Toronto’s Proposed “Smart City” a Model for Urban Connectedness

Three years ago, the UN declared October 31st to be World Cities Day to celebrate the world’s urban centres and share their successes and challenges for sustainable urban development. Although the theme, “Better City, Better Life,” is at the heart of the observance of World Cities Day every year, the specific theme for 2017 is “Innovative Governance, Open Cities.” According to the UN, this year’s theme was chosen as a way to underscore “the important role of urbanization as a source of global development and social inclusion.” This theme also helps to advance one of the key global goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — #11 is all about sustainable, inclusive cities and communities.

Just last year, the New Urban Agenda was developed by world leaders gathered at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. The aim of the agenda is to “rethink” traditional ideas of urbanization and embrace more appropriate policies for building and managing sustainable settlements. A huge part of this new initiative involves providing guidance to city leaders for improving connectivity, promoting accessibility, strengthening resilience, and fostering inclusion in their communities.

As part of the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) once again hosted a month-long celebration of cities called Urban October: 31 Days of Promoting a Better Future. The general purpose of Urban October (which culminates with World Cities Day today) is about starting a global dialogue for the purpose of sharing and demonstrating best practices for urban planning and community development.

The World Cities Day theme of “Innovative Governance, Open Cities” looks first at innovative, local governance practices that aim to strengthen “integrated territorial and urban development, metropolitan and inter-city cooperation” while developing “innovative citizen participation models.” The second part, “Open Cities,” refers to an urban environment as “a porous system,” successfully sustained by “the labor force, information and supplies that endlessly flow into it.”

In terms of innovation and openness, perhaps nothing is more relevant than the recent, exciting announcement of Google’s Sidewalk Labs “Smart City” community project that will launch in Toronto. Taking into account local government participation, the move “could bring a bold experiment in city-building and high-tech” to the city, Alex Bozikovic wrote in The Globe and Mail. The urban innovation lab is looking to invest $50 million USD in urban planning development funds in a 12-acre plot of land called Quayside at Toronto’s harbour front. The project would use the latest in information technology and data 

Why Toronto? While incidentally touching on the theme of this year’s World Cities Day, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff explained, “In Toronto, we found a city with unequalled diversity and a remarkable spirit of openness — a beacon of social tolerance that welcomes strivers from all over with new opportunities.” In fact, it is the city’s diversity that aligns so well with the project’s ultimate goal of finding innovative solutions for the challenges of rapid urban growth.

But it is ultimately the search for greater social connectedness that drives the project. What Doctoroff doesn’t want to do is to create an exclusive, wealthy neighbourhood that is removed from the immediate natural environment. Thus, the project aims to use the latest in technology to enhance and strengthen personal connections rather than “close us off to each other and from our surroundings.”

Although not all urban centres are able to benefit from a massive investment by one of the world’s largest corporations, this pilot project will no doubt bring new ways of thinking to the table. It is the perfect fit for “Innovative Governance” and “Open Cities,” and it is just the beginning for this type of inventive and inclusive urban planning. Undoubtedly we will see more proposals for other “smart cities” by next year’s World Cities Day.