Spacing covers Canadian urbansim in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, Ottawa, & east coast cities. The topics ranges from Architecture, Urban Deisgn, Public Transit, City Hall, Parks, Walking, Bikes, Streetscape, History, Waterfront, Maps, Public Spaces
Editor’s Note: Spacing is delighted to share the Walkcast podcast series out of Edmonton. Check out the latest episode today.
As Edmonton prepares to look at its snow and ice clearing policies, we catch up with two people who hope things change. Giselle General came to Canada from the Philippines. But, while many people told her how bad winter here would be, they didn’t tell her how to walk. Some interesting things happened as a result. In act two we talk with Bean Gill, who runs ReYu Paralysis Recovery Centre in Edmonton. Bean lost her ability to walk about six years ago. Rolling around in the snow has changed her perspective on where cities lose the plot on accessibility.
Spacing is pleased to co-sponsor “Right to Walk: Justice, equity, and the Toronto walking experience,” a panel discussion organized by Walk Toronto that explores walking – the love of it, our need for it, and its meaning – through a justice and equity lens. This event is a love letter to walking, as well as a critical look at the walking experience our city creates, from different perspectives.
The speaker panel consists of:
Philip Cote, Young Spiritual Elder, Indigenous Artist, Activist, Educator, Historian, and Traditional Wisdom Keeper
The format is brief presentations by the speakers followed by a moderated panel discussion and Q&A from the audience. We are delighted to have engaged as our moderator Zahra Ebrahim, Urbanist, Professor, and Human-centred Designer.
Tue, 26 March 2019
7:00 PM – 9:00
Innis Town Hall
Innis College, University of Toronto
2 Sussex Avenue, Toronto View Map
WHAT: Spacing’s 15th anniversary issue release party! WHEN: Friday, March 15th, 2019 — 7:30pm-midnight COST: $5 (copy of new issue) WHERE: Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St W.
We are happy to announce the release of our 15th anniversary issue!
Back in early December (our actual 15th anniversary day) we launched Toronto 2033, a book that collects ten sci-fi short stories that imagined what life is like 15 years into the future.
The 49th edition of Spacing is the second part of our celebration — our editors and contributors explore a wide range of issues that will impact Toronto’s future: extreme weather, mega-projects, decolonization, and planning the Maple Leafs eventual Stanley Cup parade.
Join us at the Gladstone Hotel for a bunch of fun activities including your predictions for Toronto in 2033.
Subscribers will start receiving their copies soon. Pop into the Spacing Store to pick up an advance copy.
Jackie Shane (b. May 15, 1940; d. February 22, 2019) is gone, and this time it’s true. I say ‘this time’ because after Jackie left Toronto in 1971 rumours of her demise abounded. ‘I heard she was murdered.’ ‘I hear she killed herself.’ The rumours persisted for years. Even some of those responsible for the more recent re-discovery and re-appreciation of Jackie frame her story as a murder mystery or horror film.
None of it was true. Jackie moved to Los Angeles and then back home to Nashville to look after her aging, ailing mother. More the dutiful daughter than tragic victim. So the question is, why the rumours in the first place, and why were we so prepared to believe them?
Queer and trans people of colour know the answer. It’s the difficulty we white people have in imagining black and trans lives outside the necropolitical narratives of pathology.
Rest assured this won’t happen in the wake of Jackie’s recent and real death. She made sure of it. In the dozens of interviews she gave over the past two years, Jackie, in her late seventies and larger than life, returned to centre stage to tell her story on her own terms. She was charming, wise, and unapologetic. No pathology here. So how will Jackie be remembered now?
A few weeks before she died, Jackie gave a final interview to Elaine Banks on CBC Radio. Talking about her decision to leave the Jim Crow South and come north, Jackie explained, and not for the first time in words with both geographical and gendered meanings: “One cannot choose where one is born, but you can choose your home.” She went on to say, “I chose Toronto. I love Toronto. I love Canadian people … [They] have been so good to me … We became real lovers.”
It takes nothing away from Jackie’s own experience of Toronto to nevertheless be skeptical about how white Toronto, both queer and straight, might use Jackie’s memories.
