Cities today are growing at alarming rates. Rapid urbanization, fast-growing population, and technological implications are choking cities with jungles of built mass that more often than not fail to create humane living environments. 

With the growing demand for land to build on and its equivalent scarcity in cities, many organizations, administrations, and various other governing bodies around the world are turning towards revitalizing unused and abandoned industrial land to create functional and usable spaces and places to compensate for the lack of the same in cities.  

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet1
Toronto’s Portland is where the project was proposed to be built_©Heatherwick studio
Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet2
The Sidewalk Toronto smart city project_©The Verge 

One project that takes on a similar idea is the Sidewalk Toronto that proposed the transformation of Toronto’s Portland to the east of the downtown area, an area of the city that remained underutilized through decades of the city’s development, into an urban development project along Toronto’s waterfront. 

This project was initiated by Waterfront Toronto, a government organization that looks after projects associated with the revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront, in the year 2017 in collaboration with Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation organization that aims at creating innovative technology integrated urban solutions, who shares its parent organization, Alphabet, with Google.

The proposal was conceived to be the pilot project for Toronto’s future urban planning as a world-class city – a model with a first-of-its-kind development that could be taken inspiration from on how to build sustainable and technology-driven cities of the future. It aimed at creating new ‘urban communities’ that were people-centered and were designed following the ‘internet up’ approach by exploring methods of putting to use technology to improve the quality of life of users and make cities of the future more sustainable, cost-efficient, and accessible to all.

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet3
Integrating the waterfront into creating an interactive neighbourhood_©Dezeen

The entire project was fuelled by concepts that were derived as answers to the question- How can technology be used to make cities better and in what ways can human life and public realm interaction be supported and enhanced by technological aids? Since housing is the most expensive investment one has to make focus was laid on developing affordable housing systems.  

Out of the many phases of the project, the first phase of development was of the Quayside neighborhood, which was proposed to be a 12-acre mass timber city on the waterfront. Thomas Heatherwick’s studio and architecture firm Snøhetta developed proposals for this smart, mass-timber city that boasted of creating neighborhoods that were sustainable, inclusive, and affordable. 

Approximately 2500 housing units were to be built in this area with 40 percent of them being priced below market rate and 50 percent being purpose-built rental apartmentsessentially a combination of housing units that would cater to every economic and social group there is. To ensure dedicated efforts in keeping up with concepts of sustainability the firms decided to use mass timber that would be locally manufactured to develop the built structures which would again follow principles of modular housing and construction to minimize on-site energy expenditure and wastage. 

Moreover, the design of each of the modules would be done based on the concepts of the passive house with a parallel focus on on-site energy generation, to be done by integrating photovoltaic roof and façade systems into the modules, to reduce the overall energy demand that would otherwise weigh heavy on Toronto’s hydroelectric grid.

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet4
Proposed timber city in the Quayside area_©Sidewalk Labs
Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet5
Details of the proposed timber city in the Quayside area_©Sidewalk Labs
Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet6
Proposed timber city in the Quayside area- Renders of the timber towers_©Snohetta

From the visuals shared of the proposal, it can be seen that the new utopian city would look like a composition of tall timber buildings, modular construction embedded with concepts of the passive house to bring out sustainability and concepts alike into the project. 

To keep up with the constantly changing demands of users in terms of functional usage and scale of space the modules were designed as spaces called ‘loft’(s) where the only element of construction and building that would remain constant would be the exterior envelope while the interiors can be flexibly changed and modified to suit the changing requirements of the occupants.

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet7
Renders of the proposed timber city_©Heatherwick Studio
Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet8
Interior courtyards of the timber city_©Snohetta

The project also proposed to set up a timber factory in Ontario to meet the demands of timber required for the project. This would also parallelly contribute to economic development and growth by creating employment opportunities for a large number of people.  

Not only housing but also the public spaces, infrastructure, and transport systems laid out across the entire neighborhood would follow similar principles of using smart technology to address key issues such as sustainability, affordability, and inclusivity of spaces and places. It would also house other amenities such as retail and common leisure spaces and would also house offices such as Google’s Toronto Headquarters. 

Some of the notable features of the designs proposed by Thomas Heatherwick’s studio and Snøhetta include exposed CLT modules with transparent facades that cover large courtyards that form the main public spaces, and the composition of balconies that also behave as shades from extreme weather conditions.

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet9
Internet up approach for neighborhood design_©Urban Toronto

The proposal essentially explored methods of using technology to enhance functional abilities and their efficiency in a fast-growing, dense urban community. Technology-driven systems such as heated bike and pedestrian paths to melt snow, and using emerging materials like ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) plastics for sheltering public spaces and using the built environment to create comfortable outdoor environments and efficient microclimates would then increase the potential of the neighborhood to become extremely pedestrian-friendly thereby also reducing overall transport demand and requirement.  

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick: Mass-timber city - Sheet10
Parliament Slip in Sidewalk Toronto_©Picture Plane Studio for Sidewalk Labs

By creating a flexible ground floor strategy, called the Stoa, that is essentially a system of combining innovations in physical space, financing, digital services, and management of program mix the entire neighborhood would be technology-driven at every point in recording and presenting data about real-time conditions of usage of spaces and would thereby alert users and provide them with all required information that they would require to use the space. 

But it was this same data-driven approach that brought out concerns in the public and with the added burden of economic instability led by the pandemic, the project was called off in May 2020. It is nevertheless a well-detailed model to study and take references for while designing futuristic, technology-driven cities. 

Author

Priyamvada Gannavarapu is an architecture student who believes in the ability of architecture to influence and inspire human behaviour in fostering positive, efficient and sustainable built environments. As an avid reader ,a trained Bharatanatyam dancer and Carnatic vocalist she likes to explore the various aspects of experiential design in creating meaningful habitable spaces for users alike.

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