Wednesday, 6 February 2013



The Edmonton River Valley: Green theme, or something more?

There's no simple accounting of all the things that add up to a city, but in one way or another it's always a series of paths, roads, waterways, etc. that establish the directions of experience we build up going from one place to another. Such 'common treads' service many a storey-line, but some capture wider, richer tapestries than others, and such is the case of the Saskatchewan River Valley that meanders an unusually long and quite groove though the otherwise loud urban grids of Edmonton.

As a sort of green counter-point to the dull greys of the City above, it is the River Valley that provides the original source of distinction to Edmonton at once, its founding historic waterway, and increasingly as its main visual tourist attraction. And most postcards of the City reinforce this over and over, picturing a typically modern downtown that’s grown-up from the lush banks of the old, undisturbed River. It’s an image and idea many Edmontonians hold dear; a clean and pristine 'ribbon of green' (the colourful name the City administration likes to use) that soothes gracefully through the square blocks and streets. Indeed, the River Valley is everything the City is not; hilly, curvaceous, natural, and a quite escape, while the City is flat, paved-over, unnatural, and a trap of busy congestion. To force judgement; the River Valley is good, and the City is bad… bad, bad, bad…or so it goes by the sort of lazy conventional comparisons of city and nature that seem so ingrained in our habits of thought. Powerful as such stereotypes are, this sort of over-simplification has a way of clouding the reality of what the River Valley has become today, and more interestingly, what it can be.

I for one think this ‘green theme,’ which seems to grow increasingly thick these days, is in some ways limiting our ideas of what a great urban river system can be. Spanning the entire west to east breadth of the City, our long Valley could accommodate a broader set of functions (and the corresponding populous) than it currently does, and on occasion we do hear new ideas; like the City’s recent plans to build a new funicular to ease pedestrian access up and down the steep slope’s to and from the downtown. Before considering this, or any number of possible new or existing ideas though, I think we’d do well to pause a moment and consider what some of the current uses of the Valley say to our collective experiences and expectations of it to date, as no doubt, these help shape how we’ve come to see it.

What are we making of it?
Scan any map of the Valley and patched into its’ forests of trees you’ll encounter many places we’ve already carved out from its’ flowing banks. A number of sports facilities (indoor and outdoor) jog along at varied intervals. At least 8 separate golf courses provide heavily manicured contrasts to the naturally growing scrub and brush. A couple of miniature ski hills extend outdoor sporting into the winter. Both the Valley Zoo and the Muttart Conservatory offer a home for the sort of exotic animals and plants we wouldn’t normally see in the Valley (or Canada). A smattering of recreational parks also regularly crop up, often anchored with a pavilion or some sort of institutionalized amenity building there to keep the outdoor experiences ‘civil.’ Perhaps the most storied site is Old Fort Edmonton Park, the major historical stop, offering visitors a chance to walk through the ‘authentic’ River City, where the early pioneers got things started setting up the first trading post, business’ and homes. In these earlier times, urban development in the Valley was common practice, and the three surviving communities of Rossdale, Cloverdale, and Riverdale are the living remnants of times when riverside residence was perfectly normal and middle class. With modern zoning regulations however, recent housing has been restricted from the Valley, and now it is only the rich who can afford a view of it from the expensive homes and apartments that crowd atop its high banks.

Of course, other sites and attractions exist within the Valley, but I think the above broadly describes the main things we’ve added to it over time. Publicly, it has become a parks and recreation haven, something directly encouraged and planned by the City. And privately, it is now a landscape to behold and enjoy from the balcony (with either coffee or martini in hand). As such, use of the River Valley has become increasingly nature oriented and/or ‘themed.’ Not to say this is so bad. After all, who in this day and age of politically-correct environmentalism could ever criticize the creation and protection of more green-space? Certainly not I. But this aside, I would argue that an increasingly narrow definition and use of the Valley toward parks, recreation, and nature observation has a way exalting its 'ecological importance' beyond the rest of the City. In fact, with so much attention foisted upon it to the exclusion of everything else we might be prone to think that the rest of us are somehow removed from nature, closed-off on some urban block, or suburban cul-de-sac. And to push this idea a bit farther, we might even say that this quiet and understated deification of the River Valley operates as a form of collective atonement for our sins of regular city living - where we've long ago paved over paradise to promote our petroleum powered race of over-consumption. Construed as such, in the City business can proceed as usual (without worry to natural limitations), as after all, we have the Valley, where we are preserving the sort of nature we want (or some of us want).

