Here’s where U of T experts stand on Sidewalk Toronto’s controversial smart city plan

Google’s sister company proposes redevelopment of Quayside, sparking concerns

Here’s where U of T experts stand on  Sidewalk Toronto’s controversial smart city plan

On October 31, tri-governmental organization Waterfront Toronto tentatively agreed to move forward with a reduced version of a controversial plan to redevelop part of Toronto’s Quayside into a technology-filled smart neighbourhood. 

The redevelopment proposal was put forward by Sidewalk Labs — a company owned by Alphabet that focuses on urban planning and innovation. Alphabet was formed in 2015 and is the parent company of Google and other Google-related ventures. Sidewalk Labs’ first significant redevelopment project, Sidewalk Toronto, has promised radical urban planning to improve city life. The flashy innovations range from timber skyscrapers, to robotic garbage collection, to new public transit infrastructure.

However, Sidewalk Labs has faced significant backlash over its evolving scope, governance structure, consultation processes, and data collection goals.

The Varsity spoke with several U of T experts to discuss the divisive proposal and how it may impact the university community.    

How Sidewalk Toronto got here

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Waterfront Toronto’s partnership with Sidewalk Labs in October 2017, alongside Toronto Mayor John Tory and then-Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The original plan was to redevelop nearly 12 acres of land at Queens Quay East and Parliament Street. As the project developed over time, Sidewalk Labs argued for an increased scope, including the addition of a roughly 190-acre plot of land in the Port Lands as a new site for Google Canada’s headquarters. These changes were released last June in Sidewalk’s 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP).

When Waterfront Toronto agreed to proceed with the project on October 31, it did so with the condition that Sidewalk Labs considerably limit its MIDP.

Moving forward, Waterfront Toronto has agreed to continue holding consultations and negotiate plans until March 31, 2020, when the parties must formally approve the partnership. If approved at this phase, the proposal will still require additional approval from the City of Toronto.

U of T’s involvement with Sidewalk Toronto 

U of T has played a consultatory role on the Sidewalk Labs project to date. President Meric Gertler served on Waterfront Toronto’s Board of Directors from January 2017, until he was fired from this position on December 6, 2018, for unknown reasons. Former Ontario Minister of Infrastructure Monte McNaughton also fired Waterfront Toronto chairpersons Helen Burstyn and Michael Nobrega alongside Gertler.

The firings followed a report by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, which criticized the board’s oversight structure and raised concerns about Waterfront Toronto’s initial proposal request process that may have favoured Alphabet over other applicants.

Several U of T professors and faculty members have participated in Sidewalk Toronto consultation processes and committees. One of them is Andrew Clement, Professor Emeritus from the Faculty of Information, who currently sits on Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. When asked about his role on the panel, Clement wrote to The Varsity that he offers advice “on whether the digital aspects of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals achieve high standards of protecting and promoting the public interest.” 

Additionally, four U of T students — Keisha St. Louis-McBurnie, Paul Seufert, Carol Yeung, and Sharly Chan — participated in a Sidewalk Toronto Fellowship program in the summer of 2018. They explored urban issues around the globe and provided insights into the Sidewalk Toronto project.

In their final report, the 12 fellows issued a series of recommendations for Sidewalk Toronto’s consideration, including setting affordable housing targets, promoting data literary, and using data collection to “build community trust.”

While it’s not officially part of Sidewalk Toronto’s redevelopment, U of T has partnered with MaRS Discovery District to lease 24,000 square feet inside the Waterfront Innovation Centre, a technology- and business-driven venture at the city’s waterfront.

In response to a question about whether U of T supports the Sidewalk redevelopment, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the “university supports Waterfront Toronto in its ambition to turn Quayside into a sustainable smart neighbourhood. Collaborating with global partners in such endeavours helps ensure the city, the province and the country build experience and influence as world leaders.”

Other postsecondary institutions have officially partnered with Sidewalk Labs. On November 28, George Brown College announced its signature of a letter of intent to work with Sidewalk Labs on community programming initiatives.

Thoughts on the proposal

Mariana Valverde — a professor of criminology and sociolegal studies and member of #BlockSidewalk, an organization opposing Sidewalk Toronto — criticized Waterfront Toronto’s initial request-for-proposal (RFP) project.

Waterfront Toronto “issued a highly ambiguous document (RFP) that then allowed a Google company to propose a very vague but extremely ambitious plan that would require overturning any number of local laws and rules and would completely marginalize city departments and city democratic processes,” Valverde wrote to The Varsity.

Clement believes Sidewalk Toronto offers a unique opportunity to consider policy responses to smart city proposals. However, he cautioned against approving the project as it stands, noting that there has not been enough information or time to adequately debate Sidewalk Labs’ sweeping plans.

Shauna Brail, Associate Professor, Urban Studies Program and Associate Director, Partnerships & Outreach at the School of Cities, wrote to The Varsity that the proposal will most likely shift as it moves forward. “We’ve seen over the past 18 months that the plan is subject to change and will most certainly continue to change if it makes its way through the approval process.”

