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Rivers run through them

Winnipeg and Edmonton -- born and shaped by First Nations history and massive flooding -- can learn from each other's water protection, development experiences

Winnipeg’s river trail draws thousands of skaters each winter. (Trevor Hagan / Free Press files)

Winnipeg and Edmonton’s rivers have been the focal point of many government-led and private-sector plans. But the pressure to accomplish them has never been more evident, as issues such as sustainability, inequity and downtown change persist.


In the past people occupied the rivers as places of refuge, trade and movement. What, from our history, can we draw upon to better design and plan for and embrace a river city? How have other cities leveraged their rivers to catalyze greater economic and social prosperity? Maybe the answer is in the connected nature of our cities — and in the rivers that flow to and from one plain to the next, from one city to another.


It’s winter in Winnipeg. The mercury has fallen to -25 C but conversations, laughter and a range of activities are heard boisterously at The Forks, the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. When they’re solid bodies of water, they serve as tourism imagery for the City of Winnipeg. Advertising features Winnipeggers skating along eight kilometres of groomed river ice, foodies enjoying culinary fare at a restaurant suspended above frozen water and design competitions that generate stirring architecture. That, for locals and tourists looking in, is a quintessential Winnipeg winter day. These river activities seem to transform the coldest city in Canada into the warmest place for people.


At the foot of the new Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton’s core, cars race north as slow-moving ice floes pierce through the North Saskatchewan River. A few kilometres west, on the Fort Edmonton Park Footbridge, are dog walkers, spiked-shoe joggers and snowsuited families. The river beneath them, a solid sheet of white. These bridges are two of 18 that many Edmontonians commute across daily that offer glances and moments of reflection of the varied experiences within and near the North Saskatchewan.


The rivers, in both Winnipeg and Edmonton, seem to develop a common winter language: we’re largely unfazed by frigid temperatures, we embrace the cold — wholeheartedly — not only in our plans, but in our desire to be near the rivers.


While Winnipeg’s rivers freeze all the way, drawing people atop them, Edmonton’s river in the winter is only partially solid. This difference doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people near the river. With Edmonton’s interest in becoming a world-class winter city, a conscious effort has meant more festivals and fat-tire bikes, skating, skiing, snowshoeing and tobogganing.


"We may not be able to use our river in the winter the way other cities use theirs," says Isla Tanaka, a member of the City of Edmonton’s WinterCity Initiative team, "but it is still very much part of our identity."


For thousands of years, the North Saskatchewan River served as a trade and travel route for many First Nations cultures. Access to its waters provided fish and its deep forested valley provided shelter and resources such as animals, berries, medicinal plans and materials for crafts, clothing and tools. As an integral part of Indigenous life and culture, the river and its waters were and continue to be considered sacred and important.


Currently, it is considered one of the largest continuous urban parks in North America at approximately 48 kilometres in length and 18,000 acres overall. Canadian rapper Rollie Pemberton boasts in a 2017 Eighteen Bridges article the North Saskatchewan River "is indivisibly linked to Edmonton, a natural wonder that sets it apart from any other city in the world… where you can walk down some stairs and suddenly be in a massive forest."

The North Saskatchewan River doesn’t completely freeze, so Edmonton’s interaction with its river differs from Winnipeg’s in winter. (Isla Tanaka photo)

The demands for furs from Europe in the late 1770s brought Europeans to establish trading posts. In 1795, the first Fort Edmonton/Edmonton House was erected. Subsequent forts were relocated and expanded as the area grew into a regional hub for trade and provisions connecting Europeans, First Nations and Métis in a complex web of relations. Over time the fur trade gave way to the settlement of the river valley as Indigenous peoples were pushed onto reserve lands.


Industries emerged, reliant on the river valley’s natural resources. Despite the risk and past experience of flooding, residential communities developed. The completion of the Low Level Bridge in 1900 enabled the movement of goods by train and the construction of the power and water treatment plants in 1903 would contribute to Edmonton’s expansion.


The 1915 flood changed all that. In late June of that year, the waters rose almost 13 metres higher than normal, devastating industries, submerging homes and affecting civic services. There were no reported fatalities but approximately 2,000 people were displaced. The flood’s significance was not only in the damage it exacted, but in its contribution towards slowing and eventually limiting development next to it.


The warming huts, while providing relief from the cold, also serve as an economic generator by attracting the curious to The Forks. (The Forks photo)

Like the North Saskatchewan, the Red and Assiniboine rivers in Winnipeg have always been a place of activity and enterprise. Some 6,000 years ago, Aboriginal peoples — from the Nakoda, Cree, Anishinaabe and Dakota tribes — would make their way to The Forks to engage and participate in fur trade. Via canoe, the first Europeans settled around 1738. The rivers marked The Forks and the immediate area as resource-rich, a site with access to fish and waterfowl. The arrival of the Canadian National Railway and with it thousands of immigrants turned Winnipeg’s attention away from the rivers. With cars and greater mobility, people and development migrated to other parts of the city. The Forks and the rivers were left vacant, lifeless.


