Innisfil, a rural town north of Toronto with seemingly endless country roads, vast open fields, no public bus service and onions as its best known commodity, wants to change its narrative and become a city of the future.
Through a project known as the Orbit, the small town wants to use a soon-to-be-built GO train station as a “centre of gravity” — an anchor point for a commercial, retail and residential community for 30,000 to 50,000 people, according to short-term projections.
After landing the request for proposal (RFP) to develop the city’s vision, award-winning Toronto architecture and design studio Partisans — known for co-producing our city’s bid for Amazon’s second North American headquarters, innovative projects such the design of Bar Raval on College Street, revitalization work inside Union Station and the interim repositioning of Ontario Place — presented designs to Innisfil, complete with futurist-style buildings popping up in an 800-metre radius around the train station.
The concentric design, used in other cities around the world, is intended in part to be pedestrian and cyclist friendly, doing away with massive boulevards everywhere.
The plan borrows in large part from the 1890s “Garden City” model put forward by U.K. urban planner Ebenezer Howard, a model based on the idea of greenbelts surrounding self-contained communities.
Alex Josephson, architect and co-founder of Partisans, says his firm is excited about working with Innisfil, a town he says has a rural charm yet a progressive “tech-forward” outlook, and a willingness to embrace change.
Innisfil, a municipality in Simcoe County, wants to create a city that grows in a different way; a community that isn’t dependent on residents owning a car and an area that draws residents and business, particularly those that are technology-based, away from Toronto, all while maintaining key rural attributes.
But will the ambitious plan come to fruition?
The new development calls for a community filled with green space, embedded smart city technology and one key feature: there are no plans — at this stage anyway — to include detached single-family houses like those existing in the sprawl found in a lot of small towns and suburbs outside Toronto, Innisfil officials say.
“The plan was deliberately designed not to include single-family dwellings,” Tim Cane, Innisfil’s director of growth, says. Condos and multi-residential buildings will be the order of the day.
Detached single family houses have been left out of the drawings because in the town’s view the trend across the province now is that in order to remain affordable, the functionality of backyards in single family homes is getting smaller and smaller, resulting in, as Cane describes it, “a postage stamp” of space.
The Orbit plan envisions a large public park that would run along both sides of the new GO train line. That park would serve as a substitute for backyard space, say those behind the Orbit plan.
“You have that linear park along the railway line. The idea is to try to detach people from the white picket fence vision of having their own backyard and at the same time building a community where they can interact more,” Cane says.
The new GO station will benefit the community because it won’t be the typical “drab, standard,” dual-rail platform, says Josephson of Partisans.
“Those (standard stations) are fundamentally suburban in their architecture and their planning because they are a giant parking lot offset from the main thoroughfare by 200 metres. They’re not integrated into developments,” he says.
“The entire opportunity presented (in Innisfil) by the transit hub at the centre of the development — the centre of gravity — is to embed the larger retail, multi-purpose, mixed-use developments,” Josephson argues.
Transit hubs can be a platform for culture, retail, food — all the best things a community can offer, Josephson adds, referring to lessons Partisans, which consists of Josephson and Pooya Baktash, who co-founded the company in 2011, and third partner Jonathan Friedman, learned as design architects doing work on commercial and public space in Toronto’s Union Station.
Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin says the town’s choice to go with multi-residential buildings rather than single detached homes will better serve Innisfil’s growth needs.
“I have half an acre, I cut it, water it, plant on it, fertilize it, garden it. I’m getting tired of doing that. I’m at a point in my life where I would like to not have all that to deal with and a great big driveway to shovel.
“So I can lock the door and head to Florida for a month and not have to worry about someone having to take care of my property. That’s where I am in my life. I don’t have that option. I can’t get that right now in Innisfil,” Dollin says.
There’s no specific date for the completion of the Orbit project, nor are there price tags, but the vision begins with the new Metrolinx project that calls for the GO station to be finished sometime between 2022 and 2025.
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The line will connect Innisfil to Toronto, about 75 km south, and to Barrie, about 18 km north.
Metrolinx reports showed that many people in the area who drive to Barrie and Toronto would use the station. About 2,800 daily riders by the year 2031 would use the stop.
The Cortel Group, a Vaughan-based builder of highrise condominiums, owns most of the land within the 800-metre Orbit radius, including the site of the station. Cortel has an agreement with Metrolinx to design and construct the GO station, where costs will likely be in excess of $20 million, town officials say.
At the moment the site for the Orbit, on the 6th Line near picturesque Lake Simcoe, is a vacant field with few residents nearby, a “blank slate” as the town describes it.
In fact, Innisfil’s population is so spread out, the city can’t afford a bus service. That’s where the technology comes in.
The town is 262 square kilometres, comparable in size to Mississauga’s 292 square kilometres — but Innisfil’s density is 139 people per square kilometre, while Mississauga’s is 2,500 people per square kilometre, Dollin says.
Given Innisfil’s low density, studies have shown the town would face enormous ride subsidies with buses serving a very limited part of the population.
“We have nine settlement areas connected by gravel roads and farmland. To try to run a conventional bus system in that type of area, we just weren’t able to do that and not have to subsidize it heavily,” the mayor explained.
So, Innisfil council gave direction to the town to find a system that would best serve its needs and be equitable for all its residents.
In May 2017, Innisfil Transit was born — a partnership with Uber in which Innisfil subsidizes the car-hailing service provided to its residents. It’s a demand-based transit model that identifies key destinations in the community and has flat fare destinations built around those key spots.
Also in the technology vein, the city launched a cryptocurrency system this spring in which residents can use bitcoins to pay their property taxes.
A third-party operation converts the bitcoin into Canadian currency, then transfers that into Innisfil’s tax account.
“We did it to demonstrate that notwithstanding the fact we are a small rural community, we are forward thinking and technologically advanced and progressive,” says Innisfil’s CAO Jason Reynar, who notes the town is also working with a non-profit to develop a smart city strategy.
The next step toward realizing Orbit will be launching the Orbit Potential and Innovation Plan (OPIP). This phase will combine planning policy development with transportation, infrastructure, sustainability, new technologies, entrepreneurial employment and financing, Innisfil says. There will also be significant public input during this stage.
Shauna Brail, an expert on tech and innovation and an associate professor in University of Toronto’s urban studies program and who has been following Innisfil’s Orbit proposal, says Innisfil has the right intentions with the project: connecting development and population growth to the creation of a new transit hub, considering the need to build up and not out, and emphasizing a mixed-use, complete community.
The emphasis on walkability and a welcoming public realm are other positives of the project, Brail notes.
“What could go wrong? If the plan proceeds, and the initial target of 30,000 new residents arrive in Innisfil, this would represent a near-doubling of the town’s population,” she says.
“Does the town have the resources and capacity to provide sufficient public services — e.g. schools, health care, and encourage the provision of private amenities (such as) grocery stores, daycares, restaurants to serve new residents?” Brail asks.
Reynar, Innisfil’s CAO, says when you look at the partners Innisfil has on board for the project, from Simcoe County, the province and others, “We are very confident we can deliver on the vision and the principles of the Orbit and … that alignment empowers us to deliver a complete community for our residents.”
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