What’s New is Old Again

Sidewalk Labs: a glimpse at a utopian future for city-building? Not really. Still politics as usual.

On October 17, 2017, it appeared as though the future of city-building had arrived in Toronto. On that day, the Prime Minister, the mayor and then-executive chairman of Alphabet stood side by side to announce a plan to turn a derelict 12-acre strip of land on Toronto’s eastern lakefront into “the city of the future.”

Sidewalk Labs, the arm of tech giant Alphabet, was proposing a futuristic neighbourhood with all the latest smart city technologies built in: a smart power grid that utilizes thermal energy, a freight delivery system using underground tunnels and “smart containers,” dynamic streets that can serve a range of purposes given traffic flows, and “smart” sidewalks that adjust to pedestrian traffic.

Sidewalk’s CEO, Dan Doctoroff, promised to transform the way cities operate. Sidewalk would, he said, “create the neighbourhood of the future in the right kind of way, with people at its centre, and with cutting-edge technology and forward-thinking urban design combining to achieve ambitious improvements in the urban environment and in the way we all live.”

For several months the project ran virtually unopposed, a glimpse at a utopian future for city-building. And even when opposition did arise, it had a distinctly futuristic look and feel. Opposition groups to Sidewalk Labs abandoned familiar titles like “Friends of the Waterfront” with names like Tech Reset and #Blocksidewalk. These groups weren’t led by retirees or near neighbours, either. Tech Reset, for example, was run by Bianca Wylie, a self-described “open government advocate with a dual background in technology and public engagement.”

Photo Credit: DroneBoy for Sidewalk Labs

Gone too were the standard complaints about noise, dust and traffic. #Blocksidewalk was primarily concerned with the project’s “power asymmetry.” Its counterpart didn’t want lower building heights, they wanted “a national discussion about our data, related public infrastructure, and the degree to which we want big tech influencing our governance and public services.”

Viewed from afar, the proposal and its opponents appeared to herald a new generation of land-use battles, with carefully calibrated social media campaigns focused on the role of technology and the importance of privacy in the surveillance city. But a closer look behind the scenes shows a battle fought on familiar ground, using age-old tactics in a clear sign that no matter what form our future cities take, politics will always shape it. Indeed, the front line in the battle for what one newspaper called the “most contentious piece of land in North America” was being waged in the trenches of Toronto City Hall.

A look at the City of Toronto Lobbyist Registry reveals a ground war of epic proportions. A study by the CBC earlier this year revealed 32 lobbyist registration records for the company at the City of Toronto. There, lobbyists including CEO and former New York Deputy Mayor, Dan Doctoroff, have lobbied dozens of officials and councillors on everything from transportation to public health.

Records show Sidewalk has registered 40 people to lobby the government in meeting records that stretch for pages and pages over just the past couple months. Provincial and federal records show that the company is busy across Ministries and Departments, all the way up to the Premier’s and Prime Minister’s offices. In addition to the many former politicians and political staffers on Sidewalk’s payroll, Sidewalk even hired former city councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon to act on its behalf.

The opposition groups calling for greater transparency from the tech giant appear to be exempt from publicly registering as lobbyists. But anecdotal evidence points to an aggressive lobbying effort at City Hall among like-minded councillors and important staff.

City council has even divided along familiar fault lines. Councillors often opposed to development projects have found new reasons to oppose this one; ditto the city-builders on council. In short, building the city of the future looks a lot like building the city of the past. No matter the technology, the buildings or the lofty rhetoric around it all, land-use battles will forever be political.

Kevin Powers, good projects
Kevin Powers is Managing Principal of Project Advocacy, a subsidiary of Campbell Strategies, and is focused on helping project developers facing public and government opposition.
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