I worry that Jackie’s story will be conscripted as historical evidence for what, in the 2018 anthology Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto (edited by Jin Haritaworn, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware), contributor Kusha Dadui aptly names “the new underground railroad.” Just as the old underground railroad has burnished the myth of Canada as a promised land of racial tolerance and acceptance, the new underground railroad promotes the homonational fantasy of Canada as a safe haven for queer refugees and migrants. Come to Canada, where we will love you and be good to you. Except for when we won’t.
In the fall of 1961, a gay gossip columnist for a Toronto tabloid wrote, “Jackie Shane, the sepia songster …is back at the lively Holiday Tavern to the delight of the many fans she established in these parts during her last stint there several months ago.” During Jackie’s run at the Holiday in May, 1961, an LCBO inspector visited the tavern. He noted in his report that “the entertainment was provided by a colored group billed as Frankie Motley Orchestra featuring Jackie Shane. The group sang and played popular arrangements only.” In other words, they played neither too loud nor too black, at least not while the inspector was in the house.
Located at Queen and Bathurst, the Holiday was popular with black residents from the surrounding neighbourhood, and Jackie played there often. The chief inspector for the LCBO noted that “a negro called at my office to complain about being refused service at the Holiday Tavern.” Mr. Leroy W., the complainant, “felt there was discrimination at the Holiday on this occasion and other occasions when he had been in and they would not let him sit where he wanted.”
Jackie, of course, knew this history; she lived it. In 1968, a catty gay tabloid columnist commented, “Jackie Shane isn’t making the scene … as often these days as he (she, it) used to!” As Jackie told the CBC earlier this month, “at first, there were people who are ignorant and talk and talk and don’t know what they’re talking about. They were curious, but when they got to know me … we grew to love to one another.” Jackie added an important caveat: “I loved them first. I had to. I could not allow myself to be angry.” To love first, even in the face of racism and transphobia, was one of Jackie’s survival strategies. To remain angry would have been to burn out and thereby let ignorance win.
My brief sketch of Jackie and the Holiday Tavern are snippets from research I’m doing in the LCBO records at the Archives of Ontario and in the tabloids at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. This touches on a critical conversation currently underway among queer historians about the status and desirability of the archive. Noting that queer Toronto is “gripped by an outbreak of ‘archive fever,’” the editors of Marvellous Grounds argue that queer and trans people of colour are nonetheless often missing from the archive “as a direct result of policing … of exclusion, erasure, displacement and dispossession.”
Paradoxically, it’s also true that Jackie and many other people of colour turn up in the archives as a result of precisely that same policing, which is to say the over-policing by state agencies (like the LCBO) of the places where people of colour gathered. The tabloids also policed, patrolling the borders of Toronto’s emergent white queer community in the 1960s, racializing and minoritizing its ‘others.’
Resisting these archives, the Marvellous Grounds editors opt for a strategy of “counter-archiving,” a method that refuses induction in “an ever more colourful archive whose foundations remain firmly white.” Freed from archival collection and capture, queer of colour histories tend to be public and mobile.
We see something of this in the ongoing Myseum Toronto campaign, which last year plastered Jackie’s story on hoardings across the city and on ad space in TTC vehicles and subway stations. Vintage photos of Jackie flashed by as you rode up and down the Yonge line just as, 50 years before, Jackie worked the Yonge strip as her own ballroom runway. “Miss Shane was walking down Yonge street the other day in full drag,” a March 1963 tabloid reported. “She looked stunning in a beige coat and gray leotards. Her hair was beautifully coiffured and she wore sunglasses.” Jackie strolled “past at just about the time the Ryerson Collegians were finished for the day – I think she timed it.”
To take different example, during last year’s Nuit Blanche in Toronto, Ghanaian-born, London-based artist Harold Offeh curated “Down at the Twilight Zone,” a twelve-hour “living archive” installed on a loading dock. Decked out in homage to Jackie Shane, Offeh and guests such as DJ Nik Red of Blockorama fame, recreated the spirit of the Twilight Zone, the 1980s Toronto club described as “a gay-positive multicultural space … unique for the time and still rare today.”
This locating of history in urban space helps to make sense of why, as the editors explain, “Marvellous Grounds began as a mapping rather than archiving project.” However, it quickly became clear that there is “an unmistakable desire in QTBIPOC communities for history and lineage. Younger folks in the city crave elders, who are missing and dismissed from a white archive that passes itself off as ‘the queer history.’” To those younger folks, Jackie Shane awaits you.
