbidding everyone else for a piece of this? How many people are expected to reside/work/travel in Quayside on average anyway?

One suggestion: Go far beyond the quota of 20% affordable housing – consider Singapore’s model of making ~95% of housing public and lottery-driven. That would be truly unprecedented in North America and give Quayside a real shot at the diversity Sidewalk strives for.

Another suggestion: Convince Toronto to follow the path of Sydney or Tokyo and encourage the development of additional downtown cores. Spreading demand out like this will ease the pressure on Quayside as the exclusive next frontier for the city.

Mobility

I have some personal bias against ride sharing services, but I’ll put that aside for now and consider Sidewalk’s mobility plan as a reimagining of what those services could look like.

I’m definitely a fan of Sidewalk’s model of “mobility-as-a-service” – providing many options for getting around and better informing the citizen of the costs/tradeoffs of their choices. A goal to have 75% of all trips made by walking, bicycling, or transit is fantastic – and there were some great ideas on weather mitigation to make these choices more appealing.

What I felt was lacking from the vision was a focus on mass transit. Taxibots and shuttles will work for a certain population size, but do they scale well as more people move to Quayside? Or when there’s a large event that everyone wants to go to? I understand that the vision calls for congestion tracking and smart re-routing of self-driving vehicles (a “Ground Traffic Control System”), but there has got to be a physical limit here. At some point, Sidewalk needs to consider higher-capacity transit – i.e. BRT or trains. While Sidewalk does refer to some existing transit lines they would like extended to Quayside, they don’t go into much detail about how they should be laid out across the Eastern Waterfront area. Is the belief really that taxibots will be enough?

Related: Recent research shows increased ride-hailing adoption actually cannibalizes use of public transit, biking, and walking and increases the number of vehicle-miles travelled overall. Sidewalk suggests that their system will do the opposite, cutting vehicle-kilometers travelled. Is this savings rationalized simply with the increased sharing and smarter traffic system?

Also related: I know this came out right around the same time as the Toronto announcement, but has Sidewalk looked into this Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism by the National Association of City Transportation Officials?

Another smaller quibble: the vision calls for a plethora of bike share stations, but why was there no consideration of the new dock-less alternatives? (see newcomers Ofo or Limebike) The irony in missing this lies in the fact that Google’s headquarters in Mountain View features shared bikes with no docks. 🙂

Miscellaneous

Here are a few other notes I took as I combed through the vision document.

    • Sidewalk seems to be giving mixed signals regarding how streets should be laid out. Here are a few illustrations: So are they a proponent of a gridded layout or not? Or perhaps the idea is to have all streets dynamically configurable for different use cases, just like the buildings? And what about the classic Jane Jacobs favourite – laneways? (Is it just me or are they indistinguishable from “Promenades” in the vision document?)

 

    • Regarding reservable public space – I’m reminded of this debacle that happened in San Francisco when a group from Dropbox tried to reserve a soccer field… Not taking sides here, but what can we do to ensure this kind of conflict doesn’t happen in Quayside?

 

    • There is a hope in the vision for a network of neighbourhoods across the Eastern Waterfront – each one feeling unique, with their own identities. But they are all clearly going to be offspring of Quayside, so I’m not sure why they would result in anything substantially different. How does Sidewalk plan to encourage the kind of organic (versus planned) growth that leads to more unique neighbourhoods?

 

    • There are a lot of assumptions about human behaviour made in the vision document in general – that people will choose their transit options rationally, that they will curtail their energy use when presented with live data, that they will live in shared spaces in harmony, etc. Some of these are backed by research and some don’t seem to be. What steps are taken to account for potentially irrational behaviour or unpredictable human psychology overall?

 

    • To bring this vision to life will require an unprecedented amount of coordination between local, provincial, and federal governments. While the folks at Sidewalk Labs certainly have the track record (from New York City), what are the contingency plans if roadblocks are hit? What if Waterfront Toronto isn’t as prepared to push some of Sidewalk’s more ambitious plans?

 

Despite the barrage of questions and concerns I’ve outlined here, I’m still extremely bullish on this project and hope that the pilot year is a huge success for both Sidewalk Labs and Toronto. The mission to redefine what a city can be is a worthy one. In a world where people are starting to become wary of technology (rightfully so), it’s good to see a company stand for solving real problems and improving the day-to-day lives of real people.

Continue watching this space for more analysis, and of course I’ll continue watching Sidewalk to see what they accomplish for Toronto!


Also published on Medium.

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