A Brief History of Edmonton’s River Valley and Ravine Park System
Indigenous people were the first stewards of this land, and were probably here for more than 8,000 years before settlers arrived. As Fort Edmonton was established and a city grew, much of the river valley came to be used for industrial purposes, such as coal mines, lumber yards, brick factories, and garbage dumps.
In 1907, Edmonton contracted Canada’s first landscape architect, Frederick Todd (who worked with Frederick Law Olmstead’s firm of New York’s Central Park and Montreal’s Mont Royal fame) to advise on our parks system. Todd stated that “every advantage should be taken of the great natural beauty of…the river valley and ravines.” He proposed that the city create a “necklace of parks.”
Todd also commented on the importance of reserving land at the top of the bank for public roadways where people could gaze onto the splendour of the river valley below.
The City took Todd’s advice to heart and, between 1907 and 1931, under the guidance of the City’s Engineering Department and short-lived Parks Department (1911-1913), began acquiring river valley and ravine lands. In 1913, the mayor and the president of the University of Alberta sat on the parks commission.
Over a hundred parkland acquisitions were made between 1907 and 1931, and by then the City had acquired most lands on both sides of the river from Highlands golf course to Laurier Park. During this early period, the City also acquired Mill Creek, Groat, Mackinnon, Kinnaird, and Whitemud Creek ravine lands.
The 1930s and 1940s were a quieter period for land acquisition, but in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, as Edmonton spread out, the City continued purchasing lands that eventually became Gold Bar, Rundle, and Hermitage Parks in the northeast, and Terwilligar and Fort Edmonton Park in the southwest.
Deindustrialization and Park Development
During these decades the City also undertook deindustrialization of the river valley. The beauty that people sought to foster in their cities in the early twentieth century was augmented at mid-century by a desire to have a place where citizens could build healthy minds and bodies. Having a respite from the frenetic pace of modern cities – being able to camp, fish, picnic, skate and toboggan in nature – was the purpose of parks in this era. By the late 1940s, parks had become “parks and recreation.”
Edmonton came close to losing its river valley parks after the city’s transportation department began to develop the Metropolitan Freeway System. The river valley and ravines were to be used as freeways to downtown. Mill Creek freeway was abandoned in the 1960s after strong citizen protest. Work began, however, on MacKinnon Ravine, and that park is a wide corridor today because the trees were cut, the road bed built, and storm sewers installed before public resistance and a narrow council vote in 1974 halted the plan. As Mayor Dent said at the time, “If you’ve gone partway down the incorrect path, that’s regrettable – but not as regrettable as going all the way down the incorrect path.”
Shortly after the Metropolitan Freeway System was halted, the province proposed the creation of “provincial parks” in Alberta’s two largest cities. Calgary got Fish Creek Provincial Park, and Edmonton, Capital City Recreation Park, on which the province spent $35 million. Rundle, Gold Bar, Hermitage, and Dawson parks, in Edmonton’s east end, were part of this new super park.
Importantly, the aim of the City and Province was to link green spaces from Hermitage to the High Level Bridge. This meant acquiring small pieces of land to complete a riverside trail system. Discreet walking and biking paths and four footbridges facilitated movement between parks. Premier Peter Lougheed noted, “This Park is our vision of a good quality of life to be enjoyed by the people of Edmonton and by their children.” An agreement between the City and Province stated changes to the park needed to be approved by the provincial environment minister.
The success of Captial City Recreation Park was stunning, and the trail system was extended to established parks in west Edmonton, like Victoria, Emily Murphy, Mayfair, Whitemud, and Laurier. Recreation options expanded from picnicking, tobogganing, skiing and skating to include hiking, biking and jogging.
Conservation Efforts and Environmental Planning
The creation of this park system sparked a major river valley conservation effort by the city. In 1976, the John Janzen Nature Centre opened to increase citizens’ awareness and understanding of nature. In 1985, the city passed the River Valley Bylaw (bylaw 7188), finally offering the park legal protection. The river valley parks now encompassed over 18,000 acres. However, the bylaw alluded to the near-loss of the park by the Metropolitan Freeway System and openly acknowledged the river valley would always be under pressure. The bylaw states, “As Edmonton grows and changes and as land becomes more valuable the River Valley may become threatened by commercial and industrial uses, as well as by civic uses such as public utilities.” This bylaw demands that all river valley projects be “essential” and states that its first goal is “to ensure preservation of the natural character and environment of the North Saskatchewan River Valley and its Ravine System.”
