On Smart Cities

Since October 2017 Torontonians have been reading about the likely advent of a "smart city," to be designed and built on our benighted eastern waterfront by Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs.

The last time a capitalist visionary built a smart city in Toronto was in 1953. His then-famous name was E.P. Taylor and his pet project was Don Mills, a 2000-acre model community designed for state-of-the-art urban/ industrial living. Financed entirely by private capital, the master plan—vetted at every stage by Taylor himself—envisaged a self-contained community of mixed-use residential zones linked by green spaces and walkways that would make cars unnecessary. To shrink urban life to a pedestrian scale, the plan called for four quadrants, each one centred around a shopping/ entertainment hub and furnished with its own schools, churches, and sports facilities. To the north and south of the residential area were designated industrial zones, where the thirty-thousand or so residents of Don Mills were expected to work. Construction began in 1953 and by 1960, the model city was 95 percent occupied.

Don Mills - Toronto Star.jpg

As local historian Scott Kennedy has written, "time has not been kind to Don Mills." The paint on E.P. Taylor's handiwork had barely dried before "irreplaceable modernist landmarks and affordable housing" were sacrificed to "the seemingly unchecked redevelopment that defines twenty-first-century Toronto." Don Mills evolved quickly into a garden-variety bedroom community, where the cul-de-sacs of Taylor's pedestrian utopia produce rush-hour gridlock, and where the surrounding industrial blight has no organic connection to the neighbourhood's mostly white-collar commuters. It has been a long, long time, in short, since Don Mills felt like the future. As a recent Toronto Star retrospective observed, the neighbourhood has gone "from model to scapegoat, the symbol of everything wrong with suburbs: urban sprawl, congestion and reliance on four wheels."

Which brings us back to the Sidewalk Labs project. According to Alphabet's ambitious visioneers, Toronto's newest smart city portends nothing less than humanity's urban future. "Quayside will be a new type of place, with connectivity designed into its very foundation. It will blend human centred urban design with cutting edge digital technology, clean tech, and advanced building materials.... Modular housing piloted in Quayside can produce whole neighbourhoods of lower-cost, quicker-to-build housing, enabling the market to meet burgeoning demand. A self-driving shuttle can bloom into a next-generation transit system that provides point-to-point convenience without the safety risks and high costs of private cars." Modular housing, point-to-point transit, a car-less utopia—it all sounds wonderfully futuristic, and yet eerily familiar.

Habitat 67 - Safdie Architects.jpg

To date, Torontonians appear to have mostly embraced the Sidewalk Labs proposal, albeit with considerable anxiety about Alphabet's mania for data collection. "Individually and collectively, Canadians are rapidly losing effective control of their digital lives," writes retired U of T prof Andrew Clement. "Avoiding further rights degradation demands developing new forms of data governance at least as innovative as the other aspects of Sidewalk Toronto’s ambitious initiative." Such worries are noble but misplaced. Alphabet is not going to cede its prerogative to monopolize and monetize the golden algorithms of its smart cities (Toronto being only one of many), and politicians from Mayor John Tory to PM Trudeau know it. As for citizens' digital rights, surely any Canadian who savours the idea of living full-time within a Google Matrix, with the near-total loss of privacy that choice implies, should be entirely free to do so.

But what the rest of us should be pondering is what happens when the Alphabet vision of the human future fails to arrive and Toronto is left holding the bag—much as Montreal got stuck with the failed dream of Habitat 67. "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future," Yogi Berra once said, and this is just as true for the Alphabet whiz kids as it was for E.P. Taylor. We cannot know whether Quayside will fulfill Alphabet's much-hyped promise and become a world-leading hub for metro sapiens, or whether it will end up as just another Don Mills. But the smart money is on the latter.