A national urban park in Edmonton is a step closer to reality after city councillors recommended moving to the planning phase Wednesday. The recommendation will still need to be voted on by city council at a future meeting.
City councillors on the urban planning committee debated the proposal after reviewing the results of the pre-feasibility phase, which was launched in March 2022.
As part of the study, city staff and partners, including Parks Canada, the provincial government and Indigenous and Métis groups, looked at three possible locations for the park: the Big Lake area in northwest Edmonton, the Emerald Crescent in southeast Edmonton and the river valley.
The river valley was chosen because it’s central in the city and has abundant access via active transportation and driving, while the other locations are less accessible, said Kent Snyder, branch manager of planning and environment services with the city.
However, the river valley may present limitations because of how big it is, and the study suggested the initial park could be one smaller area with the potential of the entire area being designated in the future.
Several groups were at the meeting to give feedback and show support for the proposal, including representatives from the Metis Nation of Alberta, the North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the North Saskatchewan Heritage River Initiative.
National urban parks are being considered in Halifax, Windsor, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Victoria, Montreal and Edmonton.
There are three main goals behind establishing these parks, according to Parks Canada: to connect people living in cities to nature, to preserve nature and biodiversity and to advance reconciliation.
To help improve people’s connection to nature, Parks Canada would develop interpretive programs and activities for visitors, according to the federal government.
The federal government would commit to physical connections too — both by improving trails for people with limited mobility or who use mobility aids, and by making it easier for those who live further away from the park to get there.
Coun. Anne Stevenson said the funding from the federal government could be invested into river valley infrastructure.
“That wouldn’t come at a cost to property taxpayers here in Edmonton, yet we would still see some great enhancements in the river valley,” said Stevenson. “Everything from regular trail maintenance to signage.”
Examples of conserving nature include creating and maintaining habitats for pollinators and other wildlife, enhancing biodiversity and planting vegetation to help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Coun. Tim Cartmell wondered if establishing a park would add a superfluous layer of protection.
“There’s already regulation we have to go through. Is there going to be a further layer of regulation if every time we want to put in a new gravel path in the river valley?” Cartmell said. “Some very wise people that were long ahead of me in this role have done a hell of a job protecting our river valley and our ravine system. I don’t know that we need anybody 3000 miles away to tell us how to do this better.”
The third goal, reconciliation, would be addressed by welcoming Indigenous leadership when it comes to conservation, encouraging the cultural use of the space by Indigenous people, supporting tourism with an Indigenous focus and allowing opportunities for sustainable and traditional harvesting and gathering, according to the government.
In the first public engagement done on the proposal, some Edmontonians worry that certain areas in the river valley – particularly mountain biking trails – will be closed or that user fees will be introduced.
While the government said the parks will mostly be made up of areas that are free and open for the public to use, some areas may be limited, “in order to achieve conservation, reconciliation and heritage preservation.”
Some respondents were also concerned that homeless people who shelter in the river valley would be displaced if it’s designated as a park, the study said.
There are still many unknowns because the federal initiative is so new, but the initiative is based on an urban park in the Greater Toronto Area called Rouge National Park, the federal government said.
If council votes in favour of the proposal, city administration will move to the planning phase, which does not bind the decision, the city said.
If Parks Canada also agrees to move to the next phase, there will be a broad conversation, Snyder said, where the boundaries of the park would be refined, the governance model would be created and budgets would be confirmed.
“If we’re not comfortable with the strings that may be attached to the funding, then we’re under no obligation to accept that funding,” said Stevenson.
Julia Bresee, acting director of the national urban parks team at Parks Canada, said the planning phase would take about a year.
Many speakers and councillors were concerned about the prospect of “handing over” ownership of the river valley to the federal government, but city staff as well as Bresee were adamant that neither Parks Canada or the federal government would be in charge of the park.