The Future of Cities? Alphabet to Create a Tech Neighborhood in Toronto

The future of the city is here. Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, won a public competition to design a neighborhood by Lake Ontario. The competition was held by Waterfront Toronto, a government-created organization, with the goal of revamping the area while addressing issues such as urban sprawl and transportation. The initial space is a 12-acre plot, which is part of a larger 80-acre plot that Sidewalk Labs hopes to help develop in the future. Sidewalk Labs will be working with policymakers, academics, and activists on this project for which the planning phase is expected to last one year.

Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs and former deputy mayor of New York City, says he envisions this as “a place where the streets literally come alive with activity.” The city of Toronto has committed $1.25 billion in funds for roadwork and other infrastructure as well as flood prevention. Sidewalk Labs has invested $50 million already in the project, and Doctoroff is apparently not worried about money; he stated that profit can be made from technology licensing and development. Meanwhile Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the project would bring well-paying jobs to the city by creating an “innovation hub.”

Design ideas

The future neighborhood, dubbed “Quayside,” is currently home to industrial buildings and parking lots. However, once finished it will include a variety of tech-savvy and environmentally-friendly innovations. In terms of transportation these include heated sidewalks and bike paths to melt snow, self-driving buses (Alphabet also owns Wymo, which is a self-driving car company), and shared-ride taxibots. In addition there will be narrower streets with less cars and more room for public spaces like parks.

As for construction, the buildings will be modular units made of plastic instead of lumber and steel to increase affordability and to make them easier to change. Underground channels will be used for trash collection, package delivery, and for utility maintenance. Inhabitants will have user accounts with which they will be able to access public facilities such as the gym, request utility maintenance, or even ask the neighbors to tone down the noise.

There will also be climate-friendly energy systems, adaptive traffic lights, and continuous improvement through data collection and analysis. This data will come from sensors collecting information about traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output.

Criticisms and possible problems

There are, naturally, many criticisms and concerns about the project. ACORN Canada (an organization which advocates for moderate– to low-income families) cautions that there is already a housing crisis, and making an expensive neighborhood for wealthy techies won’t help with that. The tech industry has a history of worsening housing problems as in the Bay Area in California where workers from Silicon Valley have caused housing prices to skyrocket, causing a crisis. It is essential that Quayside, as part of a city, also be geared towards the elderly, the disabled, and generally people of diverse races and income levels – not the people who typically work at tech companies.

Another worry is that it is a means for Google to collect data on people, which could leave people open to violations of privacy. In response to this concern, Doctoroff has said that the data collection will only be used to improve the quality of life in Quayside, and that privacy can be built into every aspect of the neighborhood.

Since this kind of neighborhood is new and unique, no doubt many issues will arise and new policy will have to be written to regulate this kind of hi-tech housing district. Ideally its built-in flexibility will allow it to be adaptable and overcome such issues. In any case, it will be interesting to see the evolution of this futuristic neighborhood.

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