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Toronto Real Estate: Should We Welcome Sidewalk Labs?


Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto reach a deal to proceed with the Quayside Project.

The Sidewalk Labs have received city approval for the smaller scale development for their incubator of new technologies applied to an urban landscape. They had pushed for a much more ambitious project that was to include the Portlands area but public push back forced the plan to return to the original size proposed of just 19 acres.  TTC Transit to the area is not yet resolved. Sidewalk Labs are working with the city to come up with an LRT project for the Quayside project. 


Sidewalk Labs  is a very provocative proposal to have a section of downtown Toronto revitalized using  cutting edge technology  and design to create a community that will be a testing ground for future urban development around the world.  I recently read  Toronto Life’s September 2019 Article, “Sidewalk Wars”. I was so excited by the prospect of this technologically-advanced “smart city” within a city when the Sidewalk Lab development was announced by the parent company of  Google, Alphabet Inc. The project had started with a mere 12-acre development site but the vision has now expanded to include the 153 acres of River District Quayside in the belief that 12 acres wasn’t enough to achieve their true goal of a completely technology-savvy community with sensors and cameras throughout.  This area is to be the test bed of new technology with the idea of creating efficiencies for urban living.  As with any change, there is controversy! Visionaries such as Richard Florida promote this idea, whereas privacy advocates such as Shoshana Zuboff are extremely against this progressive development.

Sidewalk Lab Toronto Waterfront Proposal (Toronto Life Sept 2019)

Years ago, Toronto city planners made mistakes by allowing condo development and the Gardiner Expressway to cut the waterfront off from the rest of the city. Attempts have been made to improve the waterfront with upgraded trail systems and access points. The Power Plant Gallery adds some culture to the area, but we have much to do to to improve access, utility and vitality to the waterfront.

The Sidewalk Labs project is planned for an undeveloped wasteland and is critical to maximizing useable space in Toronto to curb urban sprawl and provide housing for both owners and renters as well as some much-needed subsidized housing. Integrating living with services, restaurants, shops and community centres is wonderful, especially in the core and close to the waterfront.

Privacy has become the hot-button issue right now and concerns about it could prevent progress, unfortunately. I understand the need for privacy and enjoy mine for sure, however a tool that tracks patterns to allow city planners to build infrastructure that allows for efficiencies in urban life is something I support.  To have garbage cans send a signal that they are full so we don’t have garbage or recycling spilling onto sidewalks is a good thing. To have synchronized traffic lights that change according to true traffic patterns is a good thing. To build sidewalks and trails based on the pedestrian walking patterns is a good thing.  I do not want video cameras inside my home, however I have no problem with putting them in public spaces where sensors and cameras are critical to both safety and acquiring the need for human patterns. I think the lines of privacy are currently blurred.  To me, sensors showing human patterns are not a violation of privacy as that is a measurement of human activity, not my personal pattern. The more we know about human activity, the better for urban planners.

I am frustrated that there are so many naysayers to this project. We have a unique opportunity to have this world-class testing lab of how we live to help design further developments to suit our living patterns in the most environmentally-friendly way, but Toronto may not be brazen enough to take this leap and I think that would be a shame. I understand the need to be cautious–but not obstructionist–with such a leading-edge project in our city. Those who travel have seen some leading edge urban planning in other major centres, such as self-illuminating pavement, underground waste systems, ice melting pavers, green build design, self driving vehicles and moveable awnings for inclement weather. I agree with Mohamed Lachemi, President of Ryerson University: Toronto needs to take a risk or we will miss out on the development happening around the world.

Sidewalk Labs isn’t the only innovative development happening at the Waterfront. First Gulf’s East Harbour development is another project which I discussed on my blog in 2018. The news this month is that Cadillac Fairview has purchased the development to continue on this grand plan for development near the Lower Don.

When met with any controversy the City of Toronto seems to shut down and choose the path of least resistance.  Toronto’s underdeveloped TTC subway system is a prime example of this. Please Toronto, let’s step up to the plate and embrace all this exciting development that will take our world-class city to the next level. All levels of government need to embrace innovative businesses and collaborate, because if development is left purely in the hands of bureaucrats, nothing happens.

Helen Braithwaite

Real Estate Representative, Chestnut Park Real Estate Limited

Chairman’s 2017, 2o18