For us white folks, I hear Jackie’s story not as an endorsement of the new underground railroad and white Canadian benevolence, but rather as an historical and archival call to action. We’ve no right to ask Jackie to bear her pain and anger for the benefit of our education. Instead, it is the responsibility of white queer historians to enter the archive and uncover our anti-black / anti-trans histories, and to own them. It is long past time for us to turn white archive fever into productive anger about the white archive.
Active in the Toronto queer movement for many years, Steven Maynard now lives in Kingston, where he teaches the history of sexuality at Queen’s University. He wrote the introduction, about Jackie Shane, to Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer, edited by Stephanie Chambers et al. (Coach House Books, 2017).
E-commerce is driving the growth of the last-mile delivery industry, the step of delivery from distribution center to customer. Last-mile delivery is changing in cities around the world as delivery businesses begin to embrace innovative solutions in dense city centers, such as the shift to pedal-powered options.
Shift Delivery is one such growing business, based out of Vancouver. They are the first business in Vancouver to use electric-assisted cargo trikes to make around 4000 deliveries each month—including everything from office supplies to organic food boxes within the city. Ben Wells, the executive director of Shift Delivery, explained that triking is 30% more efficient than traditional delivery in the downtown core, mainly due to ease of parking. This is because City of Vancouver policies allow trikes to park on sidewalks, commercial loading zones, unregulated zones, and regular parking spots. Additionally, trikers are less likely to get caught in traffic jams than drivers, as they can use designated bicycle lanes.
Wells explained that, as a workers cooperative, the aim of Shift Delivery is to provide good jobs over profit. However, at the time of the interview, around 75% of employees were not owners, and employees were paid significantly less than last mile delivery employees using motorized transportation at unionized workplaces such as Canada Post or Staples Business Depot.
I spoke and rode around with Sandra, a trike rider who works at Shift Delivery, to learn about the experience riding the trike. Through this, I learned how transportation professionals can design and improve infrastructure to make their jobs easier, and correspondingly encourage investment in this type of zero-carbon, same-day delivery.
There are a few major differences between delivery trikes and regular bicycles. Their physical and functional uniqueness results in very specific challenges for the people riding and sharing the road with them. Firstly, the obvious: Trikes are wider, taller, and heavier (carrying up to 300 kg). This means that trikes would do more damage than a traditional bike in a collision with a pedestrian or another cyclist. However, Sandra explained that often it is necessary for trikes to use shared pedestrian pathways to get into buildings,
“On a bike you can kind of be on the crowd, but on a trike we need more space. But, sometimes [shared pathways are] the only option to get up to a building.”
Their size, and safety features such as braking and turning lights, make trikers feel more legitimate taking up a full lane of road than they would on a bicycle. But their maximum speed of 28 km/hour means that on some urban roads the bike lane is the safest and most practical place to be to avoid holding up car drivers, who will sometimes make dangerous maneuvers to get around a trike. Therefore, the geometric design of bike lanes within the city is important. In Vancouver, minimum bike lane widths that can accommodate trikes aren’t always used, and obvious left turning options aren’t always available. According to Sandra, intersections are a key area that can be improved,
“Sometimes being stuck in a protected lane prevents you from getting into an intersection to make a left turn.”
A cargo trike fills up the entire side of a bi-directional bicycle lane on a well-travelled route in Vancouver.
Making transportation infrastructure more inclusive to diverse city users will also have a positive impact for people riding trikes. Sandra suggested that the needs of trike users are often similar to people with disabilities, children, and seniors. For example, trikers often use accessibility buttons to open doors when they are carrying heavy packages. They also use the drop down curbs to move their trike on the sidewalk.
Future legislation may limit the bicycle lane to vehicles that require pedalling to move forward, explained Jeff Leigh from HUB Cycling. According to Jeff, there is a broader shift of mentality in bicycle planning to accommodate the thousands of commuter cyclists in Vancouver. “We used to think about bike lanes as a certain width so that the handles didn’t hit [the edge of the lane]. Now you have to consider overtaking. Now you’re looking at daily volumes. Lane widths are going to be governed by bicycle traffic flow.”
While Jeff doesn’t think that Shift’s professionally trained trikers are creating problems in the bike lanes, he foresees a future where the trikes are excluded from bicycle lanes due to their throttle mechanism.
In summary, there are a few things that designers and transportation professionals can do to incorporate a future with a growing number of delivery trikes.
