High rents. Long commutes. Crowds, pollution and traffic. Is this your experience of city living?

From e-bikes to congestion charges and from pop-up urinals to outdoor gyms, experts have spent decades trying to improve the quality of life in our cities.

Would you move to a “smart city” to cut out commuting?
Image: Reuters/Hannah Mckay

Now the company that owns Google has chosen the quayside area in Toronto – one of the largest underdeveloped urban spaces in North America – to start over and build a “smart city” from scratch.

Sidewalk Labs is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet and will invest $50m to create the new city, starting by building a community town hall next month.

It aims to become a working laboratory for a range of smart technology. And it is putting its money where its mouth is by having already decided to move Google’s Canadian headquarters to the redeveloped area.

And, as would be expected of a smart city, the digital infrastructure offers what the company describes as “ubiquitous connectivity for all”.

This is what Sidewalk Toronto could look like
Image: Sidewalk Labs

The opportunity to start from scratch, coupled with the advances in technology, means innovative solutions can be found to the traditional problems of our cities.

Affordable Housing: New prefabricated construction methods and materials together with flexible building designs promise to reduce the cost of housing and retail space.

Transport: There could be dedicated lanes for self-driving cars, real-time parking information and navigation and buses that are redirected away from bottlenecks.

Pollution: Energy-efficient building, clever recycling and the right infrastructure for green vehicles could create a climate-positive neighbourhood.

But such benefits won’t make the city an automatic success. The world’s most popular cities such as London, Paris and Tokyo may have many weaknesses, but they also have personality, diversity and a myriad of quirks that provide character and a sense of community.

South Korea’s Songdo is gleaming but not as popular as hoped
Image: Reuters

Character-building

In fact, previous cities that have been built from scratch have not always been the runaway success that was expected.

Songdo – South Korea’s smart city which is still being developed – has failed to attract enough businesses or residents.

Portugal’s planned smart city, once seen as a technology pioneer, has run into funding difficulties.

And purpose-built towns and cities such as Brazil’s capital Brasilia, Australia’s Adelaide and the UK’s Milton Keynes are well populated but accused of being sterile and soulless.

A city’s character or “soul” tends to develop organically, and cannot be drawn into the plans. Sidewalk Labs is well aware of this particular challenge, and acknowledges in its own launch literature that great neighbourhoods aren’t planned from the top down.

“I think the company needs to show that it can provide city services that are not restricted to white, male millennials,” Sarah Kaufman, Assistant Director for Technology Programming at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation told Wired magazine.

“That means serving the elderly, the disabled, the poor – all populations that cities serve and private companies do not.”

Sidewalk says it will actively work at building community, encouraging people, companies, start-ups and local organizations to suggest improvements in the years ahead.

Nevertheless it is likely that a certain type of person will be attracted to the convenience, innovations and newness of a smart city over an existing home and established community.

And that will make diversity and character more difficult to achieve.