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When Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, “released” its leaked master plan for the Toronto quayside development it was met with mixed reviews. For those staunchly against increased corporate involvement in public spaces and urban planning, and for those who adore anything Google does, minds were already made up before the plans emerged. However, most people kind-of like Google, or at least their services, but have some concern over corporate responsibility towards the environment and the rights of the average citizen.

This concerned majority found a masterplan drawn in the nostalgia-inducing style of an old children’s book depicting natural-looking wooden skyscrapers, open pedestrianized areas that adapt to weather conditions, they can also find all manner of fun activities and general frolicking when scanning the images like a Where’s Wally book. Google’s marketing engine was in top gear as it shows a crowd gathered on the waterfront watching a performer on a floating stage, next to a water volleyball match, a dragon boat team, and what must be a 100-foot projection of the “moonshot” image from the vintage 1902 movie: A Trip to the Moon (La Voyage dans la Lune).

Google, through Sidewalk Labs, is entering the urban development space where it will have to find a new approach to entice customers and stakeholders, now called tenants, residents, and citizens. Hence the charm offensive which, based on the numerous visual references, is targeted at the tech-savvy, environment and health conscious, active young professionals that it hopes will live and work in the new neighborhood.

The “leaked” quasi-fantasy, nostalgia-inducing, quayside utopia plan was designed to test-the-water, allowing design, public relations, and marketing to be optimized before official announcements were made. The draft master innovation and development plan is now available on the Sidewalk Labs website.

For the ideas that made it from the first draft, the new documents offered more detailed plans and tangible benefits. Free WiFi everywhere, of course. 1,200 square meters of heated sidewalks and 1,590 square metres of heated bike paths will melt ice during Toronto’s notorious winter. Adaptive smart roads, pedestrian zones and waterside spaces above, and all the ugly stuff underground.

“Google takes a variety of services underground with robots to free up the street level for humans. Robotic vehicles will zoom around subterranean tunnels to make deliveries and remove trash from around the district,” we wrote in a March 2019 article. “This will reduce congestion on the street, as well as removing “ugly” or disruptive elements like garbage trucks and delivery vehicles. A network of underground tunnels will handle the transport of all “last mile services,” and some expect that food deliveries will also be serviced by these tunnels.”

Timber skyscrapers are still the main event of the redevelopment. Later computer renderings show more curved structures, balconies resembling birds nests, and lush roof gardens, suggesting increased attention to the growing field of biophilic design.

Tall timber structures are not new but the scale of this project is unprecedented. Today, the tallest wooden building in the world is the 18-story Mjøstårnet in Brumunddal, Norway, but Sidewalk Labs intends to build a series of buildings from 20 to 50 stories high. Ambitious, almost to the point of unrealistic in the eyes of many, even the company itself at one point.

“It’s such an audacious concept to build this many buildings with 3 million square feet of timber all at once” said Karim Khalifa, director of building innovations at Sidewalk Labs, in an interview with Bloomberg at a project update in August 2018. He went on to suggest that the project would need developer support to make it happen but would allow for less carbon intensity than traditional building materials, more sustainable materials, and buildings that are faster to erect and cheaper to fund. Their bold can-do attitude was backed-up 11-months later, last week, with the announcement of what has been dubbed a “building factory.”

Sidewalk is proposing to build an $80 million timber factory and supply chain that would support the construction of these wooden buildings. The company says the factory would take a modular approach, manufacturing prefabricated building pieces that could then be assembled together to erect buildings on site. They say it would reduce building time by 35% compared to more traditional building methods, and provide a boost for the regional timber industry.

“We would fund the creation of [a factory] somewhere in the greater Toronto area that we think could play a role in catalyzing a new industry around mass timber,” says Sidewalk Labs CEO and chairman Dan Doctoroff. “To accelerate project timelines, improve predictability, and reduce costs in a holistic way, Quayside’s buildings would draw from a complete library of factory-made building parts that can be customized for each project to allow for a diverse and interesting variety of buildings that achieve design excellence,” Doctoroff’s factory plan states.

As strong as steel, fire-resistant, and environmentally-friendly if using sustainable sources, mass timber is emerging as a promising future building material. Canada already has 40% of the world’s sustainable forests and a mature timber industry, while Google has the resources and the will to take timber building to the next level.

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 and 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.