How Tech World Is Shaping The Physical World To Suit A Human One

New York magazine|July 8-21, 2019

How Tech World Is Shaping The Physical World To Suit A Human One

Google’s ideas for the future of cities, starting with Toronto.

Justin Davidson

When the highest of high-tech master plans for Toronto’s waterfront, issued by Google’s sibling company Sidewalk Labs, arrived at my doorstep, I laughed. As I first riffled through the “Urban Innovations” section of the four-volume, 1,600-page boxed set (which you can also download), I came across a proposal for “lightweight, adjustable street furniture”—a.k.a. market stalls. There’s even a photograph of Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, where these modular artichoke- and eggplant-vending platforms pop up every morning and get stowed away by mid afternoon, just as they have for centuries. Awesome technology!

As I sat and read, though, it became clear that this forward-to-the-past approach is not a gaffe or a ploy but a goal. Billed as a data- crunching techno-utopia, Sidewalk’s vision for Quayside, the first 12-acre parcel of Toronto’s much vaster eastern waterfront, distills old-city principles and revives them for the digital age. Streets are designed around gasoline-free forms of transit: feet, wheelchairs, bicycles, and trolleys. Instead of having roads coated in asphalt that must be constantly jack hammered up, relaid, and patched, Quayside will have large hexagonal pavers that can be popped out and dropped back into place—essentially, oversize cobblestones.

It’s fascinating to see a software-powered universe come to grips with the physical world. The result is better than we had any reason to expect. Sidewalk’s CEO is Daniel Doctor off, the deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg who bequeathed to New York his signature project, Hudson Yards. Far from being the sequel to that district of glass megatowers, though, Quayside is the new city that Hudson Yards might have been: mixed, flexible, and humane. This is a mega development organized not only around a corporate ledger, a politician’s ambitions, or a tech guru’s fantasies—though all those desires are in the mix—but also around a set of thoroughly road-tested urban needs. At Hudson Yards, financial mechanisms dictated what could be built. In Abu Dhabi’s showcase, Masdar City, technological goals dictated what should be built. Quayside, on the other hand, turns the paradigm around, first determining what kind of place people want to live in, then designing the technological and financial tools to make it happen. In some ways, the Sidewalk vision is that of a preindustrial city, only more orderly, more privatized, and with less early death.

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July 8-21, 2019