Sidewalk Toronto: It’s Time for Waterfront Toronto 3.0 — Onward and Upward

Bianca Wylie
Mar 21 · 7 min read

It’s time for Waterfront Toronto 3.0 — restoring the organization’s legacy, applying lessons learned, and drawing on global best practices, in a range of realms, to deliver on its waterfront revitalization mandate.

Waterfront Toronto has an important legacy and purpose. It was founded to deliver excellence in waterfront revitalization in Toronto. Through the coordination and commitment of three levels of government, it has done so.

In its initial phase, Waterfront Toronto 1.0, the organization built its legacy. During these past few years, Waterfront Toronto 2.0, there has been testing and experimentation, with many lessons learned. And now it’s time for Waterfront Toronto 3.0 — restoring the organization’s legacy, applying lessons learned, and drawing on global best practices, in a range of realms, to deliver on its waterfront revitalization mandate.

Waterfront 1.0 — Legacy and Reputation Building

In its first iteration, Waterfront Toronto 1.0, CEO John Campbell oversaw the creation of an institution that did award-winning design work, began the important work of implementing environmental remediation, and through a range of economic development and social planning strategies, brought the waterfront to life. Through this work, and in partnership with a range of stakeholders, the organization set new standards in many domains, including its commitment to inclusive and persistent public engagement.

Though the work was done in small pieces, and with no shortage of political and funding challenges, the organization built trust and social license to innovate and operate with a small amount of flexibility that can be helpful in an innovation context for urban planning. John Lorinc wrote a great summary of this phase of Waterfront Toronto’s history in this piece for Spacing last year.

Waterfront 2.0 — Innovate and Evolve

Then in 2016, under Waterfront Toronto’s new CEO Will Fleissig, the organization underwent some changes. Most notable in this era was the Quayside project.

Through the process to create this project, and with the rare opportunity to work with a parcel of land that was mostly owned by Waterfront Toronto, the organization tried something new. They sought a funding and innovation partner to create a holistic and expansive plan for a smart neighbourhood. Quayside, besides exploring new ideas for affordability, sustainability, transportation, and resilience, was to become a testing ground for urban innovation. Part of this approach broke from Waterfront Toronto’s prior work in that it enabled a transaction that paved the way for influence on a much larger area of the eastern waterfront than the small Quayside test site. This was put on the table by Waterfront Toronto in its RFP through its rationale that some innovations require scale (infrastructure) and may create larger relationships to the land via infrastructure and financing.

This deal, with its broad scope and scale, marked a distinct change in Waterfront Toronto’s procurement. This was no regular real estate transaction. The intent behind this deal was to think big and try new things — which is laudable. But along with any kind of innovation, particularly in procurement, comes risk. To innovate means to expect risk, and to expect failure. One must be ready to adapt, and ultimately be ready to walk things back if they’re not working. Governments are not given enough room to do this and they should be. So for this reason, it’s important not to chastise the idea, but rather be supportive of the test coming to an end.

The request for proposal for Quayside created an outsized role for the investor/vendor — one that is challenging to accept when assessing it from a lens of fairness and democratic governance. So while the intentions of those involved were good, the approach veered too far from the successful legacy of the organization. The process that followed the award of this contract has eroded trust and reputation, a reputation built on a long history of successful work.

In order to restore good process and community vision to the waterfront, it’s time to move past this era and into a new one, bringing lessons learned and world-leading best practice to a fresh start.

No one in Toronto should be subject to endless iterations of trying to mitigate a deal that introduced troubling policy, procurement, and governance implications. This is not the time to drag the City through versions 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 and so on for years on end — which is what the current discourse is calling for. Plans upon plans that seek to make a bad situation less bad through the input and advice of governments and the public. This is not the way to excellence, and this is not the way of democracy.

There is a challenging set of issues to manage where digital and physical spaces converge. Because this is new, and hard, it’s critical that the digital governance parts of this work are excised and returned to elected governments to address with Toronto residents.

Other elements of this plan, such as the procurement structure, has put the vendor into the role of a broker of sorts, creating a middle layer between people, government, and other businesses. This is a different type of issue than the digital governance piece, but still related — and it’s creating a fairness problem in relation to the unbundled elements of this project that should be put out for separate tenders.

