Google’s Smart City Is Killed Off by COVID–19

Sidewalk Lab’s doomed project is representative of wider troubles for the AEC industry during the COVID–19 pandemic.

Nathaniel Bahadursingh Nathaniel Bahadursingh

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Google’s vision for a Toronto waterfront smart city is no more. Daniel L. Doctoroff, CEO of the urban innovation startup Sidewalk Labs, announced that plans to move forward with the ambitious and controversial redevelopment project have been abandoned. Citing “unprecedented economic uncertainty”, this cancellation reflects just how hard the construction and design industry has been hit by the COVID–19 pandemic.

Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs sought to redevelop a 12-acre portion of Toronto’s waterfront; image via Sidewalk Labs

In 2017, Alphabet Inc. subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, announced a $50 million investment into a project to redevelop a portion of Toronto’s waterfront. Named Quayside, the plan sought to transform a 12-acre stretch of disused dockland along Lake Ontario just east of Toronto’s downtown core. The vision for the project included everything you’d want from a “smart city”: affordable housing, public space, green construction methods, enticing design renderings by the likes of Heatherwick Studio and Snøhetta, and an array of cutting-edge technology, such as self-driving cars and heated sidewalks. 

Since its inception, however, Sidewalk Labs had been faced with significant controversy and pushback. Local citizens, civic leaders and activists raised concerns about the privacy implications of the project and how the Alphabet company would collect and protect data collected from an array of sensors and devices throughout the neighborhood.

A rendering of what would have been a grand central plaza; rendering by Heatherwick Studio for Sidewalk Labs

Critics also felt that the plan did not appear to put citizens at the center of its design process and was more concerned with developing technology and the private needs of its parent company. Furthermore, there were also concerns over how much of the city’s waterfront Sidewalk Labs wanted to control. The company attempted to widen the scope of the development to 190 acres, but eventually agreed to scale it back down. In the end and $980 million later, the project still didn’t have all of the government approvals it needed to actually move forward.

It is evident that Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project was in trouble long before the pandemic. However, the final push to its demise derived from COVID–19, a fate that’s been shared by the building and design industry as a whole. In April, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) released its first economic examination of residential design work as it deals with the pandemic. The findings were not great. As stated by AIA, “The momentum building in the housing market since the Great Recession has completely reversed itself over the course of just a few weeks…” 

Image via American Institute of Architects

The AIA’s report revealed that revenue at residential architecture firms for March is estimated to have dropped 15 percent below what was expected, with April revenue expected to be almost 20 percent below previous expectations. Demand for residential design activity is expected to continue to suffer until the homebuilding and home improvement industries return to their normal pace. 

Freezes on construction, disrupted supply chains and slower approvals are among the issues that are exacerbating the downturn. So far, as reported by the AIA, smaller firms with a focus on residential projects have been hit the hardest. However, as evidenced by the cancellation of the Google’s huge Quayside redevelopment project, it’s clear that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic extend across all levels of the design industry.

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