Voices of Digital Communities

Toronto: A City So Smart, It Just May Be Intelligent

If somebody asked you to spend $9 billion to make a once-in-a-century improvement in your nation’s biggest city, what would you do?

by / May 28, 2013

Let’s say somebody asked you to spend $9 billion to make a once-in-a-century improvement in your nation’s biggest city.  What would you do with it?

clientuploads/Images/Bell-Blog-Reboot-Comm-2.jpg

For the past 10 years, answering that question has been the job of a gentleman named John Campbell, CEO of Waterfront Toronto (WT).  John and his Director of Intelligent Communities, Kristina Verner, were my hosts for a mid-April Top7 site visit to Canada’s financial and media capital and its largest metro area by population. 

clientuploads/Images/John Campbell.jpgNobody handed John (pictured right) a $9 billion check and told him to get to work. The Federal, Provincial and city government joined force to provide $1.5 bn in funding. Private developers have invested another $2.5 bn to date.  The team he leads today will still be doing deals, raising money and plowing it back into the waterfront thirty years from now.

Like most older waterfront cities, Toronto located its heavy industries at lakeside.  The fading of manufacturing from the local economy left a vast brownfield site separating the heart of the city from the lake.  WT is an independent agency tasked with redeveloping 800 hectares of brownfield land to provide 40,000 residential units and one million square meters of commercial space.  A total of $3.7 bn has already gone into the ground, which is why there are more construction cranes on the WT site than any other location in North America.  

I have to say that projects like this do not ordinarily impress me.  They are big, they are imaginative, they are glittery.  But all too often, they turn out to be enormous investments of resource that benefit a small number of people.  You know the people I mean: the elite by income, occupation and personal wealth.

What impresses about WT is not its size, not its price tag – not even the ultrabroadband 1-10 Gbps fiber network that will connect every residential and commercial space.  What impresses is its vision.  Instead of having property builders in the driver’s seat, the project seems to be led by community builders.  Rather than creating a gated community for the uber-rich, Waterfront Toronto aims to transform the entire city in its image.  
 
The development team believes that public trust is the project’s greatest asset and has spent years gathering ideas, explaining decisions and reporting progress to citizens and local business.   Twenty percent of all housing is reserved for low-income residents – and they won’t be tucked into one low-rent corner of the waterfront but spread across its length.  The master plan devotes three-eighths of the total land to public parks.  It forbids the construction of a “wall of condos” blocking the water view, and takes such a sustainable approach to building that it has actually sparked an increase in the number of fish species in the lake.  
 
Its broadband network is funded by fees paid by every developer leasing property for construction.  Residential developers will bundle broadband service into condominium fees to encourage ubiquitous use, while low-income residents will receive it free.  The network is operated by a private partner, Beanfield, which is now being besieged by building owners outside the waterfront zone to be hooked up.  In this way, WT expects its network to drive demand for massive bandwidth across the city.  
My hosts showed me a dozen more ways in which they are driving a larger destiny for the city, from helping to reduce traffic congestion to bringing a community college campus onto the site.  

Smart this new urban center will definitely be.  But – unlike so many efforts to create instant Smart Cities or make already-successful urban centers a little smarter – the Waterfront has the potential to make Toronto truly intelligent.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.