By Pino Di Mascio and Simon Brandler
Since the release of our Toronto Tomorrow proposal last month, we’ve heard both thoughtful concerns that what we’ve proposed may sideline government and cynical charges that we are trying to privatize public services. Let’s put the latter issue to rest: we have made no proposal to privatize public services, nor for Sidewalk Labs to step into the shoes of government.
To that point, in Waterfront Toronto’s “Note to Reader” about our proposal, the agency identifies no anticipated privatization of public roles or assets in the areas of mobility, buildings, affordable housing, sustainable energy infrastructure, social infrastructure, or other infrastructure development or operations. It notes that parks and the public realm would remain under public ownership, with an independent non-profit proposed to help operate and maintain these spaces. Finally, it flags the need for further discussion about innovative digital infrastructure not currently operated as a public service.
What Toronto Tomorrow does propose is an innovative development approach designed to achieve Waterfront Toronto’s ambitious priority outcomes, while recognizing that the implementation of this approach requires strengthened government oversight, and in some areas, such as data and privacy, new regulatory frameworks to ensure the public interest remains at the centre of ongoing innovation and city development.
Rather than simply pushing forward with innovations in the absence of such regulations (as too many technology companies have done in recent years), we believe there are certain governance issues that should be resolved, through proper democratic forums, from the outset. And rather than proposing a structure with private interests in the lead, we start with the premise that the public sector should sit in the driver’s seat.
We also believe that government is more than up to the task, and that Toronto, Ontario, and Canada have strong governance structures already in place. These structures aren’t broken and in need of fixing or replacing, but we do think they could be strengthened or better coordinated to address the issues raised by the type of innovative plan we’ve proposed and to support important public policy goals around housing affordability, sustainability, mobility, and economic opportunity.
We wholeheartedly agree with Pamela Robinson,* Director of Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, when she writes in Spacing: “We can’t democratically and inclusively talk about … whether the risks this project asks us to take are worth it unless we start with the fundamental premise that the government has a strong role to play.”
Collectively, staff at Sidewalk Labs have dozens of years of experience across levels of Canadian and U.S. government, and dozens more years working closely with the public sector on important public policy and urban development issues. Indeed, we’ve been actively engaged in the work of helping cities achieve public policy objectives throughout the world and right here in Toronto. We’ve seen and deeply believe in the power of government to improve lives, build the foundations for economic growth, and regulate the private sector effectively — and we approach our work from that perspective.
We are also committed to strengthening confidence in the public sector — and believe that the best way to do so is by ensuring that government continues to improve, innovate, and deliver. If the public sector fails to do those things, that is when it becomes most susceptible to attacks and calls for privatization.
While we have made no proposal to privatize public services, we recognize that the issues involved are complex. We don’t believe our proposal will have the effect of sidelining government at all, but there’s still plenty of room for constructive engagement and disagreement on the question of how best to position government institutions to achieve project priorities. (It’s worth noting here that any of our ideas on governance would first need to be enacted, presumably following substantial debate and revision, by the very governments they involve.)
This project needs government in a strong central role, and we look forward to continued public discourse about the shape that role should take. To advance that discussion, we wanted to emphasize a few aspects of our proposal and the process thus far. (Full details on our governance proposals can be found in Volume 3.)
The proposal calls for a strong and coordinated government agency or public entity to oversee the implementation of the plan.
Under our proposal, everything that is currently run by the public sector would continue to be run by the public sector, from the operation of an expanded light rail service, to the establishment of building codes, to oversight of existing privacy regulations, and beyond.
What we’ve proposed is that, to better implement the proposed innovations and overall plan, certain public-sector responsibilities be overseen by a public administrator with specific capacity, expertise, and authority pertaining to the unique issues and operations this project would involve. This administrator would be a public-sector entity focused on ensuring that all private participants in this project remain publicly accountable — whether that’s Sidewalk Labs, its local partners, or any others — while still enabling new development strategies necessary to achieve Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes.
We also see a public benefit in a set of management entities designed to implement new strategies and systems in the areas of affordable housing, energy infrastructure, public space, new mobility, and digital privacy. These entities could either be controlled by the public administrator or act as independent public agencies or non-profits that operate in conjunction with, or with authority from, existing government agencies. These approaches build on successful Toronto precedents, such as The Bentway or Evergreen Brick Works, two non-profit open-space managers, among others.