Consider the width of a Trike (approximately 1.2 meters) when deciding the width of the bike lane
Create bike boxes at intersections with left turning.
Turn car parking space(s) into a trike/bike parking and loading zone
Consider street and building accessibility for people with different abilities, children, and seniors.
Build bicycle infrastructure along direct routes in the city.
If you’re interested in learning more, think about doing a ride-along with a trike courier. As Sandra put it,
“Getting to be out there on the bike routes and travelling around the city on wheels is fun!”
Sylvia Green (@yourcitymotion) is a Plangineer, active transportation researcher, and community organizer. She has worked on infrastructure, transportation, and research projects in Canada, the United States, and Norway.
Sylvia wrote this article before she began working at the City of Vancouver. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the City of Vancouver.
Through his brief career as a city councillor and now as premier, Doug Ford has returned repeatedly to the fantasy that the private sector will happily pay for his rapid transit wish list. All those subways, he’s assured voters who can’t be bothered calculating the difference between a million and a billion, will somehow be financed by air rights, pixie dust and other levies paid by developers, who, we’re assured, will benightedly acquiesce to this shakedown operation with a higher moral purpose.
Of course, the business world has never, ever worked this way, and it’s not going to start while Ford is The Great Leader of the People’s Republic of Ontario. Exhibit A, interestingly enough, comes from Sidewalk Labs, whose leaked preliminary plans for the Port Lands includes an LRT network running in a modified loop along Cherry, Unwin, Commissioners and Bouchette streets.
“This is something that is on nobody’s realistic drawing board,” Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff told The Toronto Star. “We would ensure it gets financed and all we want to do is get paid back out of the increase in value in terms of property taxes and developer charges that are only possible when that LRT gets extended.”
As it turns out, the storied private sector does, indeed, have terms for building transit. Strings are attached, and lots of them, including a curious configuration — a line across the shipping channel from the Hearn Generating Station and north on Bouchette — that hasn’t been bruited previously. Unnamed Tory officials, interestingly, heaped scorn on the scheme, deriding it as still-born.
Most of the public criticism about these leaked plans has centred on the utterly unsurprising expansion of the geographic scale, but we should focus a bit more on that promised LRT, the one that’s “on nobody’s realistic wish list.”
It’s worth noting, first of all, that Waterfront Toronto, the City and the Toronto Transit Commission completed a class environmental assessment for an East Bayfront LRT line back in 2010, which is to say, not recently. The engineering and technical issues associated with threading this second line into the Union Station streetcar loop are difficult and expensive.
As the EA document also suggests, the planning story ends more or less where Quayside and the Port Lands begin, which lends credence to Doctoroff’s claim about the orphaned status of this infrastructure. Moreover, while Trudeau government and Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals last March inked a hefty transit funding cost-sharing deal, which included funds for a waterfront LRT, there’s been not so much as a peep about the fate of this arrangement since the June election. But if the past is prologue, a Ford-led government will want nothing to do with funding LRTs.
Which leads me back to the City. It should be lost on no one that Toronto city council, for all the tedious remonstrances about an over-taxed citizenry, is more than capable of finding funds for expensive infrastructure projects – the Gardiner re-build and the Scarborough subway being the two choicest recent examples, with the latter expedited through an exceedingly modest property tax levy that — shockingly! — did not cause the sky to fall.
It also should be lost on no one that, from a strict return-on-investment point of view, both outlays would be regarded as little more junk bonds by any self-respecting portfolio manager. Extremely high project risk, low-to-no return.
A waterfront LRT, by contrast, is an almost sure bet. The East Bayfront/West Donlands/Port Lands area will be built out at the sort of medium- to high-densities that support rapid transit. No private vehicles will be injured or killed during the construction and operation of said transit, so we can already discount the rhetorical bullshit about the alleged St. Clair right-of-way “disaster.” Lastly, the investment will make the entire area far more attractive to all sorts of investors, not just condo developers. That conferred attractiveness gives the City and Waterfront Toronto additional leverage and revenues to fund amenities like affordable housing.
In other words, apart from the aforementioned issues at the Union Station loop, the operational risk on such a venture is almost nil. It’s like a savings bond.
There are, moreover, several solid historical examples of how investments in transportation infrastructure in advance of development have delivered enormous long-term returns of both the financial and city-building variety.