I would guess that this notion that the River Valley is special, and distinct from the rest of Edmonton, is shared by most Edmontonians but few are really vocal about. One group that does have a very public opinion about it however is the River Valley Alliance, or RVA for short. Founded in 1996, the RVA is an alliance of municipal groups (including Devon, Leduc, Parkland County, Strathcona County, Sturgeon County, Fort Saskatchewan, and Edmonton) that have cooperated in achieving a shared vision for the Valley. And broadly, this vision is to create a continuous park system that runs the River's length between all its communities. It's an ambitious and well-intended goal, and one the RVA has been steadily advancing on. When complete, it would constitute the largest and longest metropolitan park in North America at 18,000 acres and 88kilometers, respectfully. Of course, there are too many aspects to the RVA's plans for the River Valley to relay here, but sufficed to say, it is promoting the development of more paths, parks, minor water infrastructures, and various conservancy-type institutions that will all contribute more 'body, mind and spirit' to the ongoing 'nature narrative' I have been identifying thus far. To some environmentalists and other more hard-core naturalists, the RVA's various initiatives are seen as disruptive to the purer (human-free) wilderness they'd rather see grow back, but on the whole, their plan(s) has proven popular and have been steadily gaining ground.   

What can it be?
By all indications it seems the River Valley will continue to evolve into the long extended park-way system the RVA is planning, especially as it has just launched a $90 million Capital Project (supported by Provincial and Federal funding) that will see a variety of new additions, including the funicular mentioned previously. For the most part, I don't entirely object to this direction of the RVA, but as I've been suggesting so far, it has been promoting an exclusively recreational idea of the River Valley that leaves out the more typical uses of city life (residential, commercial etc.). While this may be fine, it does reinforce the notion that the Valley is a sacred place and rightfully removed from the day to day operations of the City. What needs to be asked here though; is does this continued specialization of the River Valley not actually constitute a sort of "nature mythology" we are always making here in Canada, one that covers over the reality that our entire City (and all Cities) is part of nature?

I for one would say that it does. And to put it in a wider context, I'd argue that as Canadians we have grown very comfortable with a dualistic split between City and Nature. It's either highways and buildings, or its vast unspoiled landscapes, but it still seems there's little imagination to conceive of anything much in-between the two. And everywhere our national culture seems to reinforce this; from established things like Group of Seven paintings (and endless variants) iconizing the quite serenity our landscapes, and the more 'real' versions of such landscapes carefully bordered within our National Parks. A hundred years ago this sort of idea of untouched nature would have been fine (and entirely pragmatic), but the huge Cities we live in today are virtual landscapes into themselves, and to continue thinking we can somehow ignore the City and just focus on the River Valley (or other large parks) as our green refuge entirely misses this point. This not to say, I think we should abandon the shared project of a greener River Valley, but I would suggest we'd do well to acknowledge more of nature back into the rest of the City; and conversely, allow more of the City back into the Valley. For as the North Saskatchewan River flows though our Valley, so does the rest of nature flow though our City, in ways visible and invisible to our senses - we just need find more ways of making this apparent.

Of course, many hold dear the idea that the River Valley is a sacred place, and will outright reject any notion of development into it. Such protectionist thinking is not entirely misled, but it does continue the dogmatist city-nature separation we've gotten used to and need to move past if we are to accept (what I consider) the more mature view that nature is everywhere, and needn't be artificially boxed into one zone or another. Certainly, I would agree that a wide 'ribbon of green' is a powerful and positive image for us, but I think it's also something worth challenging with future provocations, as otherwise it will continue to evolve into something for only the rich, weekend warriors, day-trippers, and tourists. There are ways to invite more regular and common occupation to the Valley, and we can do this without losing or treading over the natural beauty that already exists. We just need to think creatively toward setting city, society and nature to a closer balance more of us can enjoy. The River Valley is our "common thread" and should be accessible as such. A broader, richer urban tapestry remains to be made from it, but for now, I'll leave it at that...

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