We’re Optimistic about Quayside

Sidewalk_Labs_Rendering_Sustainability.pngSome media pundits are already expressing suspicions and doubts about plans for Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside joint venture on the Toronto waterfront. At Waterfront for All, we have a more optimistic view.

The project is a joint venture of Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, with government agency Waterfront Toronto. Sidewalk Labs will work closely with its partner Waterfront Toronto and the City to design a new kind of mixed-use, people-oriented complete community at the east end of the Harbour. Sidewalk Labs will invest $50 million US in this initial planning process.

The next year will be devoted to extensive community involvement and public consultation, focused on creating new models of affordable housing and flexible retail uses, and establishing clear governance policies related to data protection and privacy.

If all goes well, the ideas developed in the planning process for Quayside will be scaled up eventually in the much larger Port Lands, the vast area at the foot of the Don River poised for redevelopment once Waterfront Toronto completes its multiyear flood protection remediation.

Critics were quick to raise concerns that Quayside will be just a Google company town, that Sidewalk Labs will ignore or somehow get around the City’s planning process. Some pundits fear there’s a sinister hidden agenda to destroy our privacy using Orwellian hi-tech surveillance.

It seems unlikely to us that Sidewalk Labs will be able to circumvent the City’s planning process or ignore laws. The project is a joint venture with Waterfront Toronto, which over 15 or more years has developed a track record of public consultation, creative city-building and generally getting things done. Waterfront Toronto is co-owned by the three levels of government, and is accustomed to being accountable to them all, and to the public.

The project, at least for the first year, is in fact focussed entirely on public consultation. That process will result in something to be called the Master Innovation and Development Plan, which if signed off on by everyone involved including Waterfront Toronto, will be the road map for the development the 12 acre site at Quayside on Queens Quay East and potentially for the larger Port Lands.

That plan, or future derivations, may have an impact on cities everywhere. Sidewalk Labs has every incentive to get it right. The Plan won’t get far if it alienates people around Toronto’s waterfront. We guarantee our citizen organization, Waterfront for All, will be paying close attention, as will many others.

Technology-related privacy concerns are very real, of course, and Google may be the company that most embodies those concerns for a lot of people. But the technology to gather lots of intrusive information about you exists or is coming, whether or not Sidewalk Labs builds Quayside on our waterfront. One way or another, cities of the future are going to use more technology involving personal information, raising the constant potential for abuse.

The Sidewalk Labs/Waterfront Toronto consultation process at least gives people in Toronto to engage in a meaningful way about what the privacy ground rules should be for future urban development. The upcoming consultation will focus on, among other things, “establishing clear governance policies related to data protection and privacy.”

If the proposed privacy protections that emerge at the end of the upcoming planning and consultation process are unsatisfactory to Waterfront Toronto, the various levels of government it represents, and ultimately to the people of Toronto, then Sidewalk Lab’s ambitious project is unlikely ever to get off the ground. They have incentives to get it right.

Again, we’ll be paying attention. We’ll certainly be putting forward our input on privacy and other concerns, and we encourage other people to do so as well.

So we are cautiously optimistic, and look forward to seeing the process unfold. A great opportunity for our city has materialized. We shouldn’t squander it by being too grumpy and suspicious from the get-go.