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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Surviving ‘Sidewalk Toronto’: The Evolution of Planning Practice in Smarter Cities

In recent years, the urban planning profession has contended with ambitious and disruptive agendas of urban innovation, variously labelled ‘intelligent’, ‘smart’, and ‘smarter cities’, that are increasingly entangled with urban sustainability agendas. This research investigates how urban planning practice is engaging and co-evolving with the smarter city agenda. It centres on a retrospective case study of Sidewalk Toronto, a recently cancelled smart revitalization project on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. Following an introduction to the history of the project, a review of urban studies literature builds the academic context for the research.  A theoretical approach is then developed based on concepts from urban commons and critical institutionalism, which make sense of the highly politicized and geographically embedded context of smarter city projects by embracing nuance, complexity and uncertainty. The Critical Institutional Analysis and Development (CIAD) Framework is proposed as the primary research tool for structuring inquiry and analysis. The case study methodology revolves around semi-structured interviews with twelve planners who engaged with Sidewalk Toronto in a variety of roles and organisational contexts. An inductive and iterative coding procedure was applied to the primary evidence to develop four qualitative themes: 

  1. Finding a path to ‘yes’ 
  2. Mediating tense public-private relationships 
  3. Engaging in new multidisciplinary discourses 
  4. Discovering new aspects of urban resilience. 

The CIAD Framework is used as a heuristic device to define and illustrate these themes in a series of infographics. They form the basis for a subsequent in-depth discussion, which takes a critical view of the heavily channelized and distanced engagement between Sidewalk Labs and the City of Toronto and the systemic inertia that exists between the City and the development industry. The discussion provides two key pieces of insight into how planners might address these obstructive dynamics: 

  1. Planners should focus on public-private partnership to drive systemic change. 
  2. Planners in the public sector should strive to be flexible and proactive in engaging with the private sector in order to facilitate impactful partnership. 

The dissertation concludes with a reflection on the limitations of the theoretical approach and the case study methodology and with a discussion of the research outlook, which identifies opportunities to develop further insight from this case study as well as avenues for future research. 


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.