In Toronto, Google wants to branch out into city planning

Downtown Toronto. Image: Getty.

Sidewalk Labs, a Google company aiming to branch out into city planning, has come up with a futuristic vision for a chunk of the lakefront in Canada’s biggest city.

The plan for Quayside, a data-oriented high-tech neighbourhood in Toronto’s east end, has attracted a lot of attention because it seems to be “a built-form version of Facebook,” in the words of urban affairs expert John Lorinc.

But the proposed project’s risks go far beyond Google’s data collection and data use.

As an expert on the governance of urban development, with particular expertise in the growing use of public-private partnerships, I fear that the raging debate between “smart city” advocates and critics of big data may prevent Canadians from appreciating that the Google plan may involve software, but it’s a city plan, not an app.

As such, it represents a radical departure from the principles that have guided city planning in Canada since citizen participation and accountability came to the fore in the era of Jane Jacobs, a renowned Canadian-American urban planner.

Turning large areas over to private corporations so that they can not only build but even plan and control neighbourhoods or towns has happened in many Asian cities: Manila, Singapore and Hanoi have all witnessed the emergence of exclusive “Urban Integrated Megaprojects.” They may not have data sensors everywhere, but they otherwise resemble the Sidewalk Labs’ plan for Toronto.

Canary Wharf a corporate mega-project

Privatised planning also exists in democratic Western countries. In the Margaret Thatcher era, London saw the creation of several “Urban Development Corporations” designed specifically to go over the heads of local city councils, which were often dominated by Labour politicians opposed to such entities.

Developers entered into secretive deals with these obscure special-purpose authorities, sidelining local accountability processes to create exclusive commercial and residential districts, including Canary Wharf.

Local democracy has certainly had its ups and downs in Canada.

But unlike the situation in the UK, the federal government has no jurisdiction over city matters and so corporate involvement in urban planning has been more limited.

For example, next door to the proposed Google mini-city in Toronto, developer First Gulf is proposing to create a large office development in an area of the city that’s been dubbed East Harbour. The city of Toronto is allowing the developer to draw up a master plan covering not only the land it already owns, but also some adjacent areas.

This is somewhat worrisome because urban planning is first and foremost a key public function.


Working with the city

But as I saw at a recent community consultation meeting, First Gulf is working closely with Toronto urban planners and officials from the city’s parks department and public transit agencies.

In some cases they are even proposing details that exceed legal standards, and so the public interest seems to be front and centre. Of course, the profit motive has not disappeared. Local residents will need to stay vigilant.

Nonetheless, First Gulf is demonstrating that collaboration between private corporations and public bodies can serve the public interest.

A major difference between the East Harbour plan and the proposed Google project is that the Google folks have not approached the city in the usual, highly regulated manner, but have been negotiating, in secret, with the arms-length Waterfront Toronto.

A sketch of Sidewalk Labs’ plan for housing in its proposed Quayside development in east-end Toronto. Image: Sidewalk Labs.

Waterfront Toronto, a tri-government agency set up in 2000 to develop Toronto’s post-industrial waterfront, has facilitated many good projects. But like other agencies and commissions that have been spun off by governments, it lacks transparency.

Such agencies may very well do good work, but they operate much like private corporations. Their political masters sometimes hold them to account, but citizens have no idea who’s in charge or why they make the decisions they make.

Closed meetings

In contrast, city staff operate under the glaring light of compulsory transparency. The Waterfront Toronto board of directors — political appointees, overwhelmingly from corporate backgrounds — held a closed meeting in October after giving its own real estate committee less than four days to look at the Google plan.

It quickly proceeded to a big photo-op featuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, without the release of either the agreement itself or any prior studies that would justify its development.

City staff, who have noted that even their waterfront planning experts were not consulted, have recently raised important issues regarding potential conflicts between Google’s ambitions and public laws and policies. For example, the city has a fair procurement policy that would not allow it to let a big U.S. company have any kind of monopoly.

Even more worrying, Waterfront Toronto has declared that so-called Sidewalk TO will begin with the 12-acre Quayside, but “will then expand to 325 hectares (800 acres).”

“Will” is a peculiar word here.

Google does not own any of the land, so it’s not even in a position to seek development permission, much less approve its own plans.

The city has other ideas

For the larger 800-acre area, known as the Portlands, Toronto’s city council recently approved its own, much-discussed plan, one that focuses on preserving film studio space and makes no mention of Google.

At a recent University of Toronto panel on the proposal, the vice-president of Waterfront Toronto, Kristina Verner, was confronted with the discrepancy about what land is actually in play.


She explained that the plan would only come to fruition if Google’s Sidewalk Labs was given control over the larger area. Because the city appears reluctant, for good reason, to give important city planning powers about an 800-acre expanse to an American corporation, the agreement could fall apart.

Nonetheless, other corporations could easily be inspired by the much-touted Google plan to propose smart-city, tech-oriented neighbourhood plans to other municipalities.

It’s clear that tech companies expanding into city planning puts at risk the core democratic principles of Canadian urban planning and city-building.

The ConversationCorporations are not responsible to the people. And politicians can easily be seduced by visions of high-tech jobs. Only citizens can remind politicians that city building does involve deals — but only deals that have the public interest at heart, deals that respect public laws and policies.

Mariana Valverde, Urban law and governance, infrastructure researcher; professor of socio-legal studies, University of Toronto.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free, alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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