More details on Google’s urban plans for Toronto development

Google’s plans for a Toronto neighborhood have been in the works for a while and here are more details:

A self-contained thermal grid would recirculate energy from non–fossil-fuel sources to heat and cool buildings, while a food-disposal system would keep food waste out of landfills. For cars and trucks, Quayside would be less hospitable than other areas in the city: Part of the neighborhood would prohibit non-emergency vehicles entirely, while bike-share stations, transit stops, and cycling and walking paths—kept useable through the Canadian winter with sidewalk snow melters and automated awnings—would offer “efficient alternatives to driving, all at lower cost than owning a car.” An autonomous transit shuttle would rove some streets. (Waymo, a leading developer of self-driving-vehicle software, is also an Alphabet subsidiary.)

Buildings would be largely prefabricated using eco-friendly materials, to cut back on waste. With a “strong shell and minimalistic interior,” they could be adapted to multiple uses, morphing from residential to retail to industrial, and back again. To support such a futuristic vision, Quayside would test a novel “outcome-based” zoning code focused on limiting things like pollution and noise rather than specific land uses. If it doesn’t bother the neighbors, one might operate a whiskey distillery in the middle of an apartment complex…

Yet what has drawn the most concern and curiosity with regards to Quayside is a uniquely 21st-century feature: a data-harvesting, wifi-beaming “digital layer” that would underpin each proposed facet of Quayside life. According to Sidewalk Labs, this would provide “a single unified source of information about what is going on” to an astonishing level of detail, as well as a centralized platform for efficiently managing it all…

It’s the kind of all-seeing urban omniscience that would stir the heart of any utopia builder. But to whom, and how, would this data be made available? And what would such an arrangement mean for any Quaysider who doesn’t wish to be monitored? In Toronto and beyond, the depth and details of the data collection have sparked public debate. At the first public forum on the project, and in a list of questions related to the project compiled by the journalist Bianca Wylie at Torontoist, privacy questions and fears have come up again and again.

This is a good mini test case for tech companies entering the urban development realm. The questions raised by residents and local officials should not be surprising: does such a company have the best interests of the community and residents at heart or is this primarily a profit-making enterprise based on intense data collection?It is interesting to consider how this might go in an American city. The proposed project is in Toronto, a prosperous Canadian city that is now larger than Chicago. How would such plans for Google be received in San Francisco or Austin, cities known as tech hubs? Or, in contrast, might there be more open arms in a city that needs development help, such as Cleveland or Detroit? I suspect the move to develop property in Toronto was very intentional yet the outcome could be quite different if positioned in a different North American city.

 

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