Rather than limit public control, the idea behind these entities is to strengthen and coordinate government oversight for new strategies and solutions that cut across traditional agency jurisdictions, or which don’t easily fit within an existing agency. They could also provide opportunities for more direct public and democratic participation, which is not easily done when functions are spread through multiple departments in a large bureaucracy.
For example, Toronto Tomorrow proposes a comprehensive mobility strategyto provide safe transportation options that are also more sustainable, accessible, and affordable. This holistic approach to mobility would, in the absence of any governance change, require an unusual amount of coordination across departments related to innovative strategies around parking, traffic signals, and dynamic street space.
To address that challenge, we’ve proposed a management entity called the Waterfront Transportation Management Association, which would serve as the government entity responsible for managing this system in a coordinated fashion. Decisions that are made by democratically elected officials would continue to be made by those officials, and the City of Toronto’s regulatory process would still determine key elements, such as street designs. But the efforts to coordinate and implement the mobility plan would be led by a strong public body that is able to leverage the expertise already resting within the public sector.
Moreover, to our earlier point about enhancing public participation, this entity’s governance structure could also include community and local business members to ensure that mobility needs of those living and working in the area are addressed through ongoing decisions around design and operations.
These proposals have been designed around a core principle that emerged in response to our public engagement work over the past 18 months: Make sure the public sector has a strong role. As one member of our Sidewalk Toronto Residents Reference Panel put it: “I believe that through proper governance we will strive for good.”
We’ve also seen a good model in Waterfront Toronto, a tripartite agency that works with private developers to achieve goals the market would not pursue alone. On a spectrum from traditional public institutions to fully private entities, we believe our proposal of a public administrator is squarely on the public-sector side of the spectrum — quite close to where Waterfront Toronto itself resides. (Waterfront Toronto was specially established by provincial legislation, with a board made up of appointees by all three levels of government.) The proposed management entities likewise would be controlled directly by the public sector, or in the case of independent non-profits, operate via contract with (or sanction from) it.
There’s a balance between creating specialized capacity and nimbleness and preserving the robust safeguards that tend to be part of the DNA of longstanding government departments.
Keen observers understand the delicacy of this balance. In Spacing, John Lorinc recognized that “governance and regulatory institutions have all sorts of maddening inefficiencies and operational blinkers that seem, sometimes, to have become utterly unmoored from the reality of the city.” Yet he also cautioned that our proposal could “push back the City of Toronto’s ability to plan, build, finance, and manage the proposed growth in those waterfront precincts.”
That’s not our intention at all, but it’s a reasonable concern worthy of discussion, exploration, and if necessary, adjustment.
Nor do we believe the public administrator or the other management entities outlined would constitute “semi-privatized” entities beholden to our interests, another concern expressed by Lorinc. In the case of the proposed independent Urban Data Trust, for example, the entity would have the full authority to approve any of our proposals to collect or use urban data. As proposed, the Urban Data Trust would not be controlled by either Sidewalk Labs or Waterfront Toronto, nor would Sidewalk Labs take any seats on the board. (In addition, Sidewalk Labs — along with all parties — would have to comply with existing privacy laws and the oversight of the federal and provincial privacy commissioners.)
Truth is, governments at all levels use agencies as a way to provide some independence and operational flexibility for these bodies while still ensuring that, at the end of the day, they remain accountable to elected officials. From the TTC to Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario to the Canada Lands Company, the agency model has proven in many cases to be a good way of balancing these objectives. We know we might not yet have the balance right in our proposals, and look forward to continued public discourse that helps us get there.
In short, we’re seeking a workable policy framework for a new approach to inclusive growth, not a governance structure in which the public sector cedes any of its control to the private sector. Power over public services and approvals would reside where it should: with the public sector.
Waterfront Toronto is the obvious answer to the question of who should be the public administrator.
In countless instances throughout our proposal, we tried to walk a fine line between being detailed and specific while also being respectful of the government deliberations that will shape whatever final form the plan will take. And so, with regard to the question of how best to fill the role of public administrator, consistent with a great deal of feedback we received, we did not propose one agency or solution over another.
But contrary to some suggestions that our proposal for a public administrator would displace Waterfront Toronto, we think Waterfront Toronto is the obvious candidate to assume this role. Even the Ontario Auditor General’s report issued last fall, which was critical of Waterfront Toronto, observed that the agency was never really given the authority it needed to fulfill its mandate; assigning Waterfront Toronto the role of public administrator, and giving it the mandate we propose, would be a significant corrective.
