Google looks to disrupt Toronto's urban planning

'The situation appears messy'

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In Toronto, there are plans to convert a 12-acre portion of the city’s waterfront into a vibrant urban community to act as a destination for startups, residents and tourists alike. But this planned neighborhood, known as Quayside, is gaining exposure not because of its urban designs, but because of the company that’s leading the plans. 

Last fall, Waterfront Toronto—a nonprofit corporation with authority by the City of Toronto to make development decisions on behalf of the city—secured a deal with Google to develop Quayside into a waterfront community. This agreement was set forth without input from city officials, making it a central problem for Toronto’s waterfront development. 

In an investigation by Wired, it appears that Google’s plans are more ambitious than initially realized, as Google’s intention is to expand into other areas of Toronto, making it a game changer in the urban planning arena. But this planned expansion is not without its faults, as the plans look to dominate the city’s design efforts. 

“Now the situation appears messy: The details of the arrangement are not public, the planning process is being paid for by Google, and Google won’t continue funding that process unless government authorities promise they’ll reach a final agreement that aligns with Google’s interests,” notes Wired. “Those interests include Google's desire to expand its Toronto experiments beyond that 12-acre Quayside plot.” 

Google’s vision for Quayside is to develop a community that marries urban design with digital technology as a means to address the challenges facing cities including energy dependence, increasing housing prices, and mobility.

“It will be a place that embraces adaptable buildings and new construction methods to make housing and retail space more affordable,” notes the Sidewalk Toronto website. “A place where people-centred street designs and a range of transportation options make getting around more affordable, safe, and convenient than the private car.” 

This people-centered approach sounds like a great idea, until you realize that Google (and its parent company Alphabet), have developed plans to renovate a large portion of Toronto’s waterfront community without input from city officials. As far as we know, this also means no public meetings took place and no citizens were given the chance to offer feedback on the proposed plans. 

Sidewalk Labs did hold a “town hall” meeting in November, but as the video of the meeting shows, this was more similar to a TED Talk than a community planning meeting. 

The effort by Sidewalk Labs and Google is similar to the challenges New York City residents faced during the time of Robert Moses, when it seemed justified to go above the will and desires of the people as a means to do what was right for big business. Google’s involvement in city planning is more of a business plan and less of a city design measure. 

According to Wired, it’s unclear whether the City of Toronto will gain from the partnership with Google, but adds: “Meanwhile, Google will be gaining insights about urban life—including energy use, transit effectiveness, climate mitigation strategies, and social service delivery patterns—that it will then be able to resell to cities around the world. Including, perhaps, Toronto itself.” As an effect, Google is monopolizing the planning of Quayside in an effort to gain data that can be used and sold to other cities for a profit. 

I believe that data can benefit cities—improving mobility, reducing the impacts of climate change, and helping reduce our dependence on energy, but the backdoor approach Google is taking turns a blind eye to the needs and desires of residents. These plans are certain to make Google money, but will they benefit Toronto? Time will tell. 

Ash Blankenship