Ongoing criticisms of Sidewalk Toronto are its data collection processes and subsequent privacy implications. Clement reflected these concerns around privacy, noting the consequences of “a multitude of sensors capable of fine grained surveillance of individual behaviour.”

Alongside questions about data collection, Brail also highlighted concerns regarding the financial model and accessibility of the project, given that “the property is predominantly publicly owned, thus resulting in heightened public expectations.”

Valverde echoed these privacy concerns, while adding that there are issues with the urban development process of Sidewalk Toronto. “There are basic issues of democratic control over urban development, or rather the lack of it. Waterfront Toronto is not a democratic organization. It has no mechanism to be accountable to citizens,” she wrote.

Brail noted that some U of T researchers, faculty, and students are already benefiting from the Sidewalk Labs project through various consultation and scholarship opportunities. “If the proposal moves forward, there are likely to be additional opportunities, for instance in prototyping, experiential learning, and continued research and evaluation,” she wrote.

Civil and Mineral Engineering Assistant Professor Shoshanna Saxe — who has also written about the Sidewalk Labs project in The New York Times — wrote to The Varsity that the university can broadly benefit from studying Toronto as a “living lab.”

While acknowledging that Sidewalk Toronto could theoretically provide employment opportunities for researchers, Valverde put forward that “there has been little emphasis on hiring locally or using local tech companies, and we know that Google does buy tech inventions from all over, including Toronto, but the profits all go to the US, as does the intellectual property.”

Meanwhile, Rotman School of Management Professor and School of Cities Scholar in Residence Richard Florida is a vocal proponent of the Sidewalk Labs project. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, Florida argued that Sidewalk Toronto demonstrates Canada’s potential in the high-tech development sector.

Disclaimer: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 138 Features Editor and Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.

WTF is weather amnesia and how can art explain it?

On your way back from office hours, pop into an interdisciplinary and intergenerational art exhibit at the Jackman Humanities Building

WTF is weather amnesia and how can art explain it?

Weather Amnesia is an art exhibit on the top floor of the Jackman Humanities Building currently showcasing work by modern and classical artists at the intersection of science and artistic expression. The pieces are arranged on walls and bookshelves of the 10th-floor lounge and seminar room, more decor than formal gallery.

“We are very easy to forget — to deny the abundant evidence of changing environment,” said Yuluo Wei in an interview with The Varsity. She is the curator of Weather Amnesia and a Master of Visual Studies in Curatorial Studies student at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. Wei is critical of our modern indoor lives, especially in the urban environment, and she hopes this exhibit creates dialogue toward an awareness of our surroundings, toward noticing the weather.

In a 1922 oil painting by Graham Noble Norwell, sketches of a classical snowy Canadian landscape, ice over a lake, and a silver birch are grouped together. Around a corner hangs Lisa Hirmer’s photo series tracking the melting of snow in a test tube. Though both artists incorporate snow into their pieces, their artworks provide a stark example of the evolution of art from classical to modern times.

Another work includes a hygrothermograph, an analog measurement tool that reports temperature and humidity. A tablet with a live bird migration map is in another. A watercolour collage of a bird from a museum collection, by Florence Vale. Blocks of timber cut into a model of the Jackman Humanities Building. Abstract shapes in a big square inked in 1979, inspired by a Canadian winter.

There are two contemporary Canadian artists featured in the gallery. Lisa Hirmer has two pieces, the second being “Watching, White Ibis,” a letter to the migratory white ibis. Tania Kitchell has two pieces, one named “Weather Observations,” a diary of comments and measurements of weather by a lake. The other is Occupy, composed of 3D-printed plants that are invasive or alien to the arctic. The printed plants are not a perfect ratio to the living counterpart — for any visiting arctic plant experts.

To me, the title Weather Amnesia is a reminder; I personally don’t remember my elementary-school snow days, but my parents sometimes remark that there’s less snow falling nowadays. Kids in the 1990s must have had more snow than me, and I had more snow than the kids now. The oil painting is a quintessential Canadian snowy landscape, and older generations may relate to this more. Newcomers and youth may relate more to the six frames of melting snow. The printed plants are another guilty reminder; I barely recognize three out of the many species, save the dandelions and clovers.

But can you spot the Canadian Thistle, the Blue Eyed Grass? I think we all need this reminder lest we forget that the urban lifestyle we live is, for most of history, abnormal.

The artwork can leave viewers with important questions, but a block of wood labelled as laminated timber may not have as much face-value significance to the theme of the exhibit. The Quayside project, run by Sidewalk Labs, alongside University of Toronto’s own Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, will both have wooden skyscrapers made of the same laminated timber, a simple but high-tech building material.

Construction of these structures is fast, less noisy, and has no harmful chemical by-products. The sculpture of the Jackman Building was first modelled on a computer, and buildings have the same process but at a bigger scale.

Weather Amnesia will run Monday–Friday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm until June 26, 2020. It’s free and open to the public, but the seminar room space, a third of the exhibition, is sometimes booked for events.