“This is a tale of two cities — Toronto and Barcelona — that may hold important lessons for others around the world. Both have big ambitions to change the way they operate but reflect very different visions of how smart cities should be run,” writes John Thornhill, Innovation Editor at the Financial Times, in an article earlier this week.
Both Toronto and Barcelona have a prominent reputation in the smart city community. The Canadian city has been making headlines in the last two years since the announcement that Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, won the tender for the Toronto Quayside development. The derelict, 350-acre waterfront area now appears destined to be the most advanced smart city project in the world, backed by the technological prowess and deep pockets of Google’s parent company Alphabet.
In the futuristic new development, 20-50 story timber skyscrapers will tower over an activity-packed, mixed-use, residential and commercial neighborhood. 1,200 square meters of heated sidewalks and 1,590 square meters of heated bike paths will melt ice during Toronto’s notorious winter. Adaptive smart roads, pedestrian zones, and waterside spaces will rest above all the ugly stuff, as robotic vehicles will zoom around subterranean tunnels to make deliveries and remove trash. And there will free WiFi everywhere, of course.
To build their smart district, Toronto enlisted the biggest technology company in the world and the result is likely to be the “smartest” smart city project in the world. Not everyone approves of this approach to urban development, however, not least the citizens of Toronto. While there is support for the project, it appears that the majority of Toronto’s citizens have some concern over corporate control of typically government roles. Seeing as that corporation is Google, the resistance is primarily focused on data privacy.
To dispell Orwellian fears, Google’s marketing engine has been in overdrive. The charm offensive included a masterplan with images drawn in the nostalgia-inducing style of an old children’s book. Depicting natural-looking wooden buildings, perfect weather, and busy, fun-filled waterfront and pedestrianized areas that can be scanned like the images in a Where’s Wally book.
“As innovate designs and their technological viability are rolled out by the public relations engine, more and more of Toronto’s citizens could put aside their corporate resistance, forget about their privacy concerns and be won over by what promises to be the most technologically advanced and human-centric urban district in the world,” we wrote in a July 2019 article on the topic.
In the Spanish city of Barcelona, there are far fewer concerns about smart city developments. In fact, most Barcelona residents have never heard of a smart city, let alone know that Barcelona has been ranked as the smartest city in the world on multiple years by numerous organizations. In a 2019 report by Juniper Research, Barcelona was awarded top spot again, beating off competitors; New York, London, and Singapore. The cities were assessed on their smart capabilities, with particular focus on their use of electricity grids, traffic management, and lighting, alongside aspects such as technological capability, environmental responsibility, and social cohesion.
Strolling through the relatively old architecture of Spain’s second-largest city, it takes a conscious-mind to realize that you rarely have to wait for wait long for the green man at pedestrian crossings, or that traffic is channeled away from residential areas quite effectively. Residents of Barcelona may take it for granted that their communal rubbish depository usually has space, or that their air is cleaner than you would expect for a city of its size and geography.
The good work of a municipal government often goes unpraised while failures are criticized fiercely. Their best indication of success is an economically, socially, and culturally vibrant city, and few could argue that Barcelona ticks all the boxes.
There are more obvious forms of smart city development too. Decidim, for example, is a digital platform for citizen participation in civic decision making that promises to “reprogramme democracy.” The Barcelona municipal government has also launched a superblock initiative converting multi-block areas of of the city into highly-pedestrianized, community-focused neighborhoods, as shown in this short documentary. While there has been some resistance, the initiative has generally been well received.
Barcelona’s approach to smart city development has been to identify urban problems and use existing technology to solve them. Better traffic management created the opportunity to reconfigure specific areas of the city to increase green space and enhance social cohesion. The latest urban planning tools allowed the municipal government to design these new superblocks to create a new harmony between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, while also bringing communities together.
Walk through one of these superblocks and you’ll find children of all ages exploring various shapes, swings, and frames in dedicated safe play areas, while parents chat in comfort. Chess and table tennis tables offer more direct interactions for local residents. You’ll always find some of the older citizens of the area enjoying quiet contemplation on one of the numerous benches positioned under the shade of a tree. Subtle road markings facilitate a relatively harmonious flow of cars, bicycles, joggers, dog-walkers, and pedestrians. It’s as if the area has been that way forever.
“Superblocks— 40-acre, tic-tac-toe sections of the street grid that the city has transformed into pedestrian-first environments — have shot the Catalonian capital to the cutting edge of urban design since Mayor Ada Colau took office in 2015. Drawing inspiration from the city’s historic plan, Colau centered her transportation policy platform around wide-scale pedestrianization of the city, with the goal of reducing private car and moped use by 21 percent,” explains a CityLab article.
In a crude sense, Toronto is selling a district of its city to a corporation while Barcelona appears to be reconfiguring their city through an open and democratic dialogue with its citizens. The cutting-edge Sidewalks Labs plan for the Toronto Quayside development is environmentally sound, highly-efficient, and seemingly very community-friendly. It is, however, being imposed somewhat on the citizens of Toronto. The key difference between this and Barcelona appears to be citizen participation in urban planning and design.
“There is no doubt that the latest technologies can offer huge improvements in the way that cities are run. In the cases of Toronto and Barcelona, there is also a big difference between invention and reinvention, between building something afresh and reimagining existing institutions,” wrote Thornhill. “How the Toronto and Barcelona experiments fare over the next few years will inform policymakers around the world as rapid urbanization emerges as one of the biggest policy challenges of our time.”