Sidewalk Toronto reimagines the waterfront

Plans for the new Quayside district include modular, affordable rental housing
Monday, November 20, 2017
by Erin Ruddy

Building on the city’s tech boom to create new economic opportunity, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have come together to launch a technological testbed, known as Sidewalk Toronto. Blending cutting-edge, digital technology with human-centred urban design, Sidewalk Toronto’s goal is to create modern, mixed-use communities that are connected, sustainable and affordable.

What began in March, 2017 with a Request for Proposals (RFP) by Waterfront Toronto seeking a partner for the new Quayside development district, has since blossomed into a progressive alliance with potential global impacts. All eyes are on this new partnership as it forges the path to urban innovation and sets out to transform the city’s derelict, post-industrial waterfront into a leading-edge community where data captures all, and progressive minds seek perpetual change for the better.

“Waterfront Toronto has already made remarkable strides in revitalizing the waterfront with forward-looking new neighbourhoods and reconnecting Torontonians to their waterfront,” said Will Fleissig, President and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, at the press announcement in October. “Today, we are expanding our know-how by partnering with Sidewalk Labs to create a progressive, innovative community; one that addresses significant challenges and sets new standards around sustainability, affordable housing and community engagement.”

On November 1st, a Town Hall meeting kicked off planning efforts with discussions centred on finding ways to improve infrastructure and transportation systems, create new models of affordable housing and flexible retail uses, and establish clear governance policies related to data protection and privacy. Ultimately, what’s gleaned from these year-long forums and public conversations will culminate in a Master Innovation and Development Plan that, if adopted, will form the basis for the Quayside development and any subsequent revitalization of City-owned lands in the eastern waterfront.

With public engagement and stakeholder consultation at the heart of everything it does, Sidewalk Toronto’s mandate is to develop the eastern waterfront into a new type of community that combines the best in urban design with the latest in digital technology. By learning from data and adapting from cumulative lessons learned, it will address some of the biggest challenges facing today’s cities, including: energy use, housing affordability and transportation. The high-tech neighbourhood will offer affordable residential and commercial developments, best-in-class technology infrastructure, and vibrant public and cultural spaces with amenities open to all.  Ultimately, it will be a place where Toronto’s celebrated diversity and inclusiveness can thrive in narrow pedestrian streets and walkways reminiscent of old Europe.

Flex space

Quayside housing

One way Sidewalk Toronto hopes to address the city’s ongoing affordability crisis is by embracing adaptable buildings and new cost-effective construction methods. According to Sidewalk Labs’ original vision laid out in its RFP, flexible lofts and modular housing will likely be the mainstay, as this approach allows for whole neighbourhoods of lower-cost, quicker-to-build housing while enabling the market to meet burgeoning demand. “If pilots around new construction methods, such as prefabricated modular or tall timber, show an ability to reduce building costs,” noted the RFP, “then developers and housing providers across Toronto will have another tool to help them meet market demand and improve affordability.”

On the mobility side, most of Quayside’s public realm will be made up of bike paths and pedestrian laneways, though the neighbourhood will likely see self-driving shuttle buses that provide point-to-point convenience rather than traditional transit vehicles. Community-building will be prioritized, with an adaptable mix of spaces and amenities that will stay active at all hours of the day. A thermal grid pilot might become the foundation of a districtwide energy system that sets a global example for climate-positive living.

“We think the eastern waterfront can feel like no other place in the world,” expressed Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs and former Deputy Mayor of New York City. “Imagine Toronto before cars ruled the city. Streets bustled with a lively mix of residents and businesses all day and night. An ever-changing array of shopkeepers peddled their wares. Kids played safely in the streets and parks. We can reclaim that hyper-dynamic sense of community—and we can do it in a way that puts people, not technology, front-and-centre.”

New global hub

To help kick-start Sidewalk Toronto’s goal of making the eastern waterfront the global hub of urban innovation, Alphabet announced that it intends to move Google’s Canadian headquarters to Quayside, where it can tap into Toronto’s already-thriving tech scene and develop innovations that could benefit communities and neighbourhoods elsewhere.

“Successful cities around the world are wrestling with the same challenges of growth, from rising costs of living that price out the middle class, to congestion and ever-longer commutes, to the challenges of climate change,” said Doctoroff. “Sidewalk Labs scoured the globe for the perfect place to create a district focused on solutions to these pressing challenges, and we found it on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world.”

And if the RFP provides a good indication of what Quayside might achieve, becoming a place where the physical and the digital converge into a platform for urban innovation, then catalyzing an industry won’t be so far-fetched. “Just as Silicon Valley is the centre for digital technology and New York is the centre for finance, the eastern waterfront can help make Toronto the global hub for urban innovation.”

As a neighbourhood built from the internet up, Quayside will strive to combine the advantages of a global city with a close-knit community. It will leverage innovation to achieve the benefits of urban density and vibrancy without the negative frictions that traditionally come with urban growth, (i.e. traffic congestion, elevated housing costs and environmental impacts). And best of all, in keeping with Toronto’s heritage, it will be a complete community: socially and economically diverse, radically mixed-use, yet empowered by technology in such a way that can only make the city better.

To find out more about Sidewalk Toronto and the new Quayside development, and to take part in the ongoing public conversation, please visit:

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