The St. Clair West streetcar line was built through farmer’s fields in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and immediately triggered a massive building boom. Same story, in two chapters, with the Bloor Viaduct, which initially opened up development east of the Don River beginning in the late 1910s and then allowed new growth into Scarborough in the 1960s, all because the city’s works commissioner R.C. Harris had had the foresight to rough in a subway tunnel under the bridge’s deck. In our era, both the Sheppard subway and the Eglinton Crosstown are attracting higher density re-development along both corridors, and the Finch LRT will do the same once it comes online.
Knowing all that backstory, it’s clear the City needs to be in firm control of the planning narrative. Sidewalk’s proposed alignment – e.g., along a bridge over the ship channel that doesn’t exist – shows how easily public authorities can abdicate their obligation to plan in the public interest by grasping for cash on the barrel head.
So how to get there?
Step A: The City could borrow a page from York Region’s playbook and immediately allocate funds for the technical planning for a Port Lands LRT, even though the broader project funding is not settled. As Markham mayor Frank Scarpetti boasted on TVO’s The Agenda last week, York Region began the EAs for the Yonge Street subway extension up to Richmond Hill almost a decade ago. Why? Easy. To create bureaucratic and political momentum. And it’s worked.
Step B: Mayor John Tory and council should think hard about the future of that Scarborough subway levy, which, as I’ve written previously in this space, represents the one piece of fiscal leverage the city has in the upload “negotiations.” If the province wants to take on responsibility for funding subway capital expansion, it should take on the whole package, including the $1 billion from the special transit levy. Then, the city can redirect some or all of those funds to the waterfront transit line, which will generate long-term returns — in the form of property taxes and other development revenues — that will benefit the entire city.
Step C: If Tory is truly committed to the redevelopment of this part of the city, he or some noisy delegate should become a relentless and irritating champion of the investment needed for this project, in the way that Greg Sorbara did for the Spadina subway extension, the Fords did with Sarborough, and York Region stalwarts like Scarpetti and Bill Fisch have done for the Yonge extension.
These things don’t ever happen without advocates.
Indeed, that’s precisely the breach Dan Doctoroff decided to step into with Sidewalk’s LRT pitch. And let’s be honest: he and Team Sidewalk have read both the politics and commercial logic correctly. The City shouldn’t need to be told twice.
Community Housing for Resilient Communities
WHEN: Monday, April 01, 2019 – 3:00 pm – 6:00 pm
WHERE: Victoria Conference Centre, Sannich Room (at Level One), 720 Douglas Street Victoria
ADMISSION: The event is free for the general public, but RSVP is required due to limited seating (150 people). Register here.
Community Housing for Resilient Communities is a rare public event that features nine speakers from the community housing sectors of British Columbia and Quebec. They will share their inspiring stories about how they are acting to increase local control of urban land development to ensure our communities remain inclusive,diverse and resilient through development of housing as community-owned assets.
At this TED-talk formatted event, each speaker will discuss how they got involved with the community housing sector, demonstrate the innovation of their respective organizations and provide insight about how they hope their work will benefit not only the residents in the buildings of their organizations but also the broader community.
This event is part of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association’s 51st National Congress on Housing and Homelessness. It is being put on by BC Housing, the Real Estate Foundation of BC, Vancity, CMHC and CHRA.
The event is free for the general public, but RSVP is required due to limited seating (150 people).
Find out more about the Community Housing for Resilient Communities event here.
Oslo already has car-free blocks and car-light pedestrian zones that are full of people even late at night. And I knew it was a good sign when I stepped off the bus from the airport and immediately stumbled upon construction of a new rail line. But to make such a large area car-free entails going above and beyond a few projects here and there — it takes a comprehensive strategy.
So Oslo is working toward its goal on many fronts. The city has been aggressively removing car parking, for instance, and by the end of 2017, expects to no longer have any on-street parking in the city core. Off-street parking is also being addressed — all new developments are required to be car-free.
Ruter, the local transportation authority, plans to absorb all travel growth with buses, trains, and trams in addition to shifting some current car trips to transit. Car-share services are beginning to proliferate as more people go without a personal motor vehicle. Oh, and there’s this nifty plan to help people pay for electric-assist cargo bikes!
Bike lanes are getting built or upgraded throughout the city. You won’t find ample, Copenhagen-style protected bike lanes yet, but the on-going removal of car parking is clearing space for many wide, red curbside bike lanes. Despite the lack of true protection they feel safe, and unlike in the U.S., you will not find cars parking in them. Over four days, I probably could count the number of cars I saw blocking a bike lane on one hand.
