“The Master Plan is a frenetic and thought-provoking satire about Big Tech and bureaucracy.” - The Globe and Mail, September 15, 2023

“Google’s Sidewalk Labs vs. the City: The play every Torontonian has to see.” - Toronto Star, September 14, 2023

Earlier this summer, Crow's Theatre presented "The Master Plan" by Michael Healey, in its own original production. The play, which has now concluded its run, was inspired by the book "Sideways: The City Google Couldn't Buy," by Josh O’Kane. The script took the audience behind the scenes of Sidewalk Labs' attempt to build a new digital and physical neighbourhood from the ground up on a 12-acre piece of land on Toronto’s waterfront.

The Toronto Star's headline urges every Torontonian to witness this production, a sentiment I couldn't agree with more. But not because of how brilliant the play is, but for the hard lessons that we should all learn from it as Torontonians. Learn and, maybe even be slightly ashamed about the lost opportunity.

Setting the Stage: What Happened Three Years After Sidewalk Labs’ Departure?

I was eager to see a reflection of the complexities surrounding Google's Sidewalk Labs in Toronto and their interactions with Canada’s three levels of government. The play succeeded in delivering a powerful message, but my experience was marred by a sense of unease and discomfort, not because I think we should have yielded to the level of gridSidewalk Labs, but rather due to the nagging realization that it has been three years since Sidewalk Labs pulled out of the project, and yet, despite the grand ambitions, innovative vision, and promises of new models of affordability and sustainability that once thrived, we don’t have a single project in the city that promotes the same ambitious and bold values for the future, not even close.

NIMBYism – And The Fight For The Status Quo

Here’s how the play ends (no spoiler, really, we all know how it ended in real life):

“…we came here not knowing that NIMBYism is a way of life here. It’s bigger than ice hockey. You might have warned us.

I think you guys may have actually invented a whole new kind of NIMBYism. So... there’s one innovation, I guess.”

This passionate monologue concludes the play and was the single part that resonated deeply with me. We all have witnessed the challenges faced by groundbreaking projects in their communities. The frustration, the desire for change, and local voices who object with, too often, no real ground, are sentiments everyone in the industry can relate to. While this monologue is rooted in a specific context, its underlying message extends far beyond, highlighting the urgency of addressing NIMBYism and the need for a paradigm shift in our approach to tackling pressing issues like housing and climate change.

In Toronto, NIMBYism has become a formidable force, ingrained in the local culture – and pandered to by politicians of all parties. This NIMBY challenge is not unique to the waterfront, or downtown; it's a city-wide phenomenon that far too often hampers progress, innovation – and long overdue change.

A Critical Step Toward Urban Change That We Need on the Affordability and Sustainability Fronts

“…these two crises, housing and climate, this project was a step, a small step, towards addressing these crises. The kind of thing we should have been taking up a generation ago. So yes, late, and yes, clowns, but it would have been a start? Our thing wouldn’t have fixed anything, but it would have been a step?”
- The Master Plan by Michael Healey

In the face of formidable challenges and resistance, Waterfront Toronto's vision was nothing short of inspiring. Their willingness to push the boundaries of innovation, even in the face of intense criticism, demonstrates a rare form of leadership that is sorely needed in today's world. Waterfront Toronto's dedication, at the time, to tackling the most pressing issues of our time is a testament to the potential the city and its waterfront hold, and striving for a world where innovation and cooperation take precedence over fear and inaction.

While the specific project in question – Sidewalk Toronto — had its flaws and controversies, around land and data in particular, it symbolizes a critical step toward addressing the housing and climate crises. It failed because of incompatible partners and conditions, not because of its people. The leaders of Waterfront Toronto, specifically Meg Davis and Will Fleissig (in the way they are presented in the play) had aimed to bring something transformative to life but were entangled in a web of NIMWT (Not in My Waterfront), misinformation and public scrutiny on a scale that is challenging to fathom.

As we reflect on the profound lessons brought to us by "The Master Plan" and the legacy of Sidewalk Labs, it becomes clear that Toronto stands at a crossroads. We have witnessed the struggles, the dreams, and the vision for a more affordable and sustainable future, even if it ended in disappointment. Now, it's our collective responsibility to learn from these experiences, to rise above the constraints, and to embrace innovation and cooperation as our guiding principles. The story of Sidewalk Toronto may have had its flaws, but it serves as a testament to the potential that Toronto and its waterfront hold, reminding us that we can do better, that we must do better, and that together, we can build a brighter future where ambition and bold values drive our progress.

Naama Blonder is an architect and urban planner, the co-founder of Smart Density, and a STOREYS columnist.

Urbanity Fair