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Crypto, Uber transit and Orbit: Is this Ontario's most innovative town?

The Orbit is an ambitious development plan "where small town and rural lifestyles co-exist with the benefits and attributes of urban living."

About 60-kilometres north of Toronto, in an area that has long been largely surrounded by farmland, is a small town with big tech dreams. 

Innisfil, Ont. recently unveiled an ambitious plan that could make it one of the more innovative, unique and futuristic developments in the province. 

Last month, the town’s council unanimously endorsed a plan called the Orbit, a cutting-edge development centred around a future GO Transit station in an area that today is mostly rural. The proposed plan is unlike other developments seen in the Greater Toronto Area – and that’s the point, says Innisfil mayor Lynn Dollin.

When the town was tasked with coming up with a plan for the GO Station, the last thing Dollin wanted was what she calls a “cookie-cutter station” featuring massive parking lots, high-rise condo buildings and little else. Innisfil has a current population 36,000 spread out over an area the size of Mississauga, Ont., and the town is bracing for rapid growth over the next several years.

“We’ve developed a bit of a reputation here in the municipality for being innovative and future-ready. We just didn’t feel that we were going to be able to achieve that with the building and parking lot format,” Dollin said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Canada this month.

The Orbit is an ambitious development plan "where small town and rural lifestyles co-exist with the benefits and attributes of urban living."

“We wanted to be be proactive, instead of reacting... We’ve seen what happens (with development) in other municipalities, and we wanted to create our own destiny.”

The Orbit is shaped in a circle, a sharp contrast to the traditional grid neighbourhoods and open farmland surrounding it. The goal is to build a unique neighbourhood that maintains the town’s rural heart, while at the same time accommodating unprecedented growth – but, notably, without the suburban sprawl that’s typical to rapidly growing regions.

“This council was very clear that we wanted to protect our agricultural and green space and not see this continuous bleeding of the settlement boundary and sprawling subdivision after sprawling subdivision,” Innisfil’s chief administrative officer Jason Reynar said in an interview.

“That requires a level of density, a level of walkability and a level of future-proofing the community so that you can grow within the confines of the 800-metres within the station.”

The plan was designed by Toronto-based architecture firm Partisans, the same company behind the design of Union Station’s food court and Toronto’s bid for Amazon HQ2. The neighbourhood is meant to be a pedestrian-first, transit-focused “smart city”, while preserving the area’s natural landscapes through swaths of green space.

“I love the whole concept of being able to absorb so much of the growth that we know is coming here and still allow some of our traditional neighbourhoods to remain,” Dollin said.

“Any politicians in the GTA will tell you how hard it is to apply density or intensification into existing neighbourhoods. There’s a big pushback for that.”

The Orbit is an ambitious development plan "where small town and rural lifestyles co-exist with the benefits and attributes of urban living."

The Cortel Group, a Toronto-based developer, will own the Orbit land next to the GO Station, which is expected to open by 2022. While residents still have to be consulted on the plan, Tim Cane, Innisfil’s manager of land use planning, said the hope is that the Orbit will be under development by the time the GO Station opens.

This isn’t the only innovative policy Innisfil has come up with. Earlier this year, the town became the first municipality in Canada to accept cryptocurrency as a method of payment for property taxes. In 2017, the town launched an Uber-as-public-transit experiment, subsidizing rides to certain destinations in Innisfil instead of launching a fixed-route bus service. The partnership has since been expanded.

Reynar credits the community’s small size as part of the reason the town has been able to experiment with different approaches.

“It allows us to pivot and flex fairly quickly. We can trial something and if it doesn’t work, we can switch gears fairly quickly,” Reynar said.

“It also has allowed us to find unique partnerships with different tech companies and academic partners that like working with a government that can work quickly, think differently and isn’t afraid to do that.”

Cane calls the Orbit a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

“It’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time, a lot of excitement,” he said. “We think we can do something that will really provide a better quality of life in Innisfil.”