The city’s bike-share, Oslo Bysykkel, has recently been completely overhauled with more stations, better bicycles, and a more convenient user interface. You can unlock your bike by smart phone as you approach the station, just take it and go.
Will Oslo’s city center go completely car-free by 2019? Momentum is certainly on the city’s side. So sit back and take in these scenes of a city making ambitious changes to its streets, as well as interviews with public figures like Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen, who discusses why reducing the footprint of cars is so important to the future of her city. I hope you enjoy watching this Streetfilm — I think it carries important implications for other cities around the world.
A series of exposés in recent days, in both The Toronto Star and the National Observer, revealed that Sidewalk Labs has retained a small army of lobbyists to sell what looks like a high stakes and very political quid pro quo deal: the Google subsidiary will finance the LRT and other high-tech infrastructure in several precincts in the Port Lands in exchange for a generous cut of future property tax growth, development charges revenue, and the freedom to design a smart neighbourhood and technology test-bed.
This, it would seem, is Sidewalk’s long-anticipated business model. (The company responded to the stories by saying the leaked plans aren’t finalized.) These revelations remind us to pose hard questions about how we got here and where we’re going next, including if we’re going anywhere at all with Sidewalk Labs.
There’s a lingering question from the beginning of this saga that demands an answer. In a January 2018 staff report, the City wrote: “The Framework Agreement between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs was not shared with governments prior to the Sidewalk Toronto announcement”. How is it possible that an agreement of this significance wasn’t shared with the three levels of government represented through the Waterfront Toronto board? This is a problematic and possibly instructive fact that has been normalized by the passage of time but shouldn’t be.
How will the MIDP be assessed?
Fast-forward to today and the upcoming Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), the final deliverable of this $50 million USD process. It will be hundreds of pages long, full of details about concepts that have been shared at public meetings. Judging by what’s transpired so far, the plan will likely be a wedge for privatization and governance in a range of areas. The MIDP will likely try to make Sidewalk’s approach palatable through job creation claims, a familiar lobbying tactic to anyone that knows the innovation sector. The tall timber piece plays heavily into this pitch.
In a recent op-ed in Spacing, councillor Joe Cressy, who is Mayor John Tory’s designate on the WT board, wrote: “I vow to see that the public’s interests are thoroughly protected as we review all aspects of the proposal for Quayside. Jane Jacobs used to say that communities have a right to say `no’ to things that are going to harm them, but a responsibility to say `yes’ to things that will help. That’s how I’ll approach the Sidewalk Labs debate.”
In the Star on Saturday, Cressy seemed to up the ante: “We have set out an objective to transform 12 acres of publicly owned real estate into a livable, affordable, sustainable neighbourhood. That needs to be done in a way that is not only appropriate but financed in a way that is in the public interest, not in the most convenient manner possible…We have the absolute right as the city and Waterfront Toronto to say no if we aren’t satisfied with the deal.” (Under the Plan Development Agreement released last July, WT’s board can seek to have any of its three government shareholders approve the MDIP.)
The thing that neither Councillor Cressy nor Mayor Tory talk about, however, is that the plan is not going to be made public immediately upon submission to WT. WT is going to review it with the three levels of government to suggest edits before Sidewalk Labs finalizes it and shares it with the public this summer.
So the fix is essentially in. WT and the governments can correct what they perceive as any major problems with the plan before it goes public, again helping obfuscate what Sidewalk Labs’ is seeking to do, again blending the role of Sidewalk Labs the corporation and Waterfront Toronto the public steward.
Setting that process flag aside, here’s another one: WT says it will use metrics related to categories laid out in the original request for proposals to assess the plan: job creation and economic development; sustainability and climate positive development; housing affordability; new mobility; and urban innovation. But WT officials are grading their own homework. Agency officials and all levels of government have been providing input on the plan all along, how could they now be independent enough to assess it critically?
According to University of Toronto criminologist and urban law expert Mariana Valverde, the development of this plan falls short of the norms and laws used by world-leading smart cities. “In the Toronto case, the tail is wagging the dog in a way that European cities would consider completely illegitimate and dysfunctional.”
