Last week’s CityAge Conference in Toronto brought together acclaimed speakers, urbanists, mayors and enthusiasts from across Canada and the United States to the MaRS Discovery District. The conference, held on November 22nd and 23rd, encouraged open communication and discussion in exploring what the future holds for Toronto and other leading cities across North America. Dialogue among the panelists focused on embracing technological advancements, public and private sector cooperation, and inclusivity, enabling rich conversation among leading industry experts and attendees. 

The conference kicked off with a lively message from mayor John Tory. He prefaced his presentation with a question—how do we make sure we’re still on the list of the world's most livable cities in 25 years? Using examples of large scale City developments, most notably the King Street Pilot Project and the Rail Deck Park proposal, Tory encouraged the public not to be fearful, but rather embrace bold and complex strategies contributing to Toronto’s advancement as a livable city. His support of these projects is to ensure that we don’t “slip down the list”as one of the greatest cities in the world. “I want Toronto to continue to be a magnet” Tory stated, encouraging public acceptance of substantial urban innovations and technological advancements.

Looking east through the Rail Deck Park concept proposal, City of TorontoLooking east through the Rail Deck Park vision, image courtesy of the City of Toronto

Tory’s remarks set the tone for extensive conversation surrounding the recent announcement of the development by Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto—partnered as Sidewalk Toronto—in a 12-acre site at 'Quayside'. Speaking to this was Claire Weisz, founding principal at WXY Architecture + Urban Design. Weisz has been integral in examining many of New York City’s harbourfront communities, with work on projects including Transmitter Park and Pier, and Kearny Point. Weisz cited these redevelopments as examples to consider when rethinking Toronto’s waterfront landscape. Weisz acknowledged the New York projects are considerably smaller in scale, noting our Port Lands hold enormous potential for change—covering a total of 880 acres. 

Building 78, Kearny Point, WXY Architects, New YorkRendering of building 78 at Kearny Point, image via WXY Architects

Sidewalk Toronto's redevelopment vision for the Quayside area of the East Bayfront and Lower Don Lands holds promise for the much larger Port Lands to the east with strong potential for further advancements. Rohit Aggarawala, the Head of Urban Systems at Sidewalk Labs and Kristina Verner, Vice President of Innovation, Sustainability and Prosperity at Waterfront Toronto, discussed early innovations brought by the Smart City plan. The conversation commenced noting that Sidewalk Toronto does not aim to “be the city of the future, but rather a neighbourhood of the future, integrated into the existing Toronto fabric”. 

Sidewalk's Mixed-Use Vision for the Quayside area, image courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

Focused on a goal of diversity and inclusivity, Sidewalk Labs will introduce advanced technologies while creating a neighbourhood determined to remain familiar and comfortable for people of all technological backgrounds. Aggarawala discussed plans to prioritize accessibility for pedestrians and bicyclists in the neighbourhood. “The pedestrian still needs to physically push a button to cross the street, making the pedestrian second-class”, Aggarawala commented, with the integration of technology “aiming to flip that”. Sidewalk Toronto’s mandate also includes prioritizing safety and security, and maintaining a minimum 20% affordable housing—all made possible through technological and design advancements.

“We are committed to really strong design, whether it's the technological interface or even building design,” Verner adds, revealing ideas such as LED lighting on streets, changing colour dependant on the type of usage, and adaptable signage developed under the same concept. The adoption of autonomous vehicles and smart controlled city services were openly discussed as near-future development. Through use of an “open data” concept, the city would be able to react quicker to services requirements. Examples included sensors to let the city know when a garbage bin is full, allowing a more efficient pickup. Other ideas surrounding water use monitoring could focus on individuals needs for more effective billing. Inclusivity of innovations through education and training are considered necessary for successful integration, to avoid creating a society fearful of change .

Sidewalk's Mixed-Use Vision for the Quayside area, image courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

Other presenters demonstrated that not all successful urban changes require adopting cutting-edge technologies. Melissa Higgs, Principal Architect at HCMA Architecture + Design, provided solutions to effectively change an urban landscape, shifting to focus on how people engage with a space. Higgs presented HCMA’s “Alley-Oop” project, reimagining a derelict and unwelcoming Vancouver laneway as a vibrant useable setting. Implementation of simple changes, including the introduction of brightly coloured paint, benches, basketball courts, and directional separations for traffic, lead to a highly successful repurposing of the laneway. The space changed both physically and socially, seeing an increase in pedestrian traffic and public engagement by creating a design inclusive of all people—proving that not all great ideas require a big budget or advanced technology.

AlleyOop, HCMA Architects, VancouverPhoto of AlleyOop opening, image via HCMA Architects

The laneway acts as an example of “mixed use” space, with both industrial and recreational purposes. The idea surrounding new spaces fulfilling a variety of needs was an opinion held by many panelists during the conference. Stephen Beatty, Americas Head of Global Infrastructure at KPMG spoke to the previous “single purpose site”, such as a library or school. His presentation proposed a change, re-envisioning sites to become “multi-modal”. His message emphasized a need for new developments to incorporate multipurpose ideologies— including all aspects such as retail, parking, commerce, daycare and residential uses, all under one roof.

Jeff Lehman, Mayor for the City of Barrie also championed this idea. He referenced previous systems once built to accommodate a “peak demand”, citing large parkades as the prime example. Technology is now providing solutions to remedy these under-utilized resources, such as creating a shared parking infrastructure by way of smartphone applications. “A spot that sits empty 95% of the time can now be shared by people based on their needs”. Lehman explained. Each panel cited different examples like this, providing solutions to “shave the peak” through a sharing economy. However, the question of how a city provides these solutions while being fiscally conscious commonly arose.

As cities rapidly evolve, resources and assets remain limited. This idea sparked discussion among panelist surrounding financial solutions, responding most positively to the idea of public and private sector partnerships as a way to advance cities effectively. Nancy MacDonald, Senior Principal and Urban Planning Lead from Stantec, believes firmly that public and private partnership is the real solution. Her fellow panelists, including Nille Juul-Sorensen, Principal Architect at Arup Canada, agreed this partnership is necessary for successful development of an urban environment. Each sector can offer different strengths—the public sector maintaining heightened accountability and regulation on the private sector, which in turn offers wider resources, creative license and efficient management solutions. Juul-Sorensen added the partnership requires a “trust” in one another in order to be successful. These partnership discussions would often reference the successful cooperation between private Sidewalk Labs and public sector Waterfront Toronto, acknowledging it as a pioneering union accessing Toronto’s full potential.

Once again this year, UrbanToronto participated as a media partner of the event and publishers Nada Laskovski and Edward Skira led panel discussions on how cities are leveraging their assets in new ways to build value and drive economic development; and how urban design can best contribute to inclusive city-building.

The conference concluded with the reminder of a simple idea not based on politics or technology; cities belong to the people that occupy them. Although this idea is often lost when discussing the complex challenges a city encounters, public engagement, education and open discussion remain key the successful advancement of an urban centre. Each speaker encouraged attendees and the general public to remain up-to-date through involvement in community consultations and closely following future developments.

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