At PPS, we often say, “When you focus on place, you do everything differently.” But the town of Innisfil, Ontario provides a case study in just how far one community can take this idea. By drastically rethinking the way their municipal government works—what we call Place Governance—this small community of 32,000 people has taken on placemaking in a big way.
“We had a traditional, quite hierarchical municipal structure,” says Tim Cane, Innisfil’s Manager of Land Use Planning, “and it wasn’t conducive to the change the town was experiencing—or facilitating the changes we wanted to see.”
In particular, the idea of using placemaking as a framework for updating the community’s Official Plan had already been floating around in the Planning Department before the city decided to reorganize its departments. But the shake-up freed them to really make focusing on place a priority at every level of government.
Their reorganization involved removing an entire layer of senior management, shortening the distance between staff and decision-makers. Eleven department managers, who work with staff every day, report directly to the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and make the majority of decisions. To veterans of municipal government, that much power in so few hands may sound a little scary at first—see Robert Moses—but it’s important to realize that decisions in Innisfil aren’t made in a vacuum. The fact that all the important decision-makers can regularly be in the same room at the same time means a freer flow of information, stronger input and trust between departments, reduced duplication of effort, fewer interdepartmental snafus, and closer contact with reality.
Innisfil puts this new collaborative environment to work through what they call “cross-functional teams.” For example, as in most municipal governments, the Planning Department used to deal with new development applications in isolation. “Then further down the track,” says Cane, “we had engineers trying to build infrastructure to respond to decisions we made, and the Building Department trying to build things that weren’t making sense at that point, and Operations inheriting a development or a concept that didn’t work for them.” Instead, Innisfil now has a “Placemaking Cross-Functional Team,” which brings together managers and staff from the Planning, Engineering, Building & Community Standards, and Operations Departments to make choices that work for everyone involved. No more chains of Frankenstein monster decisions.
The benefits of the Town of Innisfil’s flatter and friendlier structure haven’t only been reactive. In Innisfil’s new Official Plan, they have been able to proactively incorporate input from multiple departments, as well as the community. Traditionally, an Official Plan in Ontario is only used by a planning department, and doesn’t lend itself well to use across departments. As Cane says, “The idea was to expand the utility of that document, so that it could become a reference not only for our planning decisions, but also for that cross-functional team.”
“It becomes more than just a Planning Act instrument. It becomes a placemaking instrument—that’s what we’re calling it now.”
As a result, it doesn’t read like a normal land-use planning document. It includes social and community outcomes, as well as principles of placemaking. It puts forth long-term goals, as well as Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper solutions.
It’s also a hell of a lot more fun. The placemaking cross-functional team has worked hard to make the community engagement process more... well, engaging! Innisfil hired PPS to help facilitate several workshops and produce a placemaking plan for the town last year. As Paul Pentikainen, Senior Policy Planner for the town of Innisfil, recounts, “We’ve had pop-up workshops where we have a little booth. We’ve gone to community events. We ask people questions like, ‘what do you want to do at a specific site?’ It’s those types of questions that put the placemaking spin on things, that made the community want to engage more, and realize it’s not just the traditional Official Plan update.”
As a bedroom community, where most people commute elsewhere for work, Cane and Pentikainen also realized that they had to meet people where—and when—they were. To help fill that gap, Innisfil has held a multi-day Permit Palooza for the past few years where the Town Hall stays open late. People, especially weary commuters, can come in with plans for a backyard project or an addition to their home, and get a permit on the spot. “We’re recognizing that we have to be more available in some cases to make it work,” says Cane.
The Town of Innisfil’s IT team even got in on the community engagement process. Through an app called GooseChase, residents could easily participate in a scavenger hunt by taking pictures on their smartphones. However, the scavenger hunt actually collected their answers to traditional community meeting questions like, “where is your favorite place in town?” or, “what would you like improved?” The app brought an additional 70 participants into the planning process, who collectively produced over 200 pictures.
Perhaps the best part about the Town of Innisfil’s new arrangement is that it has made things a little more unpredictable—not a word usually embraced in government. As Innisfil discovered, this kind of place-led, open-ended, multidisciplinary governance holds the power to unleash the creativity of public servants and citizens alike.
“Things are evolving,” says Cane, searching for the right word. “Things are germinating almost. The seeds of the plant were in the governance change, and now we’re starting to see those threads and those connections weave their way through the broader processes we have here.”
Cane expects that new cross-functional teams will continue to emerge as new needs arise. Already, a team to address institutional culture has taken shape, and a “management team pact” to express the guiding values of this bold experiment is in the works.
“We’re seeing quicker responses and—we think—better decisions,” summarizes Cane. “At the same time, we’re not afraid to make mistakes, either. Our librarian calls them ‘glorious mistakes.’ They’re those learning processes that you go through inadvertently sometimes. We have a very open environment where we’re not afraid to make decisions and run with things.”