Toronto’s new waterfront wants to eliminate the smart city forever

Toronto's new waterfront

The city of Toronto announced plans for a new waterfront development in February. They read like a wish list for any urbanist: 800 affordable apartments, a two-acre forest, a rooftop farm, a new arts venue focused on indigenous culture, and a zero-carbon pledge.

The idea of a low-cost, off-the-grid Eden in the heart of the city sounds fantastic. However, just a few years ago, an entirely different urban utopia was planned for this same 12-acre plot known as Quayside. It was to be the location where Alphabet’s urban innovation arm, Sidewalk Labs, would demonstrate its vision for the smart city.

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If Quayside had succeeded, it could have served as a proof of concept, establishing a new development model for cities worldwide. It could have shown that the sensor-laden smart city model popular in China and the Persian Gulf has a place in more democratic societies. Instead, Sidewalk Labs’ two-and-a-half-year struggle to build a neighborhood “from the internet up” failed to convince anyone why they should live there.

buildings near body of water at night
Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

The new plan’s emphasis on wind, rain, birds, and bees rather than data appears to be a pragmatic response to the current situation. “It’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the United States,” says Alex Ryan, senior vice president of partnership solutions for the MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto nonprofit founded by a consortium of public and private funders and billed as North America’s largest urban innovation hub.
Sidewalk’s top-down approach failed to comprehend Toronto’s civic culture. Almost every person I spoke with about the project described the company’s attitude as “hubris” or “arrogance.” Some people employed both.

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Is the smart city coming to an end?

We repeatedly convince ourselves that the big idea of the moment will not only improve our daily lives, but will also cure society’s ills. In England, the “garden city” movement, launched in 1898 by urban planner Ebenezer Howard, sought to combine the advantages of both the countryside and the city. The American version, City Beautiful, sought to restore cities’ beauty and grandeur as a means of achieving a more harmonious social order. Le Corbusier’s rigid, high-density design for Paris’s never-built Ville Radieuse (Radiant City) sought urban utopia through architectural discipline. More recently, the “15-minute city” is a global movement advocating for city planning so that everyone has access to work, school, retail, and recreation within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. 

Over the last two decades, the smart city has been perhaps the dominant paradigm in urban planning. The term was coined by IBM in the hope that technology would improve the way cities functioned, but as a city-building strategy, it has been most successfully deployed under authoritarian regimes (Putin is a fan). According to critics, it overlooks the importance of humans in the pursuit of technological solutions. Even when the architectural renderings were fantastic, the smart city concept has always had issues. The phrase implies that existing cities lack brain power, despite the fact that they have historically served as incubators for culture, ideas, and intellect.

toronto waterfront

The real issue is that smart cities appear to be designed to eliminate the very thing that makes cities wonderful, with their emphasis on optimization of everything. People are drawn to the messiness, to the compelling and serendipitous interactions within a wildly diverse mix of people living in close proximity, in cities like New York, Rome, and Cairo (and Toronto). However, proponents of the smart city embraced the concept of the city as something that can be quantified and controlled.

The initial reactions to the Sidewalk project were, if not rapturous, at least upbeat. Sidewalk Labs, according to Alex Bozikovic, architecture critic for the Globe and Mail, may offer a more exciting approach to development. The project was named one of the top ten breakthrough technologies in 2018 by this publication, which stated that “Sidewalk Labs could reshape how we live, work, and play in urban neighborhoods.”

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Even those who should have been Quayside’s supporters and allies became increasingly disillusioned over time. “There was a hubris to how they thought they could solve all the problems in house,” says Ryan of the MaRS Discovery District, whose job it is to promote “innovation for the benefit of all.”

The new Waterfront Toronto project

The new Waterfront Toronto project clearly learned from the mistakes of the past. Renderings of the new Quayside plans, dubbed Quayside 2.0, released earlier this year show trees and greenery sprouting from every balcony and outcropping, with not a single autonomous vehicle or drone in sight. The project’s highly accomplished design team, led by Alison Brooks, a Canadian based in London; the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye; Matthew Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations First Nation; and the Danish firm Henning Larsen, all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city as a bucolic retreat rather than a techno-utopia.

The new Waterfront Toronto project clearly learned from the mistakes of the past
Credit: waterfronttoronto.ca

Quayside 2.0 promotes the idea that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade in every way. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so densely packed with trees that foliage appears to be a new type of architectural ornament. In the project’s promotional video, Adjaye, best known for designing the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, emphasizes the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back in favor of Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a clear rejection of not only the 2017 proposal, but also of the smart city concept itself.

To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects societal shifts from techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the technology industry has increased productivity over the last two decades, but has it improved life? Sidewalk never responded to this.

“To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto, who advised the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to set this next iteration up for success. She’s enthusiastic about the rethought plan for the area: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”

Indeed, the new plan’s philosophical shift, with its emphasis on wind and rain and birds and bees rather than data and more data, appears to be a pragmatic response to the demands of the present and near future. The question is whether this new urban Eden truly offers a solution to global warming, or whether it is “green” in the same way that a smart city is “smart.” How many pocket forests and backyard farms will it take to keep the planet cool?

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