This is all easy to see and say because of hindsight. So credit to Fleissig for his imagination and the experimentation, his willingness to try something new. The project has undoubtedly helped move the discourse along and created some urgency. But good work is not done when the house is on fire. And part of responsible innovation, which is brave and difficult, is knowing when the house is on fire. The structure of the deal is not tenable. The house is on fire. It’s time to move onto Waterfront Toronto 3.0

Illustration: Hudson Christiehudsonchristie.com

Waterfront Toronto 3.0 — Restore and Excel

Waterfront Toronto 3.0 should be built on three core planks

1. Return to excellence and leadership in urban planning and real estate development

With the selection of a new CEO, there is a chance to re-establish leadership of the organization through someone with a deep understanding of the City, its cultures, its stakeholders, and more. Someone active in urban planning, and with the business savvy to continue to seek the best outcomes for the people of the City of Toronto. Here there is a lot to pick up both from the legacy of Waterfront Toronto 1.0 and a slew of lessons learned from Waterfront Toronto 2.0.

2. Exit the realm of digital governance, return that work to elected governments

There are myriad issues related to digital placemaking, including the need to attain social license to even consider the demand (or absence of it) for a smart neighbourhood. While Waterfront Toronto 1.0 showed leadership on infrastructure, such as internet connectivity, and on following intelligent communities’ best practices, which will no doubt continue, this is different than taking on digital governance writ large.

Digital governance is not a core business of Waterfront Toronto, nor should it be. Political leaders at the City have created the space for a municipal digital infrastructure strategy. Conversations about digital rights have been emerging on the community side, and will no doubt play into the digital strategy discussions and beyond. This isn’t trivial. This is about human rights. This work will set the right framework for Quayside the next time around, and well beyond it, in places that are developed as well as undeveloped. It will also ensure the conversations about rights and liberty and sovereignty are set and framed by people and their elected officials.

3. Create a democratic, resident and city-centred approach to urban innovation and experimentation

There are many approaches to urban innovation that can be explored. There are things to borrow, both old and new, to enable Toronto to be a global leader in urban innovation. Toronto has all the capacity to make this happen, beyond the range of current investments, it has the breadth of legacy challenges throughout the city, maintenance and retrofitting challenges, which offer a huge realm of potential and opportunity, one quite different from an experimental neighbourhood. Toronto can and should work on both, both as a municipal government and as an intentional tech ecosystem.

Inputs related to digital rights can intersect with plans for municipal technological sovereignty, a la Barcelona. There are ways to work with data in cities that will both respect and build on the work of the City’s data teams, as well as the work of organizations that manage so much data for the public interest and common good, such as Statistics Canada. There is a lot of the wheel that does not to be reinvented here because a third party wants to.

There is deep expertise across the country to draw on to build experimental city sandboxes, places where local and global innovation can converge and co-exist, safely, by design. The key to designing this ecosystem is to do it from a place of civic, not corporate, leadership.

There are procurement models to spur the local tech economy to borrow from places like Montreal and London. There are open source software development incentives for a range of small and medium sized businesses to spark industry to evolve the options for public sector technology. There are ways to rethink what decent tech work looks like in Toronto’s evolving ecosystem.

The opportunity is there to follow models in global cities and nations that spur long and deep innovation through an intentional public policy direction, ideas embraced by economists such as Mariana Mazzucato, and the idea of the entrepreneurial state. Cities and organizations in Canada and around the world are keen to collaborate with Toronto on this next phase of its work, through Waterfront Toronto 3.0.

This is all related to the work we invite you to join us in doing at the BlockSidewalk campaign. We’re working to inform a strategy for digital rights, digital infrastructure, public sector tech, economic development, and more.

Toronto is a city of builders. It’s why people are excited by the chance to lead globally on urban design and development, and not just on the waterfront, but all over the City. The City of Toronto is booming, and there are entrepreneurs and city-builders alike keen to move onto the plans we know we should be creating for ourselves.

I want to build new things. I hope you’ll join us in this work to build on and up for our collective urban future. Here’s to Waterfront Toronto 3.0, and the incredible opportunity it represents.

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