The late-1980s saw The Forks designated as a national historic site and a reimagination of the vacant rail yards as a mixed-use development: a market for local businesses and a public space. The organization that manages it — The Forks North Portage Partnership — programs the site throughout the year. More recently, they have shifted their focus to winter, now attempting to harness the movements of the Red and Assiniboine rivers to move people back to The Forks.


Winnipeg turned its back on the river, but now it’s looking to bring its rivers back to the spotlight.


"The rivers are seen as an important step towards advancing mixed-use development, waterfront living, and tourism," says Braden Smith, chief planner for the city.


"The Forks is a popular site throughout the summer, but in the past several years, the area has become a hotbed of activity during our colder months. People anticipate and can hardly wait for the rivers to freeze ― so they can skate, walk, bike or even cross-country ski. For some, it’s to cross the ice to get to other neighbourhoods. For others, it’s a connection point for communities on either side of the river to socialize and gather."

The Assiniboine River through the spring, winter and fall seasons. (Larissa Blumenschein photo)

The revitalization of downtown Winnipeg over the past decade has seen a marked increase in population size, residential and commercial development, and improved perceptions of safety and vibrancy. Images of the evolving downtown, which almost always include the Red and Assiniboine rivers, are repeatedly captured by local photographers and tourism writers.


A private entity with three government stakeholders, The Forks North Portage Partnership has articulated an interest in the rivers, through its Go to the Waterfront plan. It states: "Interest in downtown waterfront living in Winnipeg is on the rise and the opening up of Waterfront Drive revealed to our city how important quality public space is in creating a downtown that people aspire to live in. There are large tracts of land available for new infill development and there are many parcels throughout the waterfront that will attract far higher and better uses, given their proximity to a dynamic waterfront."


In both Edmonton and Winnipeg, the rivers, are now seen as an economic opportunity of a different kind — a natural resource that can bring people and investment back into the downtown.

A cyclist rides by a warming hut on the frozen Assiniboine River close to the Manitoba Legislative building. (Mike Deal / Free Press files)

In 2009, the rivers played host to the international Warming Huts design competition. Praised and celebrated by international news outlets and architectural critics, the competition sought designs that could provide warmth and refuge from the cold. The winning designs were then positioned atop the icy Red and Assiniboine rivers for Winnipeggers to skate to, interact with and enjoy.


After the competition’s inauguration, significant conversation around design began to spark. Joe Kalturnyk, a Winnipeg-born architect, and Mandel Hitzer, chef of deer + almond, solidified a plan to open the city’s first-ever restaurant above frozen water. In 2013, Kalturnyk and Hitzer brought local and international chefs together to prepare and serve world-class cuisine in an a tasting room warmed only by the bodies they serve, constructed with scaffolding and tarp. Now a fixture in Winnipeg’s culinary scene, the venue takes on multiple shapes annually, drawing in the creativity of local designers to help reshape, reimagine and repurpose the original event’s materials.


Not very far from the restaurant pop-up site, the city has proposed a pedestrian/cycling bridge to connect the downtown to the Osborne area, an active transportation linkage that mirrors the river footsteps tracked throughout winter and an opportunity to address sedentary lifestyles. Development along river lots may also catalyze access to other attractive amenities. When people live and play in areas like these, it reduces the need for driving and supports the local economy.


In her essay for the Edmonton City As Museum Project, public spaces advocate Sally Scott argued how vital the flood was in shaping "the city we know today."


"Our river valley may not look the same, nor be under the same protections, had the flood not devastated it," she wrote.

The pop-up restaurant Raw Almond, temporarily built on a frozen river, is one of the hottest tickets in Winnipeg. (Phil Hossack / Free Press files)

Ideas to protect the river valley can be traced back to 1907 when landscape architect Frederick Todd recommended policies and the acquisition of land to create a system of interconnected parks. This led to steps to protect the river valley: zoning bylaws to regulate and preserve as parkland; funding partnerships between governments; policies to ensure separation of abutting development; and plans such as the Ribbon of Green Concept Plan and Master Plan from the early 1990s.


Those original plans provided "a foundation for the planning, management, and prioritization of park development within the North Saskatchewan River Valley and Ravine System," says Ryan Andres, the City of Edmonton’s Ribbon of Green project manager.


Edmonton’s growth, especially in the northeast and southwest, is anticipated to be significant. As such, there is a need for an update. This renewal of the Ribbon of Green was "supported by a comprehensive public, Indigenous and stakeholder-engagement program" says Andres. "Due in large part to the popularity of the River Valley for the purposes of recreation, active transportation, gathering, celebration and quiet connection with nature, this plan and its timely update is so vital."


Other examples that demonstrate innovation and leveraging the adjacency to the river include a number of interconnected city-led projects in Rossdale, a large low-lying terrace immediately south of downtown.


The area’s ancient Indigenous use, fur trade centrality and role as a stem cell for urban Edmonton make it one of the most historically rich areas in Alberta. In 2015, Edmonton city council endorsed a vision for this area, also referred to as River Crossing, that sees it evolving into a vibrant community and special place.

