Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
In an echo of the Amazon HQ2 backlash in Queens, Canadian foes of Alphabet’s city-building arm have organized a campaign against the Quayside development.
Ever since Sidewalk Labs announced its plan to develop a Toronto neighborhood “from the Internet up” in 2017, the Google sister company has faced consistent criticism, locally and abroad. Now, in the wake of fresh headlines related to the project and a growing global backlash against urban profiteering by other tech companies, it will face an organized resistance.
Launched Monday morning, #BlockSidewalk is a campaign by Toronto residents to halt Sidewalk Labs’ sensor-laden, data-driven vision for a parcel of waterfront land known as Quayside. For the moment, supporters anywhere in the world can add their names to an online petition “to stop the project, assess the lessons learned, address the policy issues and then consider a fresh start for the deal.” In the future, leaders say, the campaign may eventually lead letter-writing, meetings, protests, and other actions.
“We’ll figure out as we go what the next steps are, but everything is on the table,” said Bianca Wylie, a campaign organizer and open government advocate who has long been a prominent critic of the Sidewalk Labs project. “To start, all we need to do is to bring residents together.”
#BlockSidewalk was catalyzed by a series of recent news events, Wylie said. Earlier this month, the Toronto Star leaked a proposal by Sidewalk Labs that proved the company’s ambitions to be much grander than previously known. Whereas the amount of public land slated for development had been limited to a 12-acre patch of the city’s waterfront, the documents revealed that Sidewalk Labs hopes to develop a much larger 350-acre swath that the smaller parcel sits within.
What’s more, the company also proposes financing a light-rail extension and underground infrastructure on that property, recouping its investments and profiting from a cut of developer fees and/or property tax increments leveraged from the future growth of land values. Those revenues could reach $6 billion over the next three decades, according to the proposal, which Sidewalk Labs has since publicly released.
These revelations came as a shock to elected officials at all levels of Canadian government, according to local media reports, despite the frequent meetings between Sidewalk Labs leaders and local and provincial politicians registered in lobbying records. Yet they underscore issues related to transparency, accountability, and democratic governance that Wylie and others have raised with the project from its inception.
For example: The founding agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, the government-appointed nonprofit responsible for stewarding the public land in question, went undisclosed until public outcry forced its release. The company also stayed mum for months on how it planned to manage citizen data collected within the Quayside community. And its underlying business model has long been hazy.
Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, responded to mounting criticism of the project in the wake of the leaked documents to the Star earlier this month. “It isn’t fully baked and people just naturally are afraid of new things,” he said. “The best thing we can do is sit down with them and explain and we will be thoughtful and patient and listen to people’s concerns and hopefully reach a place where we have a mutually acceptable way of moving forward that doesn’t have to be what we suggested.”
A Sidewalk Labs spokesperson later offered this response to the #BlockSidewalk campaign:
Robust public debate and discussion will only make these ideas better and we look forward to continuing to consult with Torontonians across the city to get this right. This project is for Toronto and it will be up to residents, Waterfront Toronto and all three levels of government to decide if it should go forward."
But for the people behind #BlockSidewalk, the development of Quayside should be reset and reimagined—without Sidewalk Labs in the driver’s seat. “There is no reason to continue with a process that’s been this anti-democratic,” Wylie said. Towards that end, the campaign will eventually introduce new visual renderings to offer Toronto alternative visions about what could be done with the space. “There’s a lot to be said about, ‘What do we want instead?’” she said.
The timing of the group’s announcement is meaningful: #BlockSidewalk comes on the heels of Amazon’s withdrawal from its much-ballyhooed plans to build a second headquarters in Queens, New York. That dramatic reversal was the result of mounting pressure by local activists and politicians opposed to the plan, which had been developed largely in secret and included nearly $3 billion in government incentives to bring the shipping giant to town. The day after Amazon’s departure made global headlines, the Washington Post broke a story about Google’s extensive use of shell companies and nondisclosure agreements to hide its identity as it expands data centers and offices across the U.S.
Melissa Goldstein, a Toronto affordable housing advocate and #BlockSidewalk organizer, said that these headlines are helping normalize the idea of protesting a tech giant among regular citizens who weren’t as engaged before. She pointed to a Facebook group for planning-minded Torontonians called “Young Urbanists League,” where conversation about Sidewalk Labs has been recently swirling among normally quieter voices. “People who aren’t really activists are now are seeing that this is happening in New York, and that it’s not so strange to push back against corporate influence,” Goldstein said.
That trend goes beyond North America: Last year, anti-gentrification activists in Germany forced Google to back out of plans to build a headquarters in the Kreuzberg neighborhood in Berlin. “I don’t know exactly how to stop something like this from happening,” Goldstein said. “But people have managed to do it in Berlin and in New York, and it’s pretty inspiring.”