Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 18: The MIDP Volume 1, The Plans; Chapter 1: The Quayside Plan, Part 2: How it Works (II)

In which Sidewalk Labs promotes the innovative nature of building tinier-than-currently-allowed apartments and I note the irony of Sidewalk Labs touting a transparency app in what is easily the most poorly designed non-transparent document I’ve ever had the misfortune to spend three weeks reading.

But enough of my petty complaining. Let’s get straight to activitivating,  shall we?

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

Part 2.3: Buildings and Housing (pp. 168-196; not listed in the Table of Contents)

Changing regulations: A “digital building code”

a proposed digital building code system could help ensure that this vibrant mix of uses can thrive without creating nuisances, such as noise.

This proposal assumes that specific and easily measurable criteria – most notably noise – are the only reasons why manufacturing and residential have traditionally been separated. I would like to hear from municipal experts about why we have the current separation of building/activity types, and what is being gained and lost from this proposal.

The mass timber bet

It drives Sidewalk Labs’ cost projections and environmental commitment (p. 172) Also, it doesn’t yet exist. It may work out. Or it may not. That’s how innovation works.

Also, they want to save money via “Factory-produced buildings.” (p. 173) I’d love for an expert to weigh in on this proposal (which, again, remains an aspiration supported here by some pretty drawings).

“Flexible building interiors” (p. 178)

I’d like to see some actual designs and plans, certified by an engineer saying that these can actually work and won’t collapse, please. Instead, all we have again are aforementioned pretty drawings and a reference to “design concepts” from three architecture firms (p. 181). If actual plans exist, they’re not referenced in this section. I also want to see the architecture firms interrogated in public, by qualified engineers, regarding the viability of their mock-ups. In short, how theoretical are these proposals? How far away from being street-ready are they?

I don’t mean to sound too much like a broken record, but this is not a plan; it’s the world’s largest sales brochure.

Affordable housing

On page 191, we get some insight into how Sidewalk Labs would create affordable housing:

Smaller apartments (7% smaller on average), allowing for more units, including Murphy beds, “convertible furniture, built-in-shelfing and fold-out tables. … ” and off-site storage for their stuff, and tool (e.g., ladders) rental. This tool rental is referred to as “borrowing,” but given Sidewalk Labs’ tendency to want to charge for everything it can think of, I’m betting this would end up being a rental service.

Also, “communal spaces,” co-living units that sound like rooming houses or roommate flats, where people could rent out spare rooms for visiting relatives or to host “dinner parties.”

I would be curious as to who would be interested in living in a pod with a Murphy bed, sharing a kitchen and dining room with roommates. Because that’s what Sidewalk Labs is selling here. It all sounds like a way to cram as many poor people into a small as spaces as possible, while ensuring that more room exists to sell much-bigger condos to rich people. Or maybe it’s for single workaholic tech bros?

Their mass timber dream would also contribute to health, through reduced stress from people looking at wood.  This is based on research finding reduced stress “that have been shown to occur with exposure to nature in cities.”

The story of Jamie (pp. 192-195)

I’m not sure that the story that Sidewalk Labs is using to sell their unique flexible housing is telling the story that they think it is. First, it’s as much a story about financing as it is about housing. Second, it describes a person who doesn’t want to live outside of a, what, six-block, area his entire life. That Sidewalk Labs is proposing a mix of dwellings is fine, but it’s also kind of banal.

Part 2.4: Sustainability (pp. 198-213; not listed in the Table of Contents)

According to this section, Sidewalk Labs would hit its environmental goals by improving insulation, making buildings airtight, better filtering and more efficient air conditioning. (p. 200)

Also: a district-wide thermal grid relying on “clean energy sources” (p. 202), such as geothermal energy, waste heat, wastewater heat, and assuming solar panels and batteries (pp. 203-204). This is something that requires a system built on the level of the wider waterfront area Sidewalk Labs would like to control.

Also: an app that would allow you to manage your energy use. (p. 205)

I would like to hear from some independent engineers on the feasibility of this proposal. Also, Sidewalk Labs is all about telling us about how this would work if everything goes right. We also need to know, and what could go wrong?

On waste disposal (p. 209): I want to know who’s going to fix all this when it breaks down, what the maintenance budget is going to look like, and the skills needed by the people who are going to keep this complex system going.

