Since Alphabet’s urban innovation unit Sidewalk Labs first proposed to turn 12 acres of downtown Toronto into a high-tech city, the Canadian city has become a testing grounds of sorts for the future of cities. The most recent initiative that is being testing in Toronto is looking to adapt streets to suit the needs of pedestrians and passersby in real-time in a prototype that is called ‘The Dynamic Street.’ The prototype is on display at 307, the central office and experimental workspace for Sidewalk Labs in Toronto.

In partnership with Italian urban design and innovation office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati – which announced earlier this year a project to develop a network of smart highways in Italy – Sidewalk Labs has set up a simulation of the first prototype of the Dynamic Street. The idea behind the Dynamic Street plays heavily on the potential malleability of street function and swift response to the ever-changing needs of urban residents.

To grant streets this shape-shifting function, the Dynamic Street prototype is made up of a number of hexagonal modular panels that can be picked up and placed elsewhere to suit the changing function of a street. The lack of heavy equipment to reposition the panels is key, since the Dynamic Street aims to avoid traffic disruptions. The Dynamic Street in Toronto is inspired by a French research group IFSTTAR’s pilot project to install removable urban pavement (paywall) in Nantes, France.

By moving the modular panels around, the streets can constantly be repurposed based on time of day, flow of traffic, and circumstance of the ‘streetscape,’ as CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati calls it. “The Dynamic Street creates a space for urban experimentation: with this project, we aim to create a streetscape that responds to citizens’ ever-changing needs,” said Professor Carlo Ratti, founder of CRA practice and Director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a press release about the project.

The modular panels allow for the creation of different permutations on the street. For example, during early morning rush hour as commuters are trying to get to work, an extra lane can be laid down to ease the flow of traffic; in the afternoon, that lane can be used as a space for children to play, and in the evening, it can be used as a pedestrian plaza.

The modular panels are planned to be used in multiple configurations and can potentially hold bollards or lights to provide extra lighting when needed. These lights can also be used to direct traffic or to create pedestrian crossings or pick-up zones. These configurations all funnel back to the idea of having modular urban infrastructure based on changing needs. This is made possible by the ‘plug-and-play’ function that the panels will have, which can also be used for areas of the city with below-grade network services.

“The installation is an experiment and an area of active research, so expect it to change as we learn from feedback and tests. In this first iteration, the [panels] are made out of wood so that we could quickly mock something up and rapidly change it – we would expect later versions to be made of concrete or other more resistant materials,” says Chris Anderson, Urban Prototyper at Sidewalk Labs.

The Dynamic Street

The modular panels. Courtesy of CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati

“As autonomous vehicles are likely to start running on streets soon, this project helps us to imagine a more adaptable road infrastructure,” says Emma Greer, project manager at CRA. “Self-driving cars will change both the number of lanes and the amount of parking we will need.

The installation currently on display in Toronto at 307 consists of 232 modular hexagonal panels with a diameter of 1.2 meters (4 feet) each, assembled over a surface of 240 square meters (2,500 square feet) to emulate an 11-meter wide street (36 feet).