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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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