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An artist’s rendering of the proposed Quayside neighbourhood in Toronto. Alphabet Inc. Sidewalk Labs

Time to reset Waterfront Toronto’s Smart City public consultations

Sidewalk Labs, the Google company tapped by Waterfront Toronto to propose a smart-city development in its 12-acre Quayside district, has finally delivered its long-awaited (and long-delayed) Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP). The four-volume report clocks in at just under 1,500 pages.

The MIDP truly covers the waterfront, vastly exceeding its originally envisioned territorial scope. The report proposes extensive regulatory changes and carve-outs, new government agencies, significant governance powers for itself, expensive light-rail, timber skyscrapers (and Ontario-based mass-timber factories) and eye-catching (but yet-to-be-invented) possible new technologies.

Views of the Port Lands area from Cherry St., the future home of Sidewalk Labs in Toronto on June 25, 2019. Andrew Lahodynskyj/Canadian Press

And, in what can only be described as an act of remarkable hubris, Sidewalk Labs proposes that Waterfront Toronto — the tri-government (federal/provincial/municipal) agency supposedly running this process — either be restructured or replaced (see for example the reference on pages 232 and 233 of the MIDP Overview document to “Waterfront Toronto or Public Administrator” in terms of future responsibilities).

This is a lot to take in. Unfortunately, while Waterfront Toronto is giving Torontonians a chance to comment on the plan, its proposed schedule is — to be blunt — absurd.

The current process must be replaced with a more responsible hearings schedule.

Read more: Why the public needs more say on data consultations

Inadequate summer hearings

Here’s what’s on the table. Waterfront Toronto’s final in-person consultations were July 25 with July 31 being the last chance to submit responses to its online surveys (a shorter, almost laughably useless one, and a much better, longer survey that would take people the greater part of a day to complete) in time to be included in the next report.

For the next step, sometime in September, Waterfront Toronto will publish its own response to the Sidewalk Labs’ epic MIDP, “pulling together criticisms and concerns based on public commentary and responses from the various levels of government.”

And then we get to do it all over again. Sidewalk Labs will respond to Waterfront Toronto’s report with a final MIDP, on which Waterfront Toronto will convene another round of public consultations. Waterfront Toronto will then perform “an assessment of the final document, and make a recommendation to the board of directors.”

To recap: Torontonians are being asked to digest and comment on a 1,500-page, four-volume report that lacks an index, is available only as a series of pdfs or in print (and thus is not easily searchable), does not include either a complete or overall table of contents, and whose appendices are not included with the actual report, within the next week.

I’ve been working on Sidewalk Labs-adjacent material almost full-time for the past three weeks. (I’m liveblogging the process, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds.) I’m almost certainly not going to be finished by July 31.

As of July 18, Bianca Wylie, probably the person most familiar with this project outside of Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, noted on Twitter that she’s was just finishing the report. If the “Jane Jacobs of the Smart City Age” was still working her way through this less than two weeks before deadline day, what hope do mere mortals have of forming a reasoned opinion in the allotted time?

An impossible task

This is an impossible task. The process ensures that almost all of the up-front responses to this mastodonic report will be either superficial or self-interested takes from people who haven’t had the time or inclination to read a report that is not set up for easy use.

What’s worse, Waterfront Toronto knows that this is an impossible task, admitting as much on its Note to Reader, which it published just after Sidewalk Labs delivered the MIDP. In it, Waterfront Toronto remarks that the fall consultations will occur “once the Waterfront Toronto team and the public have had more time to work through and consider the Draft MIDP.” The public is being asked to comment on something that Waterfront Toronto itself does not yet fully understand.

Back to the drawing board

This is not what responsible consultations look like. A responsible consultation would begin in September, once the public and Waterfront Toronto have had time to digest these four doorstops. Consultations would be extensive, with several sub-rounds of meetings on each part of the report.

Only then, based on staff analysis and public input, would Waterfront Toronto issue its report. Sidewalk Labs would then respond and Waterfront Toronto could then hold a brief second round addressing Sidewalk Labs’ proposed changes. Then, based on that, Waterfront Toronto’s Board could decide whether or not to proceed.

This is not rocket science.

Instead, the current process minimizes the quality and quantity of up-front public input. By publishing its response before it engages in substantive consultations, Waterfront Toronto is creating the perfect conditions for an unholy mess. It will divide the focus of the fall consultations in two: the adequacy of Waterfront Toronto’s report and of Sidewalk Labs’ final MIDP. The result will be even more confusion. Which, granted, is par for the Quayside course.

As it stands, Waterfront Toronto’s current consultation process is unworkable and illegitimate. It is not a responsible survey of public opinion. If Waterfront Toronto is truly interested in listening to the public, it must give the public (and itself) sufficient time to consider the issues.

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