In 2001, the city of Toronto and the government of Ontario and Canada founded the organisation of Waterfront Toronto which was charged with transforming and developing the site of the waterfront of Toronto and the Port Lands. In 2017, together with Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet (Google) announced the project Sidewalk Toronto which aimed to propel urban innovation and digitalisation in the city. This project promises to inject more than 1400 residential units, as well as 500 affordable housing units and 500 student residences in an area covering just under 5 hectares. In addition, 36.3 hectares of parks and public spaces should be provided for the city of Toronto as part of Sidewalk Toronto, which is thus set to create an entirely new urban area in the city.
This project is by no means unique. Large private companies, such as Alphabet (Google), are increasingly involved in urban planning and development. The recently completed Hudson Yard in New York City, founded by Goldman Sachs amongst others, is a good example of the role that private companies and interests can play in urban (re)development, and demonstrates that such projects can have a major impact on cities’ public realm. Such projects commonly only provide the bare functions of a city and often neglect the vital formal and social mix which according to American urban theorist Michael Sorkin gives cities life.
In many cases, such privately-propelled urban projects become placeless. What’s more, these projects often lay claim on commonly held resources; be these tangible (such as land or water) or intangible – e.g. the oft cited ‘right to the city’. This paper investigates the relation of Sidewalk Toronto project to the existing urban fabric and posits that the development plans that currently exist will result in the creation of an urban enclave, rather than a lively and integrated component of the Canadian city. The essay first analyses the urban strategy of the Sidewalk Labs, then relates this development to the urban history of Toronto, placing particular emphasis on its foundation around urban commons, and the development of public spaces in the city since. Finally, the paper introduces a speculative proposal for Toronto – my diploma project – which aims to mediate the anticipated negative impacts of the Sidewalk Labs and recover some of Toronto’s lost common ground.