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Building A Community & A Culture of Innovation – Innisfil, ON

by | Jan 30, 2022 | Community Development

A Success In Progress Story – The Town of Innisfil is Reimagining Rural Living and Building A Community from Scratch!

To imagine the city of tomorrow look no further than the ambitious community of Innisfil, Ontario, 60 kilometers north of Toronto. This quiet town of 37,000 people isn’t just dreaming of the future, it is actively planning for the future. With the imminent construction of a new commuter GO Transit train station, Innisfil’s population, already expected to double over the next decade, could expand even more dramatically. Ironically, such substantial growth can wreak havoc on municipal infrastructure and create as much trouble as it does opportunity.

So, instead of simply waiting for growth and development to happen randomly, Innisfil is working to “create our own destiny,” according to Mayor Lynn Dollin, by developing a 50-year vision for the community. A 50-year plan may seem extreme, especially to elected officials who typically serve in four-year terms. However, such forward thinking and long-term planning is not new to Innisfil. The council and administration have created a culture that encourages innovation and is open to risk-taking. Together they have produced several successful pilot projects. 

One of the first ventures indicative of Innisfil’s trailblazing spirit in building a community of the future was a ride-sharing public transit system, the first of its kind in Canada. Traditional public transit would have been a logistical and financial challenge for the town due to its low population density and vast landscape. By partnering with Uber in 2018, Innisfil subsidized 85,943 rides, which according to a recent study offers mobility to significantly more residents than their previously considered bus service. In fact, Innisfil’s successful operation has prompted the Ontario government to suggest the City of Toronto consider replacing their low-performing bus routes with this “micro-transit” concept. 

Shortly after the launch of its innovative transit system, Innisfil began to accept Bitcoin as a form of payment for property taxes in 2019. In partnership with Coinberry, a Toronto based tech company, Innisfil became the first municipality in Canada to welcome cryptocurrency as a form of payment. With five percent of Canadians currently owning some form of cryptocurrency, the town expects the use of bitcoin and other virtual currencies will increase significantly in the near future, a future for which they are now prepared. 

Finally, the tour de force of their 50-year vision is the development of a new smart district aptly named “The Orbit”. This community – another first of its kind in Canada, and perhaps in all of North America – is designed with Innisfil’s new central train station in mind, around which residents can “orbit” to live, work and travel. This futuristic community nestled at the heart of a sprawling rural town will include “flex-spaces” for retail, co-working and recreation, as well as a high-speed fiber optic network on all streets and sidewalks. There will even be drone ports for last mile delivery, and futuristic low-rise and high-rise buildings to accommodate 150,000 new residents. By incorporating diverse housing, The Orbit will allow all demographics to live in Innisfil throughout various stages of their lives without having to leave the town to accommodate their needs. 

In addition to adapting their community to absorb massive growth, The Orbit is designed to achieve a no-net-loss concept to conserve the town’s agricultural land rather than displace it. “One of the early concepts we considered was how to incorporate small scale intensive or vertical agriculture,” said Innisfil’s Director of Growth, Tim Crane. “Let us not forget Orbit is not a typical 20-year planning document. It’s a 50-year vision for the community, so foundationally we need to put all the ingredients of a complete and truly sustainable community into place.” 

Based on Innisfil’s impressive track-record, The Orbit promises to catapult the community into a new era that transcends rural and urban boundaries by bringing together the best of both worlds in ways traditional suburbs fail to achieve. As Innisfil’s previous Chief Administrative Officer, Jason Reynar, said so well, “These pioneering ventures would not be possible without the culture of risk taking baked into the fabric of Innisfil’s leadership team council and administrative leaders.” 

Not only is Innisfil a great example of community building and inventive thinking, the camaraderie and trust is unlike anything we have seen in administration-council relations. We look forward to watching this plan evolve to set an example for communities around the world.  

Click here to listen to the Podcast where Doug sat down to chat with Innisfil’s Mayor Lynn Dollin and Tim Cane

Podcast Transcript Snippet:

Doug Griffiths (DG): Welcome to another addition of the community revival podcast.

I have to tell you that one of my colleagues Ashley introduced the community of Innisfil, Ontario to me and told me about the new Orbit community that is being built. I did a little bit of research and I want to move there! It’s that impressive and that amazing and that much a part of the future. You know on this podcast we talk a lot about change and the future of technology, and values, and the economy. This community seems to incorporate it all, and it is in the community of Innisfil, Ontario.

I’m going to start off my asking my two guests to introduce themselves. Mayor Dollin, do you want to start?

