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Plans To Develop High-Tech 'Smart City' In Toronto Met With Resistance


In Toronto, a plan to develop waterfront property along Lake Ontario is meeting resistance. The area is supposed to become a so-called smart city with high-tech sensors and data collectors baked into the infrastructure. As David McGuffin reports, many in Canada's biggest city are concerned about the company chosen to develop the site.

DAVID MCGUFFIN, BYLINE: The company's name is Sidewalk Labs. That may not ring a bell. But it's a spinoff of a corporation whose name is much more instantly recognizable, Google. Here's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing the plan to develop the 12-acre block of public lands called Quayside on Toronto's Lake Ontario waterfront back in 2017.


JUSTIN TRUDEAU: A world leader in urban innovation, Sidewalk Labs will create a test bed for new technologies in Quayside, technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities, which we hope to see scaled across Toronto's eastern waterfront and eventually in other parts of Canada and around the world.

MCGUFFIN: Jesse Shapins is the Sidewalk Labs director of urban design and digital innovation. He's especially excited about the green aspects of the project, like plans to build the world's tallest timber buildings, soaring, 35-story, curved structures of glass and high-density wood.

JESSE SHAPINS: And the benefits of that are that steel and concrete, which is the primary materials for our buildings today, are some of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Wood itself, obviously a renewable resource in itself, actually embodied carbon.

MCGUFFIN: Innovative plans also include roads and sidewalks made of modular concrete slabs fitted with heating systems to melt snow and ice. And the project involves thousands of monitors, sensors and cameras on streets, inside buildings and embedded in the infrastructure. The monitoring of people's movements is intended to improve the efficiency of traffic flow, energy use, garbage collection and more.

BRENDA MCPHAIL: So we're concerned about creating, essentially, a neighborhood in the city that's fundamentally based on a model of surveillance.

MCGUFFIN: Brenda McPhail is a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. It is suing to block the development, saying it is full of potential privacy breaches that violate Canadian constitutional rights.

MCPHAIL: Particularly because you're embedding technologies in the infrastructure that people don't have any choice about whether or not they're there, don't have any control over what data is or isn't being collected and have no meaningful way to consent to the information being collected.

MCGUFFIN: McPhail says the only way to prevent that from happening is to completely avoid going to that part of the city. She says that's just not fair. But Jesse Shapins of Sidewalk Labs says this project is not about data harvesting or surveillance.

SHAPINS: That's just not the business that we're in. There's only data collected when it is truly in service of achieving a public benefit.

MCGUFFIN: For example, he says, if there are sensors to improve pedestrian safety, that would all be collected by the city of Toronto. And since its initial proposal, Sidewalk Labs has made a number of concessions, including agreeing to hand over any of the data it collects to a government agency for safe keeping. Thorben Weiditz, who heads the community organization Block Sidewalk, remains skeptical.

SHAPINS: The notion that we allow a Google sister company access to publicly owned land in the city of Toronto and allow them to develop, you know, new forms of delivering municipal services, I think, is something that sort of strikes a nerve among a lot of people in Toronto.

MCGUFFIN: So many people that the final approval date for the development has just been pushed from March until May this year to allow for more public consultation - for NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Toronto.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "ANNA'S PAINTING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David McGuffin
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