City of the Future? Humans, Not Technology, Are the Challenge in Toronto

“There’s an enormous amount of interest and also quite a bit of concern,” said Shauna Brail, the director of the University of Toronto’s urban studies program. “It will be a political issue no matter what.”

Quayside is the most significant new project for Sidewalk Labs, an urban technologies company that is part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Set up in 2015, it is headed by Daniel L. Doctoroff, a former New York City deputy mayor and former chief executive of Bloomberg.

Mr. Doctoroff, who peppers conservations about Quayside with references to “consultation” and “transparency,” came to Toronto fully expecting concerns and criticism.

“If you’re going convince people about new ideas, they have to be a part of it,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “The whole notion of this place as a platform is apparently more democratic than, we think, traditional place-making has actually been.”

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the project will create “technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities.”Credit Chris Wattie/Reuters

During its first two years in operation, Sidewalk looked at 52 places in the United States and several others around the world for a site to begin building cities of the future, Mr. Doctoroff said. But in Toronto, the company’s interests found a match. An agency that included the federal government, the city and the province of Ontario was looking for a developer for about 800 acres of federally owned waterfront just east of downtown.

It was last developed during the 1950s, when officials hoped that the St. Lawrence Seaway would allow trade with Europe to become an integral part of Toronto’s economy.

Little of that vision came to fruition. The area is now home to overflow parking for car dealerships, an abandoned grain elevator and docks lined with small, slightly shabby cruise boats where high school prom parties are held. No one calls it home.

The current agreement between Sidewalk and the three government entities covers only 12 acres, for an initial experiment.

Sidewalk has said it will spend $50 million to hold public consultations and develop a plan. But the company has already released a series of documents laying out its plan in some detail. The company’s overall investment has not been determined.

Pretty much everything in Quayside will be reimagined. Buildings will be prefabricated for the most part, and will be highly energy-efficient; breaking with traditional zoning rules, they will not have fixed uses. A Sidewalk drawing shows a low-rise structure in which office workers and apartment dwellers share space with what appears to be a large distillery. Packages will be delivered by robot; other robots will pick up the garbage.

Private cars will be restricted in favor of self-driving cars (another area of interest for Alphabet), walking, cycling and mass transit. The wires and pipes that are the connective tissue of every city will sit inside tunnels fitted with access panels that Sidewalk claims will eliminate the need to dig up streets. Neighborhood mini-grids that do not rely on fossil fuels will supply electricity.

When it rains, or the hot summer sun beats down, massive awnings will unfold; heated paths will melt the snow to make way for cyclists in winter.

But its data-collection capability may be the greatest distinction, and source of opposition, for the Sidewalk plan.

Sensors inside buildings will measure such things as noise, while an array of cameras and outdoor sensors will track everything from air pollution to the movement of people and vehicles through intersections.

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Near Toronto’s waterfront, where the development is planned.Credit Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

Nothing is too prosaic to analyze: Toilets and sinks will report their water use; the garbage robots will report on trash collection. Residents and workers in the area will rely on Sidewalk-developed software to gain access to public services; the data gathered from everything will influence long-term planning and development.

To Mr. Doctoroff, that marriage of data and urbanism holds the key to the project’s success.

“We looked at literally about 150 different attempts to create urban innovation districts, cities of the future, smart cites.” he said. All of them, in Sidewalk’s view, failed because they could not bridge the gulf between technology and traditional urban planning.

Not long after the project was announced in October, challenges began appearing online, including in a widely discussed list of questions on The Torontoist, a local urban affairs website.

While surveillance cameras and other sensors are fixtures in many cities, Pamela Robinson, an associate professor at the school of urban planning at Ryerson University in Toronto, said Quayside’s data would differ in its extent and its collection method — by a private company rather than by government agencies. Plans for who will own that data and who will be able to access it have not been announced.

“We’ve never seen anything like this at this scale before,” Ms. Robinson said.

Ms. Robinson expressed concern that Sidewalk’s vast data might not reflect the city as a whole. Quayside’s current plans promise housing for people of all income levels. But the only company so far committed to moving there is Google Canada, suggesting an influx of young, affluent workers.

The data, Ms. Robinson warned, might be used to limit or discourage the otherwise legal use of public spaces by homeless people, teenagers or other groups.

“We don’t want to create what’s effectively a gated community,” she said.

Like many other skeptics, Ms. Robinson noted that people online can avoid the all-seeing eye of technology companies by, for example, opting not to use social media sites. No obvious way to opt out of Quayside’s surveillance systems exists, except by staying out of the area.

Beyond that, Renee Sieber, a professor of geography and environment at McGill University in Montreal, rejected Sidewalk’s belief that data analysis provided a superior way to plan cities.

“Democracy and the rights of citizens is inherently political; it’s not something you should shy away from,” said Ms. Sieber, who studies the use of data by citizen groups. “Governments need to be all about fairness.” If city government were concerned only with efficiency, she said, “you don’t send buses where it’s rural or poor.”

Sidewalk has held the first of what will be several public meetings and has acknowledged various criticisms and concerns. Politics, not technology, may prove to be its biggest challenge to building its version of tomorrow.

“We believe there’s enormous potential but we also are very sensitive to the fact that there’s going to have to be an intense community conversation,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “We’re prepared to commit the money to do the planning over the course of the next year and leave it to the people of Toronto as to whether or not they are excited by the vision.”

Follow Ian Austen on Twitter: @ianrausten

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