The Most Innovative Project on the Waterfront

There is a something happening down on the waterfront that I think is the most exciting and innovative project anywhere in Toronto and perhaps all of Canada. Its a project that will completely redefine how we will think of our waterfront when it is complete – dare I say “world class”! Of course I am talking about the the naturalization of the mouth of the Don River. For over one hundred years the Don has ended by making an unnatural right turn into the Keating Channel, which has made it prone to flooding and polluted.

Dockwall for Villiers Island under construction east of Cherry St.

New dockwall under construction for Villiers Island. Photo credit: Andrew Simpson

The project will put the river back to a semblance of its original meandering route when the Portlands was one of the largest swamps in Canada. By following a meandering path that will slow down the river and provide flood protection to 240 hectares of the Portlands, it will unlock this land for development.

The new river will form the heart of an amazing new park (one of many developed by WaterfrontTO) which will support walking, cycling, canoeing and kayaking all in a natural environmental less than four kilometres from downtown. This new district is called Villiers Island and is slated for a mix of residential and commercial development. But what I think is the most amazing feature of the project is that it will restore a wide range of ecosystems – self regulating communities of plants and animals that will be re-introduced with all the ecosystem services we take for granted like sequestering carbon, filtering pollution from the water, and cleaning the air, to say nothing of the natural beauty. Humans pay nothing for these services upon which our very survival depends.

All this has been made possible by an investment of $1.2 Billion of public money from the three levels of government. Make no mistake, the governments will get a great return as those 240 hectares will now be available for development.

So how does this relate to that other project on the waterfront: Quayside, you know the one getting all the attention about innovation? Last month, Sidewalk Labs released its long awaited Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) for the Quayside district.

Part of the proposal considers Villiers Island as a location for their Canadian Headquarters as part of an Innovation Zone. Given that Villiers was not part of the scope of WaterfrontTO’s original RFP for Quayside, this seems like more than a little overreach.

There are two arguments that often get used to support projects like Quayside: nothing happened on the Portlands for 100 years – and that government can’t innovate. Both are false in the case of WaterfrontTO. There is close to 20 years of hard work based on extensive community consultation. It is even longer when you include the work of grassroots groups like Bring Back the Don, which first proposed the idea of re-naturalizing how the Don meets the harbour.

Do we need innovation to address crucial urban issues like housing affordability and climate adaptation? Absolutely, we need to look at ideas from around the world. Toronto has no monopoly on good ideas. In fact, our weak mayor system is just one example of our governance structure showing its limitations in responding to these critical issues. Which begs the question “why not let Sidewalk test their ideas out here, what is the worst that can happen?”

To answer this I will use an old story from the technology business. When IBM introduced their PC in 1981 they outsourced two crucial pieces of technology – the processors and the operating system (DOS). Those two companies – Intel and Microsoft became the de facto leaders in their respective sectors and to this day, almost 40 years later, have near monopolies – due to that decision by IBM. In the #SmartCities industry we are in 1981, at an inflection point where decisions made in the next few years will establish the embedded technologies – the SmartCities Operating System – that will determine how cities around the world function for the next generation.

There are huge and long lasting implications to the SmartCities conversation. We need to take the time to get this right. It is a much bigger discussion that is beyond just technology. It is about democracy and governance. All three levels of government and the civil sector need to understand and shape the policies and governance structures that will guide the SmartCities conversation. We need to ask ourselves who are SmartCities for? Who benefits and who is excluded (purposefully or by omission)? This should not be left to a vendor, which in the current vacuum of leadership is what has happened in Toronto with Sidewalk.

So how do we move forward?

  1. Familiarize yourself with the contents of the MIDP.
  2. Attend the WaterfrontTO public consultations:
  3. Follow #BlockSidewalk for important discussions about this topic:
  4. Engage your politicians about the SmartCities discussion.
  5. Don’t let anybody push us to make a quick decision. Toronto technology sector is booming.

I remain cautiously optimistic that great things will continue to happen on the waterfront. Let’s not sell ourselves short by thinking we can’t innovate – clearly we can, and we have a new river to prove it!

Andrew Simpson is a Principal Consultant at Ecotone Software Consulting Inc. providing clients with technology and sustainability solutions. He is also a founding member of The Roots Collaborative, a cooperative of sustainability and wellness professionals.

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