Mayor Dollin (MD): Sure! And you are welcome to, we will roll out the red carpet when you want to come and move here. My name is Lynn Dollin and I am the proud mayor of the Town of Innisfil. I’ve been on council for a number of years, 25 years now. But just a new Mayor in our community, and very happy to be on here today.

DG: Thanks Lynn. Tim, how about you introduce yourself.

Tim Cane (TC): Yes Doug, I’m a proud member of the growth team at the town. I’m the director there and I support various elements of the town that works towards rolling our growth in the municipality. I’ve been there for 8 years. This is my first public service job and I’m very passionate and hopeful for our community moving forward.

DG: So when I went online to look at some of the pictures and visuals, I was so thoroughly impressed because it encapsulates so many of the things that a lot of people are trying to do in their communities, but they’ve already got an established community but they are trying to make some changes in it. But you guys are starting to design a community from scratch, correct?

MD: That’s right. Because we are within an hour commute of Toronto, and we’re in a significant growth area, and we’ve seen municipalities around us, and what has happened to them over the past 50 years. We kind of know what is coming, and we want to be the masters of our own destiny. We want to make growth work for us and we want it not to just happen to us, we want to decide how we want to grow and where we want to grow. Even though The Orbit was designed pre-COVID, it really works well in a post COVID world.

DG: How so?

MD: Just because it is about quality of life and it is about being able to, now that people are working remotely, right now 82% of the people who go to work from Innisfil, leave Innisfil. We believe post COVID that will change. Now that people have successfully proven that work can get done remotely, we believe that we will have more people who are looking to live outside of the GTA, close to lake Simcoe and have a better quality of life and not have to deal with a 3 hour commute every day.

DG: Right, actually I just read an article that said “the best way to design a city is a 13 minute city” Where you live, everything in your neighbourhood is 13 minutes away. Then you don’t need as much mass transit. It just made it easier for people who are in those kind of neighbourhoods to take care of themselves during this pandemic.

TC: That’s a great point Doug. We call it the 20 minute walk, but that whole concept of being able to walk within a complete community, it is rethinking how how they function. By doing that, those communities we’ve been a part of that you can walk amongst, that we walk in and through, those are the communities that tend to be closer and more emotionally connected as well. The one thing that we are understanding now is that the more resilient communities in times of crisis are those that have stronger social bonds and emotional connections. Our official plan is to try and do that across our greater community for quite some time, but certainly Orbit allows us to insert that front and centre into that new community. Where the health benefits of lifestyle certainly outweigh any potential benefits of the virus we are seeing.

DG: Right, I’ve said so many times, I think people were probably getting tired of me saying it, but we’re watching people, we were before, COVID watching them move out of places like LA and San Francisco and New York and moving to places like Boise Idaho because they want to be in neighborhoods, not in subdivisions. They want to be an authentic entities, excuse me. And that’s what you guys have designed here but we have been actually gone into what the community looks like you discuss a few of those key elements. What what makes orbit different from other neighborhoods?

TC: I can, I can start with that question. So, you know, as you know, the one thing that’s important to notice that, you know, in this feels not trying to necessarily reinvent the wheel. You know what we’re trying to do is, you know, embed, those elements that we see is working in other communities globally, and, and put them into one, melting pot and, and, and get those collected benefits within orbit.

So, you know, obviously it’s underpinned. You know, the vision of orbit is underpinned by, you know, a centralized transit node, you know, have to do a regional transit line which is operated by a differential authority called Metrolinks here in Ontario. So that underpins the connections, we have the center of mass that we call it with this.

You know, this greater density builds around the station and let’s not forget to as a good point to injure to identify that Orbit’s not a typical 20 year planning document. That’s, it’s a 50 year vision for the community. So this isn’t something that’s happening tomorrow. But you know what, we want to do is find it is foundationally, you know, put these ingredients in place, so you know that key ingredient is it just mentioned was a station and that immediate mass around the station in terms of much higher density than what the town has seen before.

And then getting this ripple effect, we call it. Where, you know, we, you know, we start to settle out as you get to the periphery of that of that 20 minute walkable community. Whereby, you have a mix of three or four story buildings, you know, not ground related. But certainly more related to the ground.

No perimeter, building types with common uses in the middle to foster. Those is a neighborhoods and communities and then, you know, coming to a hard edge at the edge of our landscape, which has been greatly important to, you know, prevent those impacts and unintended consequences of growing incrementally and unconditionally, you know, beyond certain boundaries.

So, you know, putting a hard edge on Orbit, you know, where you have an interface around its edge that reflects that rural landscape. And then building intowards a center over the long term to that transit hub that will connect in this will to, you know, not only the GTA but beyond.

We hope you have enjoyed these ideas for building a community and a culture of innovation!