Google's parent company is building a futuristic neighborhood in Canada - but locals don't want to live in a 'new Silicon Valley'
- In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs - the urban innovation unit of Google parent company Alphabet - announced plans to develop a high-tech neighborhood in Toronto, called Quayside.
- Sidewalk Labs recently held its first public roundtable with Toronto residents to discuss their thoughts and concerns about the project.
- In the company's summary, locals expressed worries that Quayside would become a "new Silicon Valley," bringing issues like gentrification/higher housing prices and income inequality. Silicon Valley (and the broader San Francisco Bay Area) has certainly experienced these problems at alarming rates.
- Some residents were optimistic that the project could address the city's existing sustainability and transportation challenges, according to the summary.
By 2020, Sidewalk Labs - the urban innovation subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet - plans to break ground on a high-tech neighborhood along Toronto's waterfront.
Called Quayside, the 12-acre development will prioritize "environmental sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity," according to Sidewalk Labs. The City of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs call the larger project "Sidewalk Toronto."
On March 20, Sidewalk Labs held its first public roundtable with 800 Toronto residents, who told the tech giant what they do and don't want in the new neighborhood. The company released a summary of the meeting this week.
There were eight common themes. Many locals asked about Sidewalk Lab's approach to sustainability, public space, community services like medical facilities and schools, affordable housing, transportation, building construction, embedded sensors, and data privacy.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Their worries are not unfounded. Income inequality in Silicon Valley - home to tech giants like Google, Apple, and Facebook - is among the nation's highest. According a 2018 report, in the larger San Francisco Bay Area, families on top make more than 10 times the salaries of those at the bottom.
And Silicon Valley as a whole is richer than the rest of the state. In 2016, the region's poverty rate was 8.6%, compared to 14.4% in California and 14.1% nationwide, according to the 2018 Silicon Valley Index released by Joint Venture Silicon Valley. At the same time, researchers say that over 10% of Silicon Valley's population lacks regular access to basic necessities, like nutritionally adequate food.
Silicon Valley has experienced a rise in housing costs and homelessness in recent years as well. While San Francisco median home prices have leveled out to around $1.2 million since 2015, Silicon Valley home prices have continued to climb. In just the last two years, median inflation-adjusted home prices in Silicon Valley have risen by 7.4%, compared to 3.7% statewide. San Francisco is well-known for its homeless tent encampments, and the area's homelessness crisis has now appeared to spread to Silicon Valley.
Some longtime residents have accused tech companies of perpetuating gentrification in the region, because tech workers are often siloed from the rest of the Bay Area.
"If a tech company sets up shop in a economically depressed part of a city, the interactions between the white employees and the black and Latino people in the neighborhood might be hostile," Richard Ford, a civil rights and anti-discrimination lawyer at Stanford told Wired in 2017. "Those interactions could increase bias by 'confirming' stereotypes. And this problem is especially pronounced because employees do not leave the building."
While Sidewalk Labs emphasizes that it will not prioritize tech companies' needs in Quayside's design, the project will likely draw more tech companies to Toronto due to its focus on innovation.
The meeting wasn't all negative, however. Residents were reportedly optimistic about how the project could improve Toronto's environmental sustainability, community services, and transportation.
But their concerns - sprinkled throughout the summary - are symptomatic of the public's larger distrust of tech companies that has grown in the past year. When Silicon Valley sprouted in the '70s and '80s, Bay Area locals were mostly optimistic about how tech could make their neighborhoods - and the world - better. But today, North Americans are much more skeptical of Sidewalk's plan to create the "world's first neighborhood built from the internet up."
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