Sidewalk Labs has unveiled its bold vision for Quayside. Just don't ask how it'll get built

After Sidewalk Labs revealed its most detailed plans to transform a 12-acre site on Toronto's waterfront, major questions remain about how the company will turn its bold ideas into a real neighbourhood.

Google sister company hasn't said how it'll pay for the project, or how it'll use personal data

Sidewalk Labs wants to build pedestrian bridges, floating barges and outdoor projection screens in Quayside. (Sidewalk Labs)

It would be a neighbourhood unlike anything Toronto, and perhaps the world, has ever seen.

On the ground, there will be hexagonal, modular pavement tiles that can melt away ice and change colour to alter traffic flow.

At street level, pedestrians will shop and mingle in dynamic, shifting spaces inspired by the meeting places of ancient Greece.

Above them, wooden towers will stretch up to 30 storeys into the sky with extendable "rain jackets" to protect outdoor spaces from inclement weather.

The bold concepts were unveiled earlier this week by Sidewalk Labs, the Google-affiliated company that's been tasked with transforming a barren, 12-acre waterfront property into a visionary "smart city."

While the company's plan now includes everything from detailed renderings to proposals for construction materials, major questions remain about how Sidewalk Labs will turn its bold ideas into a real neighbourhood.

"What you're seeing is a lot of proposals to push the boundaries," said Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto.

What's less clear, he says, is how Sidewalk Labs will execute its ideas, monitor people in the neighbourhood, and secure enough money to bring everything to life.

"People are very interested in how the revenue works on this, where does the money come from to pay for all of these innovations," said Siemiatycki, who's been working as an independent adviser on the project.

The proposed pavement design features modular tiles that will allow for quicker repairs. They may also be able to change colours and heat up to melt ice. (Sidewalk Labs)

Master plan due by end of year

Some of those details are expected in Sidewalk Labs' Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), which is due before the end of 2018.

Sidewalk Labs says it is now beginning to shift its focus from conceptual ideas to a realistic development plan.

"A lot of the early work has been focused on trying to understand what might be possible, what could be the type of experience that we could create here," said Sidewalk Labs' public realm director Jesse Shapins.

"Implementing this is going to be a different challenge and we're working closely to explore a lot of partnerships for how to make that possible," he said, noting that that work is still in its early stages.

The financial plan will be vetted by Waterfront Toronto, the tri-governmental agency that oversees development in the area and awarded the Quayside project to Sidewalk Labs.

Matti Siemiatycki says the key 'is to bring the community on board at every stage and to be transparent about what ideas you’re really considering.' (University of Toronto)

The organization says Sidewalk Labs will have to meet a series of requirements for work to go ahead.

"We have to check the feasibility of the actual construction technologies, the materials, all the innovative approaches," said Meg Davis, Waterfront Toronto's chief development officer. 

"Can they a​ctually achieve the expectations that we have? And then, if they can, what is the financial feasibility of that."

How will personal data be used?

Waterfront Toronto says the master plan will also have to meet strict privacy requirements, and the organization promised that data collected will be used "to improve the public experience," and not, for example, to sell advertising.

However, experts watching the project say some type of data collection or monitoring of people in the neighbourhood is likely to be at least a component of the project's revenue plan.

"You're going to see a variety of different revenue streams," said Siemiatycki. "The data is the open question."

Building jackets will extend to protect pedestrians during bad weather. (Sidewalk Labs)

Those concerns have grown since the Associated Press recently revealed that sister company Google continued to track its users movements after they explicitly told the company not to.

"We're very sensitive and aware of those issues and we are monitoring the sister company's activities as well," said Kristina Verner, Waterfront Toronto's vice president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity.

Sidewalk Labs says parent company Alphabet Inc. — which was created as part of a Google restructuring in 2015 — has been clear about its intentions with the project.

"[Alphabet] is very focused on the outcomes, and what's possible when applying this type of approach to building cities," said Shapins.


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