On October 17, Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google’s Alphabet Inc., announced a partnership with Waterfront Toronto to begin a year-long planning process. The project initially targets the city’s 12-acre quayside district, but has aims of expanding its reach across the Eastern Waterfront’s 800 acres. It would be the largest smart-city development in North America to date - far more substantial than other projects Sidewalk Labs has engaged in, like LinkNYC - and marks significant new territory to be navigated in establishing relationships between urban and digital space, as well as laying down frameworks for the partnerships between public and private-sector entities needed to facilitate this kind of development.
Responding to the emphases laid out in the Request for Proposals Waterfront Toronto issued in May of 2017, Sidewalk’s massively ambitious vision for the project (detailed in no less than 196 pages) describes the future site as “a global testbed where people can use data about how the neighbourhood works to make it work better.” The focus is less on reasons to increase digital infrastructure - a concern which has been an integral aspect of Waterfront’s undertakings from the start - and more on the ways in which that digital infrastructure might serve to facilitate innovative and effective solutions for things like transportation, energy use, waste management and affordable housing.
So what might living spaces look like in a data-driven community? Along with tactics to create a “complete community” reflecting Toronto’s social, cultural, and economic diversity, such as mixed-use and mixed-income buildings, regulatory frameworks like performance-based building code (something similar to what Toronto did with the King and Spadina and King and Parliament areas in 1996 to fuel regeneration in these formerly industrial-zoned areas), and the exploration of new financing models that include partial home ownership, Sidewalk aims to prototype new building typologies and construction methodologies with an initial concept called “The Loft.”
Sidewalk describes The Loft concept as “improv[ing] upon traditional loft buildings by planning explicitly for ongoing and frequent interior changes around a strong skeletal structure […] enabling the built environment to grow and evolve with the community.” This would be achieved by prefabricating modular components offsite and employing tall-timber construction methods with materials like Cross Laminated TImber to increase the sustainability of the project. For past Houseporn articles highlighting Canadian modular buildings and innovations in engineered wood, see the bottom of this post.
It’s a concept that in many ways is not dissimilar to the Plug-In City proposed in 1964 by Peter Cook of Britain’s avantgarde Archigram collective. The speculative proposal centred around the idea of continual circulation, a space in perpetual flux and marked a significant ideological break from earlier approaches to Urbanism that emphasized clear and distinct separation of functions. In the words of Simon Sadler, “Plug-In planning promoted architecture as an event that could only be realized by the active involvement of its inhabitants.” While the Plug-in concept influenced many architects and urban planners around the world, half a century later, compartmentalized approaches to citybuilding remain the norm.
Referring to their approach to the Quayside development as “building a neighbourhood from the internet up” Sidewalk lays out their plans in terms of 4 physical layers and a digital layer “threaded through all these components” regarded as the driving force needed to deliver the increased malleability they describe for the physical infrastructure. So perhaps, half a century later, with a digital layer already an integral aspect of our lives, we’re arriving at a time in which our approaches will begin to change.
Whether these grand plans will materialize is yet to be seen. The initial commitment, regardless of all the attention that it has been getting, has an estimated price tag of $50 million which only accounts for the planning process with no minimum investment set or guarantee that any aspects of the proposal will be built.
The planning process alone represents new ways of thinking about urban space in Toronto, and this project raises a variety of questions around how our thinking about physical space might shift in coming years.
Would you want to live in a neighbourhood “built from the internet up”?
Will we be making choices about what areas we want to raise our families in, not based on being in good school districts, but rather what digital infrastructure currently exists in an area? Or, will neighbourhoods just fade into the background, with the resulting changes in physical infrastructure, like transportation and public amenities, take the focus?
Interested in modular structures?
Want to see what can be done with engineered wood products?
This article was written by Miranda Corcoran, a designer and creative strategist based in Toronto who began writing for Houseporn while studying Industrial Design at OCAD University.