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Google’s New Developments Leave Sidewalk Labs in the Wind

With the cancellation of the Quayside Toronto Waterfront project this past spring, many are wondering if Sidewalk Labs, Google’s smart city arm, is dead. The project was cancelled because financial stress from the pandemic made it no longer viable to be able to produce the sustainable and inclusive community that had originally been designed, according to a blog post from Daniel L. Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs. 

Doctoroff goes on to explain the importance of investing in sustainable, affordable cities, especially in light of the pandemic and points to several Sidewalk Labs subsidiaries that address concerns like “urban mobility, next-generation infrastructure, and community-based healthcare” as proof of their continued work in this space. Similarly, they plan to continue investing in startups that address other equally important concerns when it comes to city planning and the future of sustainability. However, upon reaching out to Sidewalk Labs for comment in late July, they simply redirected me back to this blog post when asked about the future direction of the company.

Since that time, several press releases indicate that Google is still interested in investing in the future and development of smart cities. For example, Google announced plans to expand upon its sprawling campus, dubbed as a new ‘neighborhood’ in Mountain View, CA. The campus will contain shops, homes, and parks in addition to over one million square feet of office space. The 40-acre site is located just 40 miles south of San Francisco and has been referred to as the Middlefield Park development. 

The plan will convert an area that is now more than 50 percent parking and 42 percent offices into an innovative mixed use of space that includes a more holistic redistribution of space at “37 percent open space, 30 percent office space, 24 percent residential, six percent parking, two percent retail, and one percent civic uses,” according to an article on the matter. With this reimagined use of space, the Middlefield Park development will not separate the campus or business district from other use types, giving this neighborhood a more inclusive feel that aligns with what had been some of Sidewalk Labs’ goals and can be used as a model for future developments. 

A little over a year ago, Google pledged $1 billion towards the development of 20,000 homes in the area over the course of the decade. This pledge also indicated that a portion of the housing built will be affordable housing, accessible by a variety of income levels. In addition to Middlefield Park, Google also announced a new project in downtown San Jose, CA fittingly called Downtown West. According to the article, the development is an enormous “city within a city” that will include “7.3 million square feet of offices, 4,000 homes, shops, restaurants, a hotel, ten parks, cultural and entertainment hubs, and immersive and interactive educational elements near downtown San Jose’s Diridon train hub.” 

The Downtown West homes that will be located near Diridon Station are slated to be made up of at least 25 percent affordable housing, an element that works to meet the pledges requirements but that also is reminiscent of what Sidewalk Labs had been hoping to accomplish in Toronto. The dedicated park space and open community areas are also what experts believe will inevitably be the future of smart cities as we adapt to the threat of disease by moving gatherings and events outdoors. Google has said this development will not add any net carbon emissions, and plans to incorporate a local microgrid as well as solar energy generation.  

While this project is clearly not the smart city project originally envisioned by Sidewalk Labs, it carries some of the same elements that urbanists hope our future cities will have. So while Google is busy building these cities, what is Sidewalk Labs doing? According to their website, focusing on the technology and infrastructure that provides the means to actually undertake elaborate plans. For example, their most recent blog post showcases Delve, a Sidewalk Labs product that uses machine learning to design better developments by revealing options early in the decision-making process that produce better economic results for investors and better lives for the people that will eventually use these spaces—a large claim for a piece of software. However, products like Delve and factory-made timber developments (another Sidewalk Labs endeavor) could eventually become the norm when designing smart cities of the future. 

Sidewalk Labs may have shifted its focus to creating the necessary infrastructures and technologies that will eventually allow for big projects like Quayside to happen, but in the meantime, it seems like Google has picked up the slack. By creating innovative developments in their backyard, Google most certainly reaps the benefits of creating mini smart cities that can not only house their workers but can also facilitate the entire surrounding area to thrive. These projects are notably committing to affordable housing, the development of green spaces, and the use of green technology, but the question remains if these contributions are enough to balance out the self-serving motivators that spurred them on.  

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