Sidewalk Labs is one of those spin-offs from the Google mothership — like Waymo and Dandelion — that take the company on bold new journeys designed to improve the human condition. Waymo is focused on creating self-driving vehicles to reduce carbon pollution and congestion in urban areas. Dandelion aims to bring the efficiencies of geothermal heating and cooling to more people at lower cost than ever. Sidewalk Labs is structured to rethink how the cities of the future will look, feel, and operate.
Sidewalk Labs says it “imagines, designs, tests, and builds urban innovations to help cities meet their biggest challenges.” In 2017, it entered into an agreement with Toronto to take a chunk of property on the shores of Lake Ontario and repurpose it as the company’s first Smart City, a place where engineers and architects could stretch their wings and test out innovative ideas. The area has been dubbed Quayside and it will consist initially of just 12 acres. But it may grow to include up to 350 acres in the foreseeable future.
Details have been sketchy until now. But recently Sidewalk Labs has taken the wraps off its proposals, which were developed in association with two architectural firms — Snøhetta and Heatherwick Studio. Think of this reveal as a concept car you might see at a car show. Concepts are designed to test market reaction and get people talking about the new product. Feedback from the show circuit often gets included in the finished product. In this case, the proposal has yet to be finally approved by Alphabet or the city of Toronto. Think of this as a “what might be” exercise. Fast Company has done a detailed analysis of the concept, which breaks down into 6 main areas of interest.
Wooden Buildings 30 Stories High
The first surprise Sidewalk Labs has in store is that the new buildings it proposes for the Quayside development will be constructed not from concrete and steel but from wood — cross laminated timber, to be precise. CLT is gaining favor as a carbon neutral construction especially in British Columbia where it has been promoted by local architect Michael Green. He has submitted a proposal for a 35 story CLT building — some people call them “plyscrapers” — to be built in Paris.
Emissions from concrete are far higher than most people realize, and contribute significantly to global warming. Wooden buildings avoid those carbon emissions and can be recycled into their component parts if necessary without adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The tower for the Quayside project will be a mixed use environment with 3,000 housing units and a variety of retail locations on the lower floors. Sidewalk Labs believes the materials can be sourced from local suppliers in and around Toronto.
A Modular City
Once you wrap your head around the idea of wooden buildings, it’s a short step from there to the use of modular construction. All the buildings would use common prefabricated beams and hexagonal pavement units that can be easily swapped around to adapt the Smart City to future needs. Think of it like an enormous carbon neutral LEGO set, ever changing and reconfigurable to meet the needs of the city as it grows.
High Tech And Low Carbon
The Smart City will feature 5G wireless internet for everyone with fiber optic plugs everywhere. Interactive curbs will detect the presence of pedestrians and vehicles, helping them to keep from bumping into each other. Geothermal heating and cooling will keep the interior spaces comfortable. Solar arrays wherever possible will supply much of the electricity needed to make the Smart City function. Composting and recycling will be handled by a “smart waste user interface” that will help keep up to 80% of the city’s waste products out of local landfills.
Sidewalk Labs says all the data generated by its Smart City will be scrubbed of identifying information and made publicly accessible. Fast Company is quick to point out that what can be anonymized can later by un-anonymized and that two privacy consultants parted company with the project last year. People are skeptical about claims of internet security these days and deservedly so.
Robots In The Basement
Subterranean tunnels filled with robots will make all deliveries to the Smart City without causing congestion on surface streets. The same robots would also use the tunnels to collect and remove waste products from within the city. Not quite the same idea Elon Musk has for tunnels under cities, but a different take on reducing congestion at ground level.
Burying services underground is not an entirely new idea, Fast Company suggests. Urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann first proposed the idea for Paris in the 1800s . Disneyworld and Roosevelt Island both feature underground refuse collection out of sight of urban dwellers.
An Emphasis On Outdoor Activities
Toronto is not exactly in the tropics, but the Sidewalk Labs planners have devoted lots of time to ideas that will get people outdoors even in the winter. Heated bike lanes will melt ice and snow, leaving the way clear for people to bike to an from work all year round. The front entrances of buildings will have clear canopies over outdoor spaces. In theory, outdoor dining and farmer’s markets will be possible no matter what the weather.
Who Pays For All This?
Sidewalk Labs will pay to construct the buildings in the first section of the Smart City. But necessary infrastructure upgrades such as sewers could cost as much as $6 billion. It proposes to front the money for those improvements but expects the city to repay those costs over time. It argues that the new cityspace will generate more tax revenue that can be applied to repay the loan.
Assuming the plans are approved at both the city and company level, the Smart City in Toronto could be ready in 5 to 6 years. Is it bold enough to be called the City of the Future or are there aspects of the plan that don’t push the envelope far enough? That’s the question city officials will have to answer as they ponder the Sidewalk Labs proposal.