There are other workable paths, and it’s government’s job to both decide on the merits of the basic notion of a public administrator for the project and, if that decision is favourable, to assign (or create) the function. And as we specifically stated in Volume 3 of Toronto Tomorrow, we would propose that, in any event, Waterfront Toronto retain its existing responsibilities in waterfront planning and revitalization.
For our part, Sidewalk Labs would not serve as a decision-maker for the public administrator or any management entity.
Similar to the roles currently performed by other consultants and developers, we propose to serve as a technical advisor to the public administrator and to assist in implementing an innovation agenda around public priorities, not to take on any direct governance responsibilities. Nothing would be done without public approval and oversight. This includes our work with local partners to develop the innovative real estate projects in Quayside and Villiers West and the advanced systems essential for achieving Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes.
And again, Toronto Tomorrow presents just one governance strategy for achieving Waterfront Toronto’s objectives. There are other paths to success here, and we’re keen to discuss them — recognizing that ultimately government will make the call.
Democratic institutions and processes have governed the project thus far — and will continue to do so.
Some have made the charge that our proposal — and, in fact, the entire process leading to it — has been somehow undemocratic in nature. We know this process hasn’t always been perfect: there’s been no small amount of finding our way, collectively, as we explore something new. But at every step of the way, the project has been fully grounded in the authority and oversight of democratic institutions.
Let’s start from the top, with our initial decision to participate in a public sector-led Request for Proposals (RFP) process. As mentioned earlier, the agency responsible for the process, Waterfront Toronto, was established by legislation enacted by a democratically elected provincial parliament. Its board is appointed by three levels of government. And shortly after our selection through this public RFP process, a report on the project by city staff was received by the Executive Committee of Toronto’s democratically elected City Council.
The submission of our draft plan followed 18 months of public consultation, involving more than 21,000 Torontonians. To a considerable degree, the development plan and the particular innovations and technologies proposed in Toronto Tomorrow arose from, and were refined through, these consultations. We do not propose technology for technology’s sake, but rather we’ve aimed to apply certain innovations, only where necessary, to respond to a set of specific priority outcomes set by Waterfront Toronto.
The resulting plan has been made fully public, including business and transactional details, and will now go through further public review and evaluation by Waterfront Toronto, which has been tasked by agreement with the City of Toronto with leading waterfront revitalization throughout the project area and beyond. Additionally, City Council, by unanimous vote of its Executive Committee, has established a separate process for City of Toronto staff to review our proposal. Council also approved a proposal by Councillor Joe Cressy to establish a citywide policy and governance framework for digital infrastructure. In other words, Council has, in different ways, at three separate points addressed this project and the issues it most directly implicates, all before our draft plan was even submitted for consideration.
For our project to move forward, it will require approval by the Waterfront Toronto board — requiring, in effect, at least two of three democratically elected governments to be supportive through their board representatives. It will also require approval in myriad ways from the city, almost certainly including by City Council, and likely will need specific approvals from provincial government. Supportive action from the federal government may be necessary, as well.
If the plan does move forward in a form resembling what we’ve proposed, the entire project would fall within the oversight and governance of a public administrator, which — along with government — would have full discretion over whether to extend the project geography beyond Quayside and the western part of Villiers Island. And if the proposal moves forward in a different form or fashion, it will be because government helped reshape it.
Finally, to those who suggest a private company shouldn’t be making this type of proposal at all, we’d point out that new ideas, offered up for public debate, are the heart and soul of a healthy democracy. Nothing can actually happen without public-sector approvals from the agencies and leaders properly empowered by the people of Toronto, directly or through representatives, to make decisions in the public interest. That doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with the decisions made along the way, or in the end, by public-sector entities and decision-makers — that, too, is part and parcel of a healthy democratic process.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: Professor Robinson has been involved in the project in two official ways: as a member of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory panel, and as an unpaid and independent academic advisor for the Sidewalk Toronto Fellows program.
Pino Di Mascio is Director of Planning for Sidewalk Labs, based in Toronto. He has over 24 years of experience in master planning, land-use studies, and policy development, coming to Sidewalk as a partner in the planning and design firm Urban Strategies, where he regularly worked with the public and private sectors on planning and development matters, including public development agencies such as Waterfront Toronto, CreateTO, Toronto Community Housing, and Infrastructure Ontario.
Simon Brandler is Director of Public Policy Innovation for Sidewalk Labs, based in New York. He’s spent 10 years in government, most recently working as Senior Advisor and Special Counsel in the New York State Office of the Attorney General, where he participated in major strategic initiatives and enforcement actions involving technology and emerging businesses, from broadband delivery to the sharing economy.