Uncovering JAPA

Navigating Quayside: Lessons in Smart City Planning

Austerity and public resource scarcity are steering municipal governments toward public-private partnerships (PPPs). Private companies play critical roles in the financing and operation of public assets and services. Increasingly, private partners are invited to participate in public planning processes. However, the effects of private influence on planning are understudied.

In "Evaluating Collaborative Public–Private Partnerships: The Case of Toronto's Smart City" (Journal of American Planning Association, Vol. 90, No. 1), Kate Nelischer uses a PPP smart city development in Toronto to examine the impacts of collaborative partnerships and increasing privatization within planning processes. Failed collaborative partnerships are important for uncovering risks for practicing planners.

Key Takeaways

  • Maintain clear divisions between the roles of public and private partners.
  • Ensure partnership contracts clearly detail responsibilities and include public oversight mechanisms.
  • Avoid relying solely on trust in partnerships with significant power differentials, especially in the smart city context.

In Toronto, the Quayside partnership united a government agency overseeing waterfront revitalization with Sidewalk Labs, a technology firm and former Alphabet Inc. subsidiary. Their aim: is to blueprint a smart city development for a 12-acre waterfront locale. Operating as a joint venture, the PPP crafted a development plan. To analyze this partnership, the author conducted interviews, observed events hosted by the partners and local advocacy groups, and scrutinized planning process documents.

Blurred Roles

When shaping the initial terms of the PPP, public sector partners aimed for a collaborative structure enabling shared decision-making and equitable contributions. However, Sidewalk Labs' early involvement in the planning process, following their selection through a procurement process, allowed them to shape the partnership's nature. This premature involvement frustrated key stakeholders in the government and surrounding community who had participated in waterfront revitalization projects before private sector engagement.

Blurred public and private roles saturated the planning process of the Quayside project, leading to undefined accountability and a lack of trust. Government partners, residents, and the public partner's board of directors repeatedly expressed confusion over unclear regulator and vendor roles in the planning process. The author contextualizes this blurring within the widespread pattern of the public sector shifting from a regulator to a facilitator of private development.

After two years of partnership, while the planning process was still under review, Sidewalk Labs abruptly withdrew from the project. Nelischer notes contributing factors beyond the nature of the partnership, including market unpredictability due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, many project participants agreed that the structure of the PPP played a key role in the cancellation.

The Changing Nature of PPPs

PPPs can be categorized into a project management approach and a process management approach. In the project management approach, the public sector defines project goals and sets the rules of the partnership, as seen in traditional requests for proposals. Increasingly, under the process management approach, public officials are determining project goals with the private sector. Trust is at the core of this style of PPP.

The effects of this departure from detailed contracts and movement towards fluid partner roles are subject to debate among researchers. The influence of this novel partnership structure is magnified in a smart city context, where a steep power imbalance exists between local government and technology corporations.

Crucially, the responsibilities and authority of government are limited by territory, while the private sector has greater flexibility and reach. Asymmetrical power and divergent objectives can pose significant challenges for the public sector in advocating for the public interest and maintaining transparency in a PPP.

If planners seek collaboration with private partners, agreements should be contractual — delineating goals, objectives, and the nature of collaboration. This should encompass how the public partner will maintain oversight, including supplemental management plans.

In the smart city context, Nelischer urges further separation or complete avoidance of partnerships between the public and private sectors.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.

Top image: iStock / Getty Images Plus - Funtap

Grant Holub-Moorman is a master's in city and regional planning student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

April 18, 2024

By Grant Holub-Moorman