Toronto Rejects High-Tech ‘Smart City’ for Something More Livable on Its Waterfront  

The last place I’d expect to see a feature about Toronto rejecting a “smart city” proposal in favor of a green oasis would be MIT’s Technology Review, but there it is in the July/August 2022 issue of the magazine. It’s a fascinating study of how technology lost out to human scale sustainable development on prime real estate in Canada’s largest city.

The original 2017 proposal for the 12-acre plot between an expressway and Lake Ontario was for it “to become a hub for an optimized urban experience featuring robo-taxis, heated sidewalks, autonomous garbage collection, and an extensive digital layer to monitor everything from street crossings to park bench usage,” according to the article. The proposal, appropriately, came from a sister company of Google, Sidewalk Labs, which is the urban innovation arm of Alphabet. Click here to read the full article.

The idea was that this development would be a “proof of concept, establishing a new development model for cities everywhere. It could have demonstrated that the sensor-laden smart city model embraced in China and the Persian Gulf has a place in more democratic societies.”

After a 2½-year effort to sell the concept to Toronto’s citizenry, Sidewalk Labs abandoned the idea, blaming it on Covid-19, but citizen blowback was the reason.

Personally, I like the idea of a “smart city,” especially when it comes to traffic control. For example, I like traffic lights to respond to traffic and minimize wait times. But some of the “smart city” concepts, such as robo-taxis, sound more like the product of “geeks gone wild,” rather than a development to improve city life.

The rendering of Toronto’s replacement plan, adopted in February 2022, warms my heart. The plan is delightfully low tech, yet it incorporates a design that is “zero carbon,” or what we call “net zero energy.”

This quote says it all: “The real problem is that with their emphasis on the optimization of everything, smart cities seem designed to eradicate the very thing that makes cities wonderful.

Interestingly, Technology Review had cited the original Toronto proposal in its 2018 article about “10 breakthrough technologies,” writing that “Sidewalk Labs could reshape how we live, work, and play in urban neighborhoods.” The architectural critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail chimed in, praising the 2017 concept as an exciting approach to urban development.

Renderings such as the one above “show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an auton-omous vehicle or drone in sight. The project’s highly ac-complished design team… all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat.” The new project design, according to the article, is “a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.”

One of the city planners summed it up: “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…. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming.” 

A comment by one of the developers caught my attention. “In the U.S. it’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…. In Canada it’s peace, order, and good government. Canadians don’t expect the private sector to come in and save us from government, because we have high trust in government.”