Frank Lloyd Wright’s sprawling utopia has reached its zenith. The architect, who detested cities, dreamt of a lush, suburban landscape populated by mass transit and American’s affection for their cars and attachment to the automobile industry as a uniquely American achievement. Wright once opined that, “To look at the plan of a great City is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor.” He found cities to be confined sicknesses, plagued by over-population and the human temperament that accompanies claustrophobia.
Wright subscribed to an idyllic ideology, the notion of a rural/urban marriage that would mimic his simple midwestern upbringing. He believed that cities required structure, a division of space to counter confinement. As the New Yorker noted in 2014, upon the opening of a MOMA exhibit dedicated to Wright’s never-realized urban template, “Broadacre City.”
“For Wright, implicit rules for ‘proper spacing’ were simply true and universal. They were cosmic rules, written into the land from time immemorial. As an architect and urban planner, Wright’s job was simply to translate these rules into plans for the building of structures and cities.”
What Wright didn’t foresee, what no one could predict, was the effect that digitalization and globalization would have on our urban populations. The sprawl that he romanitized came to be characterized by big box standardization and mass-produced townhouses, a realization of the Stepford nightmare.
According to StatsCan, in this decade the “proportion of people living in rural areas in Canada (18.9%) is among the lowest of the G8 countries,” while its population growth is the fastest among the G8. As a result, cities such as Toronto and Vancouver have seen their populations outgrow their urban capacity, and housing crises have plagued them and other Canadian metropoli. Combine the socioeconomic concerns with environmental inevitabilities, the certainty of urbanization is at the mercy of our collective ability to adapt to our new reality.
In order to combat rising rents, dwindling opportunity, and the inherent challenges of mass transit, the new urban landscape requires the same sort of ingenuity that has come to define the digital age. Sidewalk Labs describes itself as an “urban innovation organization.” The ambitious project is part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. And what better outfit to lead the urban revolution than the one that continually redefines the digital revolution. Google became a verb—it changed how we search for answers.
Sidewalk Labs aspires to those answers, and similar vernacular influence. As Google CEO Larry Page puts it: “Sidewalk will focus on improving city life for everyone by developing and incubating urban technologies to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage.”
Sidewalk Labs is headed by Daniel L. Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of New York City and former chief executive of Bloomberg—a pedigree that befits his organization’s. In an op-ed for The Globe & Mail (co-authored by Eric Schmidt, an Alphabet executive) Doctoroff said that Sidewalk was formed, “with the belief that emerging technologies could help tackle the world’s toughest urban challenges.
Together, we imagined a new kind of place where new digital and physical capabilities are built into its foundation. As this exploration evolved, we became convinced that this new place could make living in cities cheaper, healthier, greener, more convenient and even more exciting.”
And fittingly, the testbed for Sidewalk’s urban ambitions is Toronto. Canada’s largest metropolis is one of the world’s most multicultural and socioeconomically diverse cities, the perfect place to assay and imagine the city of our future. Sidewalk Toronto “will begin with a new neighbourhood, called Quayside, located at Parliament Slip, just southeast of Downtown Toronto. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto [an organization that oversees revitalization projects on Toronto’s waterfront] aim to bring the innovations advanced at Quayside to scale across the Eastern Waterfront, more than 325 hectares (800 acres) that represent one of North America’s largest areas of underdeveloped urban land.”
The project will be guided by four foundational principles:
- Establish a complete community that improves quality of life for a diverse population of residents, workers, and visitors.
- Create a destination for people, companies, startups, and local organizations to advance solutions to the challenges facing cities, such as energy use, housing affordability, and transportation.
- Make Toronto the global hub of a rising new industry: urban innovation.
- Serve as a model for sustainable neighbourhoods throughout Toronto and cities around the world.
This will be the very definition of a “smart city,” a template for how urban centres will evolve in order to “blend people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” But Sidewalk Toronto is not designed to be a bubble of suburbia within the skyscraper condos that have come to define TO’s globule of urbania, but rather a complimentary neighbourhood that not only embraces the city’s character and diversity, but aspires to grow and adapt with it. Sidewalk Toronto has a community commitment that they believe is essential to the success of the model city they hope to build, which includes:
- Embracing diversity and difference across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area
- A belief that every resident should have a voice
- Working in good faith in service of the public good
- Ensuring our work is inclusive of and accessible to all
- Respect for continuous learning and the expertise of lived experience
- A belief that solving complex issues requires genuine collaboration
Sidewalk Lab’s vision for Sidewalk Toronto and the projects that will follow is the ultimate realization of a globo-digital city, which will include a promise of mobility (self-driving cars, pedestrian and bicycle apparti, and public transit), efficient and affordable housing, environmental consciousness and responsibility, sustainability, community, digital infrastructure, and more. More intriguingly for denizens of the city that proudly proclaims #WeTheNorth, Sidewalk Toronto plans “all-weather infrastructure and data-driven management tools [which will] enable cities to make parks and public plazas more comfortable, lively, and safe, and self-driving vehicles enable communities to reclaim streets for public space and social connections.”
Sidewalk Labs is not the achievement of Frank Lloyd Wright’s unrealized dream of Broadacre City, but rather the evolution of our ideal of urban living. Wright wanted to solve the city. Sidewalk aims to define it by creating the scaffolding upon which they will hang future developments in Vancouver and Chicago and New York and Albuquerque and Lima and Chongqing and beyond.