Spotlight: Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs Announce Tech Focused Neighbourhood – a Transformative Moment for our City

A sketch depicts the hyper-connected new Toronto neighbourhood envisioned by Sidewalk Labs. (Sidewalk Labs)

A sketch depicts the hyper-connected new Toronto neighbourhood envisioned by Sidewalk Labs. (Sidewalk Labs)

On Tuesday afternoon, all three levels of government along with a representative from Waterfront communities and Sidewalk Labs announced their official plans for a new tech-focused neighbourhood on the eastern waterfront.

The announcement has been due since March when Waterfront Toronto began their search for a partner to transform the waterfront land and create a complete community. Not long after, Sidewalk Labs’ scouring search for their ideal place to build brought them to this site.

The project, which seems like a standard development plan announcement, is in fact a HUGE and transformative step in Toronto's, and ultimately the world’s, perspective on building standards and urban planning.

An image showing the 'mixed-use vision' for the envisioned Sidewalk Labs neighbourhood. (Sidewalk Labs)

An image showing the 'mixed-use vision' for the envisioned Sidewalk Labs neighbourhood. (Sidewalk Labs)

In my opinion, the key pillars upon which this community is based are:

  • First, build a neighbourhood that encompasses a vision for a diverse and inclusive community, empowering Toronto’s status as an immigration hub and it’s growing tech-centric culture.
  • Second, support the aspects of our economy that focused on technological innovations and creative problem solving. In Justin Trudeau’s words, the goal is to support “technologies that will help us build a smarter, greener, more inclusive city, which we hope to see scaled across…other parts of Canada and around the world.”
  • And third, display a community with both innovative building typologies as well sustainable building envelopes.

As Sean Mullin, executive director of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship said, “It’s not a tech hub. It’s not an Amazon headquarters, so to speak. It’s a different type of idea pioneering the cities of the future.”

This project is important because it transcends our existing thinking of maximum density buildings and profit-driven urban planning. This project sets a precedent and an example to think of real estate and building as an opportunity to advance our city and our standards to something sustainable, and innovation provoking.

This project works, ultimately because it stays true to much of what has made Toronto the amazing place that it is. Instead of resisting against natural growing pains, this project embraces the good and aims to transform the system to accommodate natural change. Instead of building lower quality, smaller but more plentiful buildings, this project endeavors to build smarter and more efficiently/ sustainably. Instead of resisting a growing city and population, this celebrates it; after all “technology is powered by immigrants” (Eric Schmidt, executive chairman, Alphabet).

 

So… what are they exactly planning to do, and what makes it different from all the other development promises?

 

Based on preliminary renderings of the site plan from Sidewalk labs, it’s obvious that this community plans to take innovation and sustainability far past energy star ratings.

(Sidewalk Labs)

(Sidewalk Labs)

From first glance, we can see that the buildings planned for the site will use the most innovative construction methods in terms of efficiency and innovation. Depicted on the plan is a Modular high rise, a tall timber building, and the implementation of fully passive houses (my personal favourite).

Urban Toronto expects that Sidewalk Labs’ new building technology called “Loft” will feature in the community. Their model is to have a rigid standardized exterior with a flexible and modular interior. Plus, this construction would extensively increase building speed and cost. Furthermore, the fact that is modular implies that as situations change over time, the building can be adjusted versus being entirely redone (a huge step for sustainable design and reducing waste).

Beyond typologies, the community plans seem to include the implementation of at least partially its own energy system with the inclusion of a micro grid and solar systems. The goal is 10% onsite power generation as well as a 75% load reduction on the Toronto Hydro Grid per capita.

(Sidewalk Labs)

(Sidewalk Labs)

Finally, its attentiveness to public spaces, pedestrians, cyclists, and transportation is evident through the creation of micro-climates (design elements that increase the accessibility of spaces), which would increase the number days of comfortable outdoor conditions by 115 days annually.  Self-driving shuttles, automatic underground delivery and pedestrian/bike focused routes arm the community to be adaptive and traffic-light. While some of these transportation endeavours seem a bit far-fetched at the moment, I think the thoughtfulness on how such systems would impact urban living are worth noting (perhaps as a glimpse into what the future might hold).

What’s unique about this master-plan is that it leads by example to transcend our existing construction technologies and building typologies creating something smarter, greener and more sustainable. It’s also a vision that is not only supported by all three levels of government (a rarity in and of itself), but also with a multitude of leading global firms. Together, this project truly has the capacity to reshape how we consider real estate, building and urban planning.