A small town situated 60 kilometres north of Toronto along the shores of Lake Simcoe has aspirations of becoming the city of the future. Characterized by its rolling hills, farmland and cottages, Innisfil is a quiet municipality known to many Torontonians as a place they pass on their way to Muskoka. But with plans to build an ambitious mixed-use community called The Orbit underway, Innisfil hopes to reinvent itself and become a place that future generations will want to call home.
With a new GO Station on the Barrie Rail Corridor proposed for 6th Line, the town saw an opportunity to build something innovative and never-before-seen in the province. Its goal was to strike a balance between urban living to accommodate the anticipated population growth, brought upon by the new train station, while maintaining the area’s natural landscapes and agricultural uses.
“I think the people of Innisfil have been pretty happy to be a small town for its entire inception and the town council wants to maintain all of the things that are awesome about a small town,” said Jason Reynar, Chief Administrative Officer of Innisfil, on the UrbanizeThis podcast. “But we recognize that from a sustainability and fiscal responsibility perspective, we have to densify, and the idea of sprawling, single-family dwelling type subdivisions is not the way that Innisfil wants to grow.”
The town partnered with developer Cortel Group, which owns the majority of the Orbit lands, along with Toronto-based architecture firm Partisans, to develop a 40 million square-feet, transit-oriented, master-planned community.
“We released an RFP and asked to work with a team to create a vision that would leverage the new GO station and embrace the idea of a walkable community where you could live, work and play,” said Reynar. “We want to build a new kind of community centred around transit, where you can access grocery stores, community centres, 3D printer labs, digital media labs et cetera. Partisans was successful in the competition and they’ve worked with us and the land owners for almost a year now.”
Drafted by Partisans, the proposal is designed to accommodate up to 150,000 people with new residential, commercial, institutional and recreational components. Transit initiatives include pedestrian-first streets, new trails and pathways with access to the waterfront, enhanced cycling options and an Innisfil Transit system that incorporates autonomous vehicles and encourages shared trips.
“We know that our cities have been designed around cars, and that’s not conducive to a real community kind of fabric and obviously walkability,” said Reynar. “So we want to be very purposeful about how we design these streets, and our hope is that they’re designed for drop-offs and pickups from both a commercial and a pedestrian perspective.”
Initial renderings of the community show a mix of low- and high-rise buildings of varying shapes and sizes that ‘orbit’ around a central complex. At the core of the community is the Innisfil GO station, which itself boasts a unique, organic aesthetic that could’ve come out of a Zaha Hadid sketchbook. Aerial renderings are even more dramatic as they depict a series of concentric circles that radiate from the GO station. The roadways wrap around the transit hub and gradually expand in size until they hit the outer layers where they morph into a slightly rectilinear shape, which Partisans describes as ‘squircles.’
Another progressive element of The Orbit is the implementation of a dynamic zoning system that allows for greater density and building heights by automatically up-zoning the entire area when one parcel of land reaches 70 percent density.
“The concept is to have dynamic zoning where as the land gets used up, your as-of-right density automatically increases over a period of time for the next parcel,” explained Reynar to UrbanizeThis. “We really want to see land owners and developers who are going to try as best as they can to future proof the developments. So we want them to imagine what the second tower on the same parcel is going to look like now, so they can build in the greenspaces and amenities — that will always be there — for future residents.”
The Orbit isn’t the first example of Innisfil thinking outside the box. The town has undertaken several other progressive urban initiatives in the past, including a deal with Uber to provide local public transit services through publicly-subsidized fares, instead of using buses. In 2019, it teamed up with parking app, Rover, to help alleviate the parking problem at Innisfil Beach Park during the busy summer season. And in the same year, Innisfil was the first municipality in the country to accept cryptocurrency as a method of payment for property taxes. Of course, The Orbit is much larger in scope and more ambitious, but with open-minded municipal leaders and forward-thinking planners at the helm, Innisfil could very well rocket itself to becoming the city of the future.