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Alphabet's plan for Toronto depends on huge amounts of data 

On Monday, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs released more detailed plans for Toronto, the site of the Google sister company’s first attempt to bring its techified, digital-forward sensibility to a full-scale development project. The Sidewalk Labs project dates to 2017, when the Canadian city welcomed the company to an undeveloped section of its waterfront. Now, after 18 months of speculation, work, and backlash from local advocates, the company has a 1,524-page master plan for the 12-acre lot, called Quayside.

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The four-volume plan highlights ambitious and sometimes flashy innovations from Sidewalk Labs, which has pledged to spend $1.3 billion on the project if it goes forward. The company hopes to construct all the buildings with timber, which it says is better for the environment, and build an underground pneumatic tube system for garbage removal. It wants residents to lean on public transit, walking, and biking rather than personal vehicles, and plans to build streets with autonomous vehicles—perhaps from its sister company, Waymo—in mind.

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Delivery robots might trundle down its wide sidewalks. The strategic use of very large, umbrella-like coverings might make outdoor spaces comfortable all year round (no small feat in lakeshore Canada). Sidewalk wants to designate 20 percent of the apartments as “affordable” and another 20 percent as “middle income,” for those who don’t generally qualify for social programs. And one day, it hopes to grow beyond Quayside, to a larger 350-acre development called the “Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration,” or IDEA district, where other companies might test their own urban innovations.

Many of these novel approaches make for excellent renderings. But they rely on a less-visible Alphabet philosophy: Collect data on everything. Sensors would stud the Quayside development, tracking everything from which street furniture residents use to how quickly they cross the street. This data collection is the most controversial part of Sidewalk’s plan. The company says the data is essential to building a new kind of urban space, where traffic, pollution, and noise levels are calibrated to keep residents happy. In this, it follows a new strain of tech-influenced urban planners, who believe a more rigorous approach to city planning might create places more pleasant for all. But advocates in and outside of Canada have questioned how the private company—which generates the vast majority of its revenue selling advertising—intends to safeguard the personal data it collects.

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