Time is a Flat Squircle

Canada gives utopia a chance with The Orbit

A rendering of the proposed Smart City master plan, The Orbit, by architecture firm Partisans (Courtesy Partisans)

There have been hundreds of smart cities recently proposed for countries all over the world, but one of the most recent and confident (backed by developer Cortel Group) is The Orbit, a smart city master plan in Innisfil, Canada, just north of Toronto, envisioned by architecture firm PARTISANS

Birds-eye rendering of the Orbit proposal from the sky

Birds-eye rendering of the Orbit proposal, demonstrating the radial street grid. (Courtesy PARTISANS)

Innisfil is a rural town with a long history of progressive thinking. It was one of the first towns to test out Uber and also accepts cryptocurrency as a payment method for city services and taxation. The entire proposal anticipates boosting Innisfil’s population from 30,000 to anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000. 

The Orbit looks and feels like the utopian Garden Cities which originated in England during the heights of the Industrial Revolution. A suburban dream of order, lawns, and cleanliness away from the filth and chaos of industrial London, these cities were often realized in concentric circles with the ingredients of society each assigned their own belt: Housing, schools, shops, factories, and transportation segregated from each other. 

While PARTISANS does admit to Garden City inspiration, their reasons for departure from the framework are weak: The design claims to use a unique street grid form the firm has called “squircles”—not quite squares and not quite circles. But really, they just replace 19th-century jargon with 21st-century jargon, and instead of idyllic lawns for children to play on, the plan speaks to more efficient and environmentally friendly suburbanization patterns as an alternative to urban sprawl.

The project, which will span over 450 acres, will also include a plan for mass fiber optic cable systems that will provide connectivity across sidewalks, streets, and buildings as well as drone ports and self-driving cars. The firm has also entertained the idea of how health and wellness centers can benefit from such technologies. All the other elements of a hospitable city will be included as well, including a school, farmer’s market, library, recreational centers, and art institutions.

The Innisfil Council voted unanimously to accept PARTISANS’ proposal after putting out a call for designs looking for a “visionary city of the future centered around a transit hub.” Prompted by the introduction of a new Metrolinx rail station known as GO Transit, which is expected to form the center of The Orbit’s layout, it will be joined by two mixed-use towers that will house offices, retail, and residential spaces. The squircles, or roadways, will then wrap around this central hub.

Detail of the proposed central transit hub

Detail of the proposed central transit hub (Courtesy PARTISANS)

The Orbit is also following in the footsteps of the earlier proposed project in Toronto by Sidewalk Labs. An offshoot of Alphabet Inc., Sidewalk Labs has redesigned the old industrial waterfront district of Quayside to resemble an Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) district. Both Canadian plans are idealistic in nature and check many of the boxes required for sustainable and sensitive development in contemporary discourse. However, their main drawback is that they are digital master plans, and their biggest ideas, from infrastructure to real estate, require the intervention and cooperation of many different parties—these outside partnerships undermine the authoritative leadership proposed by a utopian plan and jeopardize the guarantees the designers see (although Sidewalk Labs is definitely making progress).

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