Memories are short, especially when there are pipelines of money flowing through the city.
The debate around Google sister-firm Sidewalk Labs’ proposed smart city on the Toronto’s eastern waterfront has dominated the public conversation in the city, but it’s getting noisy and hard to tell truth from fiction.
I’m still on the fence about Sidewalk’s proposal. There’s a lot to like about it, but also a lot of unknowns to be wary of, especially around governance, who will control public spaces and the ownership of the extremely valuable, often quite personal public data that will be generated.
In normal circumstances, I’d be fairly confident Toronto’s democratic process would sort these issues out, but I’m increasingly wary of, and frankly disturbed by, some of the revisionist history that is creeping into the public discourse, especially from people who should know better.
I’ve watched respected and established urban thinkers say or write variations of “nothing has happened on Toronto’s waterfront” or “this is our only chance to do something good there” while endorsing Sidewalk’s plan. This is simply not true.
It’s very easy to be cynical about Toronto’s waterfront and that cynicism is being preyed upon right now. For decades, it languished as a post-industrial, dirty landscape. The lake, too, was legendarily polluted once. Like an unwanted and unfair reputation, that image has been hard to shake even though there have been massive changes on the waterfront, especially over the last decade.
Waterfront Toronto, the agency formed through a partnership of all three levels of government to oversee that change, was established nearly 20 years ago and began a series of extensive public consultations before coming up with master plans and getting on with building and rebuilding our waterfront. Visually, on the street, it was a slow start, but there was lots going on behind the scenes.
Consider this: one of the first major defeats the Ford mayoralty faced was when then-shadow mayor Doug Ford proposed a mall and Ferris wheel in the Port Lands. While a big wheel on its own isn’t a bad idea, his plan was at odds with existing plans many people had already bought into. It was no wonder that a grassroots opposition to Ford’s idea rose quickly and was strong enough to get him to back down.
Waterfront Toronto, with their years of consultation, had created a waterfront constituency that defended it when it was threatened.
It’s unfortunate that Waterfront Toronto fumbled the initial relationship with Sidewalk, but the agency has absolutely transformed a big part of Toronto and is one of the best governmental initiatives here. If we could go back to 2000 we wouldn’t recognize the lakefront.
There’s been the wholesale, European-style redesign of Queens Quay that makes room for all modes of transportation; parcels of empty land developed into buildings such as Corus Quay and a George Brown campus; and public spaces such as Sherbourne Common, HTO Park and the three wave decks. The high quality of these public spaces is unlike what we’re used to in Toronto, and more are in the works.
Not all of the buildings on Queens Quay are great, built when the waterfront was still a jumbled mess, but the notion that they cut the city off from the lake is also false: save for a handful of locations including the ferry docks and Redpath Sugar Refinery, it’s possible to walk the lake edge from Sherbourne St. to the HMCS York naval building west of Bathurst St. through continuous and excellent public spaces.
It’s been a slow process but democracy is slow, and it’s messy, and it can be frustrating. That doesn’t mean nothing has happened.
Apart from the revisionism, some have also glossed over of the data and governance issues in Sidewalk’s proposal that have not been solved yet. These are ephemeral “smart city” issues around ideas that haven’t been tried out here and are hard for most of us to grasp, so it’s easy to dismiss them.
Sidewalk’s plan could be really great for Toronto. As the public debate continues, just beware of those peddling revisionist waterfront histories, or who are pushing uncritical endorsements of it, as you make up your own mind. That, and if you see Sidewalk’s critics painted as cranks or anti-progress take a closer look at who they are. Agree or disagree with them, most of the vocal Sidewalk critics I’ve seen are independent citizens continuing Toronto’s long tradition of civic engagement and are not on anybody’s payroll.
Sidewalk has skilfully managed to engage a big swath of Toronto’s civil and commercial society in their project. That’s not necessarily bad, but in the spirit of openness, here’s something that might help us cut through all the noise: show us the payroll.
Sidewalk is asking for unprecedented, almost governmental power over the public realm, so we should have full public transparency. Let the public know who’s getting paid: every contractor hired, every lobbyist, every crisis communication firm, every architect, every planner, every thinker. Everyone who stands to benefit financially from Sidewalk’s proposal.
Knowing who’s tapping into the money pipeline might help us cut through some of that noise and make for a healthier public debate.
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef