Last month, at an event in San Francisco, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff discussed how his company—a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet—was pursuing one of the tech industry’s recurring fantasies: building its own city. Sidewalk was looking for empty land, Doctoroff said, because “there is an inverse relationship between your capacity to innovate and the actual existence of people and buildings.” At the time, that seemed a little on the nose as a summary of the tech industry, whose leaders’ grasp of world-shifting hardware, software, and engineering has lately been undermined by tone-deaf responses to “the actual existence of people.”
But since Sidewalk struck a deal last week to develop an 12-acre parcel on the Toronto waterfront, Doctoroff’s observation sounds a little different. It is less that the company thinks these yokels could never appreciate this Manhattan-sourced innovation. It’s more that the most bang for your buck in city-building—even for an information company—comes in utilities and structural engineering, not putting sensors on lampposts.
Sidewalk describes its vision for Quayside in terms worthy of Blade Runner, as a city “built from the internet up … merging the physical and digital realms.” In reality, the company’s ambition lies first in the synthesis of established techniques like modular construction, timber-frame building, underground garbage disposal, and deep-water cooling. Not low-tech, but not rocket science either. Sidewalk’s success will depend on deploying those concepts at scale, beginning with a preliminary tract at Quayside but expanding—if all goes well—to Toronto’s Port Lands, a vast, underused peninsula of reclaimed land the size of downtown Toronto.
Sure, there will robots delivering packages, sensors for air quality and noise, and the deployment of a range of electronics that will help the infrastructure enable autonomous vehicles. But, says Rohit Aggarwala, Sidewalk’s head of urban systems, “I expect very little of the value we create is about information.” Indeed, a number of Sidewalk’s ideas are rather old-school: retractable, durable canopies to shelter sidewalks (hello, 11th-century Damascus); pedestrian pathways that melt snow (familiar from any ski town); composting, which is as old as human settlement itself. The company projects that managing wind, sun, and rain can “double the number of [year-round] daylight hours when it is comfortable to be outside.” The development, Doctoroff said, “is primarily a real estate play.”
The most fitting antecedent, then, is less Plan Voisin, Arcosanti, or some other utopian scheme for razing and rebuilding a society. As a synthesis of existing know-how deployed at scale and packaged for easy sale, Sidewalk Toronto is more like a modern-day Levittown. Before that Long Island GI community came to stand for Pete Seeger’s stultifying “Little Boxes,” it was the cutting edge in American construction technology and community design. And it was built that way both because the developers thought it would be nice and because they knew it could be cheap.
That’s part of the pitch for Sidewalk’s Toronto neighborhood. The company calculates the cost of living in Quayside will be 14 percent lower than the surrounding metro area. It believes timber-frame construction, modular units that can be assembled on site, microunits, and cohousing can significantly lower housing costs. Other ideas, like mixing office, production, institutional, and residential spaces together in buildings, do not draw on technology at all.
Many have tried to master-plan the vibrancy of an organic city; most have failed. You better believe a company named after Jane Jacobs has the lingo down: “The most exciting ways to activate the public realm are often a mix of traditional uses in flexible spaces,” the company’s proposal says. “The cafe that puts tables on the sidewalk, the teacher who uses a park for nature lessons, the artist who turns a street corner into a stage.” But is it really the case that that kind of street life can be built, as Sidewalk promises, on “a robust system of asset monitoring” that creates a reservation system for sidewalk space? No.
Google is not the only technology company turning its gaze toward the built environment. The startup incubator Y Combinator has expressed interest in city-building, Lyft has proposed to redesign Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and companies like Cisco and Panasonic have built “smart” city projects in Kansas City and Denver, respectively. By calling its new stores “town squares,” Apple is trying to claim the heart of the civic realm. In the New York Times, Emily Badger observes the irony in tech’s proclivity for city-building, given that “its corporate campuses are mostly models of how not to build cities”—car-dependent mega-campuses whose employees pour their salaries into a Bay Area housing market driven to astronomical prices by a homeowner cartel. “Many intractable urban problems,” she writes, “are in fact not engineering problems at all.”
That is true in Toronto, too. It’s not that no one before Sidewalk thought that bike lanes might be a smart way to help people get around this fairly flat city; it’s that the city’s former mayor thought biking in Toronto was like “swimming with sharks” and tore out bike lanes to improve car traffic. It’s not that no one before Sidewalk thought to build eight-story buildings; it’s that neighbors don’t want them. But Google might have the influence to change local codes. The Sidewalk proposal is upfront about this: Cheaper, more flexible buildings “will require a new paradigm in the building code.” New approaches to transportation and energy “may require substantial forbearances from existing laws and regulations.”
The company hasn’t been able to negotiate with local politicians during the bid process, so in some ways the real scope of the venture will be defined by whichever code reforms Sidewalk can now procure from local and regional leaders. Meg Davis, the chief development officer at Waterfront Toronto—the public agency that sponsored the RFP and selected Sidewalk—says she thinks local leaders will be amenable to code changes in the service of a carbon-neutral community. Developers, she thought, would see Google as a trailblazer rather than the recipient of special dispensation.
And the opinion of mild-mannered Torontonians, who begin a series of community meetings with Sidewalk next month? “If there’s a violent reaction,” she says of the Sidewalk project, “It’s probably something we’re going to think twice about wanting to include.”