|Alphabet is Trying to Reinvent the City, Starting with Toronto|
Google has built an online empire by measuring everything. Clicks. GPS coordinates. Visits. Traffic. The company's resource is bits of info on you, which it mines, packages, repackages, repackages again, and then uses to sell you stuff. Now it's taking that data-driven world-building power to the real world. Google is building a city.
Tuesday afternoon, public officials gathered in Toronto to announce that Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary under the Alphabet umbrella that also houses Google, will pilot the redevelopment of 12 acres of southeastern waterfront. Today the area hosts a few industrial buildings and some parking lots. In just a few years, it will be a techified community going by the name of Quayside. Sidewalk Labs has already devoted $50 million to the project, and Google will move its Toronto headquarters to the neighborhood. Once the company has proven out its concept, it plans to expand its redevelopment to the entire 800-acre waterfront area.
This will be a fully Google-fied neighborhood, built from scratch, with a touch of Canadian flavor. (Maple-fried bacon? Poutine? Unfailing bilingual politeness?) Sidewalk Labs promises to embed all sorts of sensors everywhere possible, sucking up a constant stream of information about traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output. Cameras will help the company nail down the more intangible: Are people enjoying this public furniture arrangement in that green space? Are residents using the popup clinic when flu season strikes? Is that corner the optimal spot for a grocery store? Are its shopper locals or people coming in from outside the neighborhood?
In this distinctly "data is deity" Silicon Valley way, Alphabet joins the grand tradition of master-planned cities, places built from near-nothing with big social goals in mind. Historically, these have not worked out. Walt Disney’s Experimental Planned Community of Tomorrow—Epcot—died with its creator, transformed into a play park rather than viable community. South Korea's Songdo won't be finished until 2020, but the "smart city" has already fallen well short of its business and residential goals. The Brazilian capital of Brasilia is largely the work of one architect, Oscar Niemeyer, and though it’s praised for its beauty and scale it doesn’t quite function as a place. These efforts flop because they never feel quite human. They can't shake the sense that they've been engineered, not grown. “The problem is that it's not a city. It's that simple,” the urban scholar Richard Burdett, an urban planning expert and sociologist, told the BBC about Brasilia. “The issue is not whether it's a good city or a bad city. It's just not a city. It doesn't have the ingredients of a city: messy streets, people living above shops, and offices nearby.”
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