By the mid 1990s the City understood that the river valley had important ecological value, realizing that its boundaries encompassed areas of natural vegetation and wetlands that contributed to urban biodiversity and promoted ecosystem services. In 1990 the city published the Ribbon of Green, which emphasized conservation. In 1995 it came up with a Natural Areas Policy, and a few years later established the Master Naturalist program and Natural Areas Advisory Committee to encourage citizen awareness of river valley ecology and conservation practices. In 2007, it created a Natural Systems policy (C531).
In 2008 the city published a Biodiversity Report. Threats identified in the report were responded to by the Natural Connections Strategic Plan, which states, “Natural areas throughout Edmonton are under tremendous pressure as a result of urban, commercial and industrial development, and many have already been degraded, fragmented, or lost altogether…Natural Connections renews the City’s commitment to protect its natural areas, native species and the natural processes they support for the benefit of all.”
In 2011, the city published its environmental master plan, The Way We Green, which includes the following objectives:
Objective 3.3 The City of Edmonton protects, preserves and enhances a system of conserved natural areas within a functioning and interconnected ecological network.
Objective 3.6 The City protects, preserves, and enhances its urban forests.
Objective 3.7 The City protects, preserves, and enhances the North Saskatchewan River Valley and Ravine System as Edmonton’s greatest natural asset.
This plan also makes an important reference to the nested hierarchy of priorities that Edmonton (and everywhere) must follow in its planning in order to be sustainable:
(See the “River Valley Resources” tab to links to these plans and documents.)
All these efforts recognize the river valley as an important regional ecological corridor and Edmonton’s greatest asset, and promise to conserve the river valley to “provide a change from urban living and an opportunity for recreation in the tranquility of nature.”
Recent History and Shifting Values
In the past few years, the City’s understanding of its stewardship role seems to have changed. In the past few years, it cancelled the Master Naturalist program and disbanded the Natural Areas Advisory Committee. Then, in 2016, the City began work on the Valley Line LRT, which runs through five river valley parks and involved the cutting down of over 1600 trees in the southeast portion alone. The Environmental Impact Assessment states the line is “expected to impede local wildlife movement” and have a “major impact” on the local ecosystem.
See the “Current River Valley Projects and Proposals” tab to see the many projects proposed and approved for the river valley since 2016. All of the approved projects have been deemed “essential” to satisfy the River Valley Bylaw, or else the land was rezoned to avoid the requirement.
In 2016 University of Alberta Environmental Law Students Association undertook a gap analysis of river valley protection. The summary findings were that Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River valley and ravine system do not benefit from effective protection, and that the city is not measuring the cumulative impacts of the projects it is approving and planning.
It is in response to these pressures on the North Saskatchewan River valley and ravine system that the Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition formed. We feel that adequate protection of the river valley requires the city to clearly answer the following questions:
What belongs in our river valley?
How well are we respecting our bylaw and commitments to protect the river valley?
What is the city doing today to educate citizens on ecological principles and the specific history and ecology of the North Saskatchewan River and the value of a natural river valley and ravine system?
Edmonton’s river valley and ravine park system is a remarkable story. Four generations have embraced the idea of preserving the river valley’s natural character. The City has worked tirelessly, especially in the 1907 to 1931 period, to assemble a sylvan, generative amenity that promotes human, and natural, wellbeing. The mantra at mid-century was that every resident should be no more than three miles from the river valley or a ravine. Even the few residential areas in the valley, remnants of the industrial past, were intended as “villages in the green.”
Now, Edmonton has the most extensive park system of any North American city. It is the image of ourselves we sell to the outside world; moreover, it has allowed the city to reflect the values of the first people to traverse the land. Urban centers shine at arts, business and health services – Edmonton’s extensive park system also gives citizens a unique opportunity to connect with the land.