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Innisfil's council has approved a plan called the Orbit that could add up to 150,000 people in a form that looks nothing like the suburbs of the last generation.Courtesy of manufacturer

A hundred years ago, planners imagined a new kind of city: linked up to a big city by rail, but with strong connections to nature and its own diverse public life.

Now that model, known as the Garden City, is finding new life in an unlikely place: the rural town of Innisfil, Ont. The town’s council has approved a plan dubbed the Orbit that could add up to 150,000 people in a form that looks nothing like the suburbs of the last generation.

The plan is focused on a new commuter rail station, and its blocks are based on a circular pattern. Both of those things are unusual; neither of them is new. Together, they set up an interesting precedent for suburban intensification in North America.

“This is a next-generation community,” said architect Alex Josephson of the architecture firm Partisans, which is leading the design for the town of Innisfil. “It’s for people who want access to a big city, but also nature and everything that comes with living in a rural community.”

At the centre is a planned new GO Transit train station, which will connect the area with Barrie, to the north and Toronto, 70 kilometres to the south. The plan imagines the station within a mixed-use development – in other words, combining the different functions of office, retail and residential in buildings up to 15 storeys high.

Around this, the plan expands out in a series of concentric circles that merge with the larger square grid of concession roads, generating “squircles,” to use Mr. Josephson’s term. This approach combines a predictable pattern of streets with some degree of irregularity, and lots of cut-throughs for pedestrians.

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Innisfil chief planner Tim Cane said the Orbit’s urban design will give precedence to walking, rolling and cycling.Courtesy of manufacturer

It’s radical, and Innisfil is looking for something radical. The town faces huge pressure to grow from its current 36,000 people, and municipal leaders intend to do that in a way that focuses on the knowledge economy but keeps much of the town rural. “We’re looking to retain that small-town feel that people love,” Mayor Lynn Dollin said. “People move here to be near agriculture, green space, the lake” – Lake Simcoe is nearby – “and they want to maintain that.”

So, with fairly cheap land and now mass transit, the town is pushing what’s known as transit-oriented development, putting people near transit and near a new cluster of jobs.

A key goal of this plan is much less driving. As Innisfil chief planner Tim Cane points out, suburban residents spend much more time in their cars than city dwellers do, and this has implications for public health and quality of life – not to mention for transportation infrastructure and for the climate. The Orbit’s urban design, he said, will give precedence to walking, rolling and cycling.

It’s inspired in part by the suburban masterplans of the Garden City movement. The 1920s Garden City schemes of the British planner Ebenezer Howard inspired suburban developments, such as Radburn, N.J., and the Toronto district of Leaside, and influenced postwar developments such as Don Mills in Toronto. The Garden City’s ideas have recently been embraced by some within the architecture and planning worlds, often people associated with “traditional" architecture.

Mr. Josephson has no such nostalgic tendencies. As inspirations for the concentric-circles plan, he also cites the planned co-operative community model in Israel known as moshav; and Burning Man, the festival city that comes to life every year in the Nevada desert. (Mr. Josephson goes to Burning Man; so has the eminent economist Paul Romer, who is researching it as a model of urbanism.)

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The town is committed to the goal of a pedestrian-centred urbanism connected to nature.Courtesy of manufacturer

The architectural language of the proposal is full of sculptural ovals, circles and arcs. Partisans imagines the buildings would be organized into varied patterns of open space, and would be lined with heavily planted terraces and topped with green roofs.

These details aren’t very realistic. Round buildings are complicated and inefficient. The whole plan will depend heavily on careful design of its buildings and landscape architecture to make sure it is a pleasant place.

But even if what’s built is more square, literally and figuratively, the goal of a pedestrian-centred urbanism connected to nature is sound. The town is committed to it. “When we think of why people move to Innisfil today, we hear about green space, having that backyard,” said the town’s chief administrative officer, Jason Reynar. “We need to give them other options, public or private.”

Partisans are unlikely actors for this kind of project: They’re an emerging architecture firm best known for private dwellings and the interior of Toronto’s Bar Raval. While they are working with the planning firm Bousfields and architects Quadrangle, they’re still a radical choice.

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Innisfil chief administrative officer Jason Reynar says homeowners want a place where cars aren’t always required – 'where you can get off the train and pick up your groceries, walk to the school and the daycare, visit a farmer’s market.'Courtesy of manufacturer

But will this plan lift off? Does something so odd make business sense? The landowners for the first phase of the Orbit, Cortel Group, say so. Cortel is controlled by the Cortellucci family, veteran developers in Toronto’s 905 suburbs; like their peers, they’ve been shifting from building sprawl to building condos. They say they are now game to build mixed-use near a train station. “We want to establish a new urban design framework elevating how people live,” company officials said in a statement.

Innisfil sees it the same way. “We’ve tried to create more greenspace, more walkability, because that’s what the market is demanding,” Mr. Reynar said. A place where cars aren’t always required – “where you can get off the train and pick up your groceries, walk to the school and the daycare, visit a farmer’s market,” the mayor says. “This is what homeowners want.”

This is also how cities used to be built, but recent suburbs are not. If you want to live in a neighbourhood where you can get around without a car, you have very few options. Less than ten per cent of the seven million people in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area live in such places, and those places – especially central Toronto – are cripplingly expensive. Similar patterns persist across Canada.

The Orbit presents another option.

I asked Mr. Josephson if he thought the plan was likely to be realized, since certain aspects of the plan challenge convention about the role of the car and the shape of a neighbourhood. “Does it make sense?” he answered rhetorically. “Does it make sense to continue the way we’ve been building, which we know is unsustainable in every sense?” That’s the question. In Innisfil, we’ll see what the answer is.

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