In the weeks leading up to yesterday's big announcement that the city-building arm of Google parent company Alphabet—known as Sidewalk Labs—would be partnering with Waterfront Toronto on a new high-tech neighbourhood called Sidewalk Toronto, the news had become an open secret in development and media circles. When the story was leaked and published in The Globe and Mail earlier in the month, questions started to percolate regarding what types of innovative technologies might be harnessed, and how they could affect everyday life for residents and workers within "the first neighbourhood built from the internet up."
In yesterday's article covering the announcement, we laid out the broad strokes of what Sidewalk Toronto is, who is involved, where Quayside is, and what the next steps are for the project. Today, we delve deeper to explore some of the concept images released in conjunction with the announcement and speculate about what existing and yet-to-be-implemented technology could be used to help propel a 12-acre neighbourhood before it's translated to the 800-acre Port Lands to the east in the future.
The neighbourhood street grid would be populated by buildings that push the envelope in construction and sustainability, with early images showing plans for a tall timber building, a modular high-rise tower, and a cluster of homes using the ultra-sustainable passive house concept. A new building typology Sidewalk Labs calls "Loft" will be demonstrated within the community, which would feature rigid, standardized exterior shells with flexible interiors capable of being modified to accommodate drastic changes in building use. This model would allow for vast increases in building speed with lower construction costs than standard building typologies. It also plugs into the Jacobsian ethos of bringing new life to old—or in this case existing—buildings, allowing the modular structures to be adapted for future use instead of being replaced entirely.
Quayside would be plugged into a "microgrid" capable of fuelling electric vehicles with renewable energy and off-peak power, some of which will be generated on-site. Photovoltaic roof and façade coverings will contribute to the community's microgrid energy system, with a plan to cover 50% of all roof space in the community. This will help meet Waterfront Toronto’s target of 10% on-site power generation, with an expected reduction in load on the Toronto Hydro electric grid by 75% per capita versus existing conditions. This microgrid system would be joined by a thermal grid that can tap into the community's waste heat and natural cooling.
Among the more ambitious plans from Sidewalk Toronto, the implementation of weather mitigation technology aims to use the neighbourhood's built form to influence outdoor conditions, creating comfortable outdoor microclimates. Traditional low-tech weather mitigation approaches such as retractable awnings and canopies would be joined by more advanced methods like heated bike and pedestrian paths to melt snow, and emerging materials like ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) plastics for sheltering public spaces. By minimizing wind and creating ample shade coverage, the combined weather mitigation methods could create an additional 2,767 hours a year of comfortable outdoor conditions on Toronto's waterfront.
Keeping public spaces accessible, comfortable, and attractive is an important goal for the community, so the neighbourhood will be equipped with sensor arrays that monitor the condition of elements including air quality, and usage of public amenities like waste bins and public benches. Alerts would be sent to a control centre for something as simple as a garbage can overflow or a bench breaking, allowing for speedy repairs and upgrades.
Like any community, transportation will be an integral component in creating a successful extension of the city. The neighbourhood's street network would restrict access to conventional vehicles, giving priority to pedestrians, cyclists, and a low-capacity local transportation network. An adaptive traffic light pilot program would incorporate sensing technology to prioritize pedestrian and cyclist movement.
Traditional transit uses like extensions to the 510 and 514 streetcar routes would be complemented by a system of "taxibots" that falls somewhere between private vehicles and public transportation. This door-to-door service will make use of small self-driving vehicles—or multi-passenger vans for higher-capacity routes—allowing users to select preferences, and schedule trips. Discounted fares would be offered to the community's lower-income residents, while businesses will be given the option to pay for rides for employees and patrons, similar to the parking validation systems used around the world today.
Sidewalk Labs is also exploring the creation of a local elevated transport system, with options like individually dispatchable gondolas or more advanced systems like the Persuasive Electric Vehicle (PEV) being developed at MIT. This system could allow self-driving vehicles to travel both on the ground and connect to aerial skyway cables or guideways via "tower-launching stations".
One hybrid of existing technologies is the automated network of below-grade utility channels depicted below. This cross-section bears a striking resemblance to the utilidor (a portmanteau of utility corridor) system hidden below the crowds of unaware park-goers at Walt Disney World in Florida. Unlike the Disney utilidor system—which carries utilities and park workers out of view of guests—the utility channel at Sidewalk Toronto would carry not just basic utilities, but also a novel system being explored that would utilize industrial robots and standardized waste containers to shuttle solid waste and recycling to a central point in the community. From here, landfill and recyclables would likely be shipped off-site for processing, while organic materials would be processed at a centrally-located anaerobic digester.
These utility channels would also support an internal robot delivery system, which would be piloted in Quayside. This technology is still in development, though the intention is to have all businesses and residents within the community connected to the delivery system, with an eventual expansion to serve the entire east waterfront.
Sidewalk Toronto's plans to include a below-grade utility channel and a local elevated transportation system are just a few specific elements common to Disney theme parks. While that connection may seem like a bit of stretch, the overall vision of the project evokes a scaled down version of Walt Disney's original vision for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow), initially planned as a functioning independent municipality built around emerging technology. While the EPCOT dream was shelved after Walt Disney's death and re-engineered as a mildly futuristic theme park years later, a 21st-century take on this vision now has a better chance to be built right here in Toronto, and redefine the way cities are built.