It was supposed to be a sprawling “smart city” of tomorrow, with sensors tracking the speed of people crossing the streets and robots that could double as trash collectors.
But the overhaul of Toronto’s eastern waterfront envisioned by a sibling company of Google, a plan that raised a chorus of privacy concerns, was severely scaled back on Thursday. Waterfront Toronto, the government agency responsible for development of the area, voted unanimously to limit the ambitions of the company, Sidewalk Labs, from its original 190-acre plan to 12 acres.
The plans have included neighborhoods made entirely of wood, automatic awnings that shield pedestrians from rain, and sidewalks that melt snow. The development has been lauded for innovations that could help expand the global profile of Canada’s largest city.
Writing in The Toronto Star, Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, recently argued that the development would be a boon for the city, which he said was lagging “behind leading high-tech cities like San Francisco, New York, London and Shanghai.”
But plans for Quayside, as the development is known, have also called for sensors and cameras to track the people who live, work or pass through the area. The resulting data, the company said, would be used to further shape the new community.
That has spurred protests from local residents and privacy advocates. One group characterized the project as a “Google affiliate” trying to turn cities into “corporate surveillance states, modeled after Disney-style developments and sold to police services and corporate partners.”
Waterfront Toronto moved Thursday to wrest greater control of any data, requiring that Sidewalk Labs treat information collected in the development as a public asset. The agreement reached with Sidewalk Labs also requires that the company join forces with other property developers.
For one critic, that may not be enough.
“The best way out of this mess would be for Waterfront Toronto to end any deal with Sidewalk as soon as possible” Julie Beddoes, a local resident and member of the group BlockSidewalk, said in a statement after the vote.
The debate over whether Toronto had given too much power to a technology company has exposed the challenges facing cities as they try to pursue technological innovation with private partners while ensuring the privacy of their residents.
Keerthana Rang, a spokeswoman for Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent, Alphabet, said the company remained confident it could pursue its ambitions, albeit on a smaller scale.
Stressing that the project would help rejuvenate the area and create jobs, Ms. Rang said the company had planned, along with partners, to invest 1.3 billion Canadian dollars in the originally conceived development. It would now re-evaluate its overall investment, she said.
Daniel L. Doctoroff, the head of Sidewalk, had cast the original plan as a manifesto for the city of tomorrow. “It is a guidebook to a completely new approach to urbanism,” he said.
Waterfront Toronto said it will consult further with the public and conduct a formal evaluation of the plan, which will determine whether the project can go forward.
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