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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.