As every renter in San Francisco and Seattle knows, the tech industry can be a big contributor to the lack of affordable housing in urban areas. But Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, is convinced it can also be part of the solution — if we bridge the digital-urbanist divide.
Earlier this month Sidewalk Labs secured a massive workshop to test its theory on the Toronto waterfront. The project is a partnership between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto — an organization created by the local government to represent the public’s interests. For the next year, Sidewalk Toronto will solicit feedback from the community and create a blueprint for the project. That period kicked off Wednesday with a Town Hall in Toronto. If all of the stakeholders accept the final plan, Sidewalk Toronto will break ground on Quayside, a pilot for the city of the future.
During the Town Hall, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff and Waterfront Toronto CEO Will Fleissig emphatically insisted that affordability is the core mission of the project. They envision a neighborhood with mixed-use housing that accommodates singles, families, and seniors of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
“From the very first day that Sidewalk Labs was formed, I reached an agreement with Larry Page of Google — then Google, now Alphabet,” Doctoroff said on stage Wednesday. “What were our objectives and what were our assumptions for this project? The first thing that we agreed on was that wherever we do this, however we do it, the community that we create, in partnership with local residents and local elected officials, had to reflect the diversity of the surrounding metropolitan area on a socioeconomic basis.”
Doctoroff used transportation as an example of a system that could be more affordable with improved technology. He envisions a network of self-driving cars, bike paths, and smart mass transit that are packaged and sold as a single service. He predicts it would save the average Canadian family $6,000 per year.
“We think that is actually possible here,” he said. “But the purpose of the technology is never to try new cool stuff. We don’t care about trying new cool stuff. We care about transforming people’s lives.”
The team also believes that designing a neighborhood with inclusivity in mind from the outset and soliciting community feedback over the next year will help them achieve their affordability goals.
“The idea of creating inclusive affordable housing starts at the design level,” Fleissig said.
Doctoroff added, “we’re sitting here at a moment in time when there are new design and fabrication technologies, that are only now becoming available, that we think can help to meaningfully reduce the cost of housing.”
It’s a bold vision but it won’t be an easy sell to the citizens of Toronto, many of whom expressed skepticism and concern about handing the keys to the kingdom over to a big tech company during the Town Hall Q&A. Both speakers did their best to assuage those concerns and Fleissig noted that the city has the ability to walk away from the project at any time if it doesn’t meet the community’s goals.
Sidewalk Toronto is a project unlike any other but Doctoroff does have experience with massive urban makeovers. As New York City’s deputy mayor of economic development, he oversaw rezoning that made projects like the High Line park and Hudson Yards possible. Doctoroff took the office just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and played a critical role in lower Manhattan’s revitalization, overseeing affordable housing projects and other development, which he explores in his new book.
But the High Line — a defunct elevated railway turned park — has become a symbol of New York’s growing wealth inequality — and Hudson Yards isn’t exactly an emblem of socioeconomic diversity.
Then again, neither project was created with the stated goal of using technology to create more inclusive and affordable communities. It’s too soon to predict the fate of Sidewalk Toronto but it will undoubtedly be shaped by the conversations and feedback the team receives over the next year.
“You’ve got to take risks and sometimes things don’t work out,” Doctoroff said, reflecting on his experience in New York and looking ahead to the Toronto project. “You have to be smart in the way you mitigate those risks but if we don’t take risks we’ll never do anything great … we’re in this to do something great, something historic, something that has an impact.”