In terms of the City’s formal assessment of the plan, the buildings, urban realm and transportation will either be made to conform to existing municipal regulations and master plans and policies or there will be a process to follow regarding exemptions. The City will do that job and do it well. This isn’t the problem.
Rather, the problem is a regulatory vacuum and questions about the RFP. Toronto residents didn’t ask for this financing scheme, nor did they ask for a test-bed neighbourhood. Where in the approvals process will the lack of social license for this project be discussed? The framing of the approvals process skips this fundamental question entirely.
What’s more, the approvals process won’t trigger an assessment of a wide range of potential liabilities that the City is taking on with this test-bed. What’s problematic about Cressy’s pledge to closely review the MIDP is that he (and others in government) talk as though there is already some well-developed regulatory assessment for this type of project. There isn’t.
We don’t have a system of democratic governance for projects where technology is deeply integrated into the physical environment. Toronto doesn’t have democratically informed and up-to-date guidance for municipal digital infrastructure, which might include policies on data governance, digital rights, procurement, hardware (such as sensors), intellectual property, sustainability metrics, and more. And not just as they relate to personal data, but all kinds of different data, data that would be used to assess environmental and resilience initiatives as well as infrastructure.
“Digitization adds a layer to all of our existing relationships, the Quayside project isn’t a regular development contract,” says Sean McDonald, co-founder of Digital Public: “Consider the way land titling evolved to include mineral, water, and air rights as advances in technology and law made them exploitable. What’s the digital equivalent – and how are we making those decisions?” There are no established accountabilities for public and private actors in this context.
Sidewalk Labs and the City may say there is time yet to create policy, but Sidewalk Labs should not be at the table influencing those discussions as they’ve been doing on other fronts already through their lobbying activities with all levels of government. Sidewalk Labs should not be co-authoring Toronto’s digital infrastructure policy. Trading air rights may be standard business in the Manhattan land deals Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff built his career on. But as his domain expands into the digital/smart infrastructure realm, are public authorities going to enable the regulatory capture that the tech sector excels at, where governments let the rules be dictated by the beneficiaries, in this case Sidewalk Labs?
Where do we go now?
Rather than attempt to evaluate a plan against criteria that don’t really exist, we can ask a more political question: should we just shut this project down? Along with a test-bed no one asked for comes an under-discussed moral question for this city and its residents: Does Toronto want to be the enabler population for more Alphabet products to be created and sold to city governments globally? Does Toronto even want to be party to profits from Alphabet products? Though as a recent piece on intellectual property points out, even that proposition may be faulty. To be clear, there is no public plan for this yet, but the prospect of WT sharing in IP development wealth has been discussed and normalized without serious debate.
As the Star’s exposé indicated, it’s only a matter of time before pilot projects are launched outside Quayside. The water will keep getting warmer, and issues will slip past our under-developed regulatory and policy filters. WT still has time to stop this particular project and hit re-set.
What have we learned?
In contrast to its previous planning processes, WT allowed a corporation bidding to build on public land the right to run a public engagement process while providing little transparency regarding business plans and infrastructure, and inadequate opportunities for residents to solicit questions or express concerns. Sidewalk Labs, moreover, has held closed door meeting with unnamed individuals Doctoroff has described as the “academic, business, civic, and cultural leadership of this city.”
The process has been out of step with how progressive cities around the world are approaching tech-enhanced districts. As Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities and a leading expert on the topic, has said, “Most cities are exploiting the ability for technology to bring more voices more frequently into planning discussions, especially to weigh the new and complex tradeoffs posed by digitalization. Sidewalk’s efforts in Toronto seem to be heading in the other direction.”
If Sidewalk’s deal does end up going sideways, as the provincial government has threatened, we should learn four key lessons from the botched process we’ve witnessed since October, 2017.
Consult first, then procure: If residents want a living lab or a test-bed, they need to agree to it and set the terms before vendors are involved. Have all the digital infrastructure and digital rights policy in place for a proper regulatory approvals process.
Make small scope procurements: This deal’s omnibus structure should have been cut into several smaller specific pieces, whether for financing or anything else.
Require governments or government agencies run public consultations. Vendors cannot be invited to use them for marketing and public relations.
Make tall timber and other low-carbon features a requirement on the next go. The ideas aren’t proprietary and Waterfront Toronto can get the jobs and industry off the ground if they want to.
Bianca Wylie is a technology advocate and a writer. You can follow her on Twitter @biancawylie