Outside Toronto, in a field surrounded by farmland, the seeds of a seemingly implausible high-density, transit-oriented community are taking root.
The community is the Orbit, a futuristic-sounding name for a new district on the edge of the town of Innisfil, Ontario, a commuter city about a half-hour drive north of Toronto. The plan for the Orbit is a grid of streets radiating around a dense central district, with proposed mid-rise towers, plentiful open spaces, and a mix of residential, commercial, and civic buildings. The center point of the plan is a commuter rail station that links Innisfil and other suburban communities to Toronto.
Innisfil is one of a number of growing communities in the region, with a population of about 40,000, that’s expected to double within the next 30 years. “Growth management is one of our key challenges as a community, from a planning perspective but from all kinds of other perspectives as well,” says Oliver Jerschow, the town’s chief administrative officer. He points to a range of issues such growth would stress, including infrastructure, finances, and providing city services like public safety and parks to residents. “What I think the Orbit is trying to capture is how can we do that differently.”
The town is hoping to avoid repeating the patterns of other suburbs in the region. “Strip malls, subdivisions, big-box stores, all that stuff we see all over North America,” says Jerschow. “The vision for the Orbit was about rethinking that approach.”
The process started in 2017 when the regional transit authority, Metrolinx, identified Innisfil as a site of potential expansion for its GO transit service. A rail line runs directly through but doesn’t stop in the town, connecting Toronto with Barrie, a nearby city of about 150,000 just north of Innisfil. Jerschow says that about 80% of Innisfil’s working residents have to leave the town to commute to their jobs, and many end up using the GO train. Having a GO station in town would make many peoples’ lives more convenient, he says. It also creates a focal point for a more thoughtful type of suburban development.
“Even the notion of building a higher density transit-oriented hub is fairly unusual by our neighboring communities standards,” Jerschow says. “Their comparable transit stations are a surface parking lot in a field, where everybody drives, parks and gets on the train. . . . We want to do it in a unique way, in a sustainable way, and we want people to recognize that they’re in Innisfil, not sort of Anywhere, Ontario.”
To do that, the town put out a request for proposals for a new district around this planned transit station. In 2019, the Toronto-based architecture firm Partisans was selected to develop what eventually became the Orbit—a transit-centric, walkable community inspired by the early 20th century urban-planning concept of the Garden City. Balancing residents, commercial activity, and agricultural land in a radiating form of hubs and spokes, the Garden City concept envisioned a type of suburban development much different than the sprawl that many areas of North America built after World War II. The Orbit is designed to house up to 100,000 people, all within about a mile radius of the station.
Alex Josephson, cofounder of Partisans, says his firm’s plan for the Orbit could be a way for suburban communities to counteract the model of endless sprawl. Innisfil, with its city-adjacent location and abundant land, is a good place to start. “It’s basically a blank slate for how transit-oriented communities of the future, smart cities of the future, could grow up around transit nodes,” he says. It’s a version of what’s become known as the 15-minute city, where most of the things a person needs are within a reasonable walk or bike ride from their home. “It’s really oriented toward this idea of how can you create density and affordability within a 15-minute walk of the station while also getting enough people in there to create critical mass for culture, restaurants, and a local economy to emerge.”
Building a new district from scratch, though, is not a quick process. Jerschow says plans are slowly taking shape for how to translate the vision in Partisans’ design into a buildable plan, with specific frameworks now being written that focus on the infrastructure and urban planning that the Orbit will require. Those plans could be finalized by next spring, and Innisfil is engaged in community-outreach sessions and surveys to ensure the plan aligns with the expectations of residents, as well as the area’s Indigenous communities.
The transit station is the heart of the project, both from a planning perspective and from a feasibility standpoint. Originally slated to begin construction by the end of 2022, the timeline has been shaken by the pandemic. Jerschow says construction is now expected to begin next year, and service could begin within a few years. “The Orbit has always been centered around that transit station. Nobody has proposed moving forward without the transit station,” he says. “The town absolutely wants and expects that transit station to be there.”
Large-scale projects and ambitious plans like this can easily fall apart, but both Jerschow and Josephson are confident the Orbit will eventually get built. They’re hoping it can be beneficial to Innisfil, to the region, and potentially to suburban areas around the world.
“I think the Orbit is a prototype,” Josephson says. “That’s the whole point here. We built a prototype that can be applied to any rural environment in which transit is created and a community can grow to have actual density associated with it.”