Stormwater management (p. 210-213). Not my area of expertise.

Part 2.5: Social Infrastructure (pp. 214-229; not listed in the Table of Contents)

  • Sidewalk Labs would not directly provide community services. (p. 216)
  • It proposes allocating 90,000 square feet toward social infrastructure (question: how much of this is flex space?) (p. 216)
  • It proposes “supporting local community organizations and service providers with expertise, digital prototypes, resources, and planning to bring innovative service delivery models to the community.” Question: How much would it charge for these services? (p. 216)
  • It proposes working “with partners to ensure that critical services are accessible to all populations, including the most vulnerable.” Question: How long is this service commitment for? What does a for-profit development company know about social services? (p. 216) One possible answer, on p. 120: through below-market rents (p. 120) and possibly provision of its “expertise, including support on technical roadmaps for new or existing digital tools that could meaningfully improve outcomes, efficiency, and experience.” (p. 221) Question: What does Sidewalk Labs know about community services? Google, on the other hand, is building an expertise in this area.
  • It proposes getting “a local partner to convene health care and community service providers; working together with the community, this group could explore opportunities to provide proactive, integrated, digitally enabled, and holistic service delivery offerings.” (p. 216)

Super-innovative: A government-transparency app.

This is all a bit vague:

To complement the physical space, fully accessible digital tools — both those already existing in the market and others created in partnership with the community — could help people to participate in civic life, collaborate, and shape their neighbourhood and help governing bodies to undertake more transparent, inclusive, and responsive decision-making. (p. 217)

What’s interesting here is Sidewalk Labs’ implicit view of what makes for good governance, namely full transparency as it relates to decision-making. This perspective is embedded in its description of Collab its prototype “digital tool.”

According to Sidewalk Labs, Collab:

engages community members in local decisions that can shape their neighbourhood, such as programming in a central public space, through a transparent process that reveals the decision-making framework and all community inputs. Users propose their choices for events in their community, and then the tool walks them through the trade-offs associated with each proposal — a farmers market provides fresh produce and draws a lot of foot traffic, but the space may feel too congested for a community picnic — and how their individual choices impact the community. (p. 217, emphasis added)

This app does hide a lot of the politics under the hood – who decides how issues are framed what tradeoffs are included/ignored, that everyone involved is fully informed about the issues, that all issues should be open to majority vote (think: minority rights), that there is no role for elected representatives – but for the moment, consider the bitter irony of its inclusion in this proposal.

The Master Innovation and Development Plan and the process leading up to it is the goateed evil twin of Collab, its anthesis, its negation. The MIDP proposes fuzzy, aspirational projects in the most opaque way possible, with relevant information for single parts of the project (such as the Open Space Alliance) scattered over 1,500 pages, with no complete description in any one place.

It does not include any talk of the tradeoffs involved in its choices. And the refusal of Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to release key documents or to deal with key issues in a timely manner throughout the past two years has made the process anything but transparent.

For health and social services

The “Care Collective”: “for the co-location of preventive support, health care, and community services as well as offering leases at below-market rates to ensure a diverse set of service providers, including non- profit organizations.” (p. 220)

Sidewalk Labs invents the community centre!

the Civic Assembly, a place for gathering, learning, and engaging amongst the community. (p. 217)

This space would be operated by Sidewalk Labs (which presumably would be the landlord), working with others to plan its operations. (p. 225)

Private-public partnerships come for elementary school children!

To begin activitivating [typo, or a new business line? In a world where an “Assembly” refers to a physical space and not a group of people, nothing seems real anymore] opportunities for learning throughout the community, Sidewalk Labs is pursuing collaborations with educational leaders in Toronto. Sidewalk Labs and the Toronto Public Library (TPL) are currently exploring opportunities to seamlessly integrate the library’s presence throughout Quayside, building on the theme of learning happening everywhere.

These opportunities could include pop-up learning labs or lending services; TPL-developed classes, particularly those that support data, AI, and algorithmic literacy; or digital consult rooms in library branches or pop-up library stations that could allow residents to easily book a private session or meeting with service providers. (p. 228)

This section would seem to invite a conversation about whether or to what extent private companies should be invited into the classroom.

Another few sections finished. Let’s make #activitivating happen!

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