Young Edmontonians skate a trail in one of the river valley parks. (Laughing Dog Photography / City of Edmonton)

One of the first actions was the River Crossing Heritage Interpretive Plan, completed in 2017. Prepared with Indigenous and public engagement, it is a tool to understand the historical and cultural significance from Indigenous and settler perspectives and guide interpretation as the area redevelops.


The revedelopment concept, that considers future land uses in the area, including a repurposed former power plant, is another step to achieving the River Crossing vision.


"When it’s built out, new housing, shops and open spaces will knit downtown Edmonton to the riverfront and re-animate the Rossdale Power Plant complex. At the very centre of the city, a hole in our urban fabric will become a new destination along the North Saskatchewan," said River Crossing senior planner Erik Backstrom.


Additionally, the Touch the Water Promenade, which aims to create a public space connecting existing trails, heritage buildings and the new Walterdale Bridge, will provide a new vantage point for Edmontonians to see and enjoy the river.


"Edmonton has historically had a ‘look but don’t touch’ culture about the river. That is really changing now. The Accidental Beach phenomenon in 2017 (an existing sandbar emerged following low water levels and flow) showed that there is a pent-up demand for enjoying the river rather than just passing through the valley. That is why we are so excited about the Touch The Water Promenade. It will draw more people to the riverfront while allowing them to connect with the river in new ways," Backstrom added.

In the winter, the Red and Assiniboine Rivers come alive with people, activity, art and creativity. (Dan Harper photo)

Opposite Rossdale, on the south bank is the first Indigenous Art Park in Edmonton, which opened in the fall of 2018. A partnership between the City of Edmonton, Confederacy of Treaty No. 6 First Nations, Métis Nation of Alberta and the Edmonton Arts Council, it features artwork by Canadian Indigenous artists that "tell the story of this place." It’s located on ancestral lands of the Indigenous peoples whose descendants entered into treaty and is centrally placed within the present city.


Similarly, in Winnipeg, with a growing interest in reconciliation, agencies such as The Forks North Portage Partnership have turned their attention to installations that commemorate Indigenous peoples. In the fall of 2018, a sculpture by artists K.C. Adams, Jamie Isaac, and Val Vint, officially named Niizhoziibean, was installed on the river trail at The Forks, "to honour our city’s Indigenous heritage and its prominent place alongside the Red and Assiniboine rivers."


In both Winnipeg and Edmonton, representation of people, culture, architecture and history seemingly take place directly on the water and out from it, spilling on to the land.


A meeting and gathering place for some, a place that has turned its back on others.


It’s important to acknowledge that the experience and perceptions of the rivers as inclusive places vary. Citizen surveys from the City of Edmonton show similar visiting habits to the river valley by men and women — 68 per cent for men and 60 per cent for women. Of the men, 68 per cent surveyed responded to feeling "safe in the river valley parks," compared to only 47 per cent for women.

Fort Edmonton footbridge over the North Saskatchewan River allows residents to interact more closely with the water. (Marco Melfi photo)

The banks of Winnipeg’s murky rivers — like those in other large, urban centres — become a destination for some in society who are made to feel unwelcome elsewhere. And they’ve been the scene of shocking and inhumane behavour; in 2014, the body of slain Indigenous teen Tina Fontaine was found dumped in the Red River.


Earlier this year, snow and ice on the frozen rivers was sculpted to commemorate missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, serving as a poignant reminder that while many Winnipeggers are able to enjoy what the rivers have to offer, for others they are places of heartbreak and loss.


"Although the river has brought sadness and pain in the past, it has also brought closure and opportunity," says Michael Champagne, a community activist in Winnipeg. "There’s an opportunity to take action and redefine what the river can mean to those who live around it. What is our relationship to this river as urban First Nations people living in Winnipeg? What have we done to care for her? For many of us, we believe this river can both heal and bring healing."

The naturally frozen skating trail extends south on the Red River from The Forks in downtown Winnipeg to the St. Vital Bridge. (Dan Harper photo)

Frozen or flowing, the rivers in Winnipeg and Edmonton come alive with people, activity and programming. They’ve been natural gathering places over time and continue to evolve as development tensions and visions for city regeneration change. With plans waiting to be implemented, the experiences of Winnipeg and Edmonton can inform one another.


Private-sector entrepreneurialism and creativity in activating Winnipeg’s rivers may help shape Edmonton’s approach in bringing together various groups to bridge the gap between funding and implementation. Winnipeg can learn from Edmonton’s significant public-sector leadership — in finding and in prioritizing resources and staffing from within to assume ownership of river-development plans currently led by pseudo-public arms-length organizations. In both scenarios, collaboration is essential. While the public sector may invest capital costs, private organizations play a critical, supportive role in long-term management and programing. If we’re to address issues of climate change, inequity and downtown revival, we’ll need to cross these waters sooner than later.


Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 8, 2019. Co-written by Jason Syvixay and Marco Melfi.


Marco Melfi is originally from Hamilton and has called Edmonton home for the last decade. Marco is a principal planner with the City of Edmonton and has led tactical urbanism and placemaking initiatives and currently works in policy development. An avid writer, Marco is an active contributor to the city’s poetry community.