City parks, open spaces a “godsend during pandemic”

The Roper Park and Natural Area is not the city’s biggest and most well known park (that would be the River Valley system) or one of its oldest (Borden) or newest (Laurier Park Natural Playground).

Roper doesn’t have a cool artificial-turf dog run like Alex Decoteau Park.

Or a network of shared use paths and trails like Terwillegar Park.

Roper doesn’t have accessible playground equipment like Jumpstart Playground in Clareview.

You can’t skate there or play frisbee golf like you can at Rundle. There is no spray park in the Roper Park and Natural Area, either.

It’s unlikely that ice cream trucks visit the Roper Park and Natural Area during the summer like they do at Paul Kane Park.

There are no sculptures and art pieces like those that await visitors at the Belgravia Art Park and the ᐄᓃᐤ (ÎNÎW) River Lot 11∞ Indigenous Art Park.

From Roper Park, you can’t see the beautiful lights on the High Level or Walterdale Bridge like you can from Const. Ezio Faraone Park.

Nor does Roper offer breathtaking views of the North Saskatchewan River like those gifted to walkers and bike riders on the East End Trails.

So, what does the Roper Park and Natural Area have?

It has its filtration system.

It’s an important filtration system. And vital for the ecosystem it supports. Yes, the infrastructure is the message.

A bridge over the spillway between Roper Park’s forebay and main bay works also as an animal blind. (More on that in the Soundcloud file below.)

Renew, refresh

Not to get too deep into the weeds, but this is how Roper Park’s filtration system basically works:

Water from Mill Creek flows into a bay where sediment from city and agricultural use is allowed to settle out. This cleans the water. Water then slowly circulates throughout the marsh where vegetation is able to remove more contaminants before it is returned on its path to the North Saskatchewan River.

As a piece of engineered ecology, the Roper Park is a place for improved water quality and a diversity of plant and animal life.

As a symbol, Roper Park is what every park and open space in Edmonton is: a place to renew and refresh.

“These are places that nourish our health, including our mental health,” said Grant Pearsell.

“In a very real way we do feed off of parks and open spaces. We take them in. We know we need them.”

Roper Park and Natural Area, a space of human re-made nature, is located near 69 Street and Roper Road, where the tunnelled Mill Creek returns to the surface.

Pearsell, who is now retired, served as the Director of Parks and Biodiversity with the City of Edmonton. Two decades ago, he worked with a team that transformed what was a section of McIntyre Industrial Park, near 69 Street and Roper Road, into a hidden gem that now lists pelicans as among its returning visitors.

Back then, the City team set out to solve the problem of flooding in the area. What they built was a solution to the flooding, and then some.

“For Edmonton, and, I think, for other places as well, this couldn’t have happened without civil engineers, landscape architects, ecologists and planners working together to figure it out,” said Pearsell.

“We took a theory out of the books and into the field where there’s machinery and contractors and everything else involved, and I think we created a natural space,” said Pearsell.

It’s a different kind of natural space, Pearsell conceded. It is a planned natural space. But the work that it does, the solace it provides, especially during the pandemic, is real, he said.

Mallards at Roper Park and Natural Area, April 15, 2021.

Parks and COVID

The year-plus of COVID has been a time when creative expertise of all kinds has been put to the test. Nurses, doctors, hospital managers, researchers. Supply chain management types, procurement experts. Computer programmers. Grocers. Mental health workers.

And, in their way, the people who plan parks and open spaces, too.

“Dr. Hinshaw and Dr. Henry have both said at various times that it’s important to go into nature to alleviate the anxiety of the times we’re in,” said Pearsell of Drs. Deena Hinshaw and Bonnie Henry, chief medical officers of health in Alberta and British Columbia.

Parks and open spaces in the city are, for many, the most popular and accessible way to disconnect…or reconnect…or filter. And, like the water in Roper Park, come away feeling a bit refreshed.

The number of people on shared-use path along River Valley Road below Victoria Park is way up during the pandemic.

Visits up

The City doesn’t track the number of visits to each park in the city, but indications are the numbers are way up in the pandemic, at least on the trails where automated people counters are used.

Here’s a bit of the emerging picture.

For the period June 7, 2019 – Sept. 30, 2019, there were a total of 91,948 people counted on the west end of the River Valley Road shared-use path. Over the same period one year later, there were 199,196 people counted at the east end of the path.

Same story on the Rossdale Trail, where there were 60,207 people counted pre-pandemic (June 1, 2019 – Sept. 30, 2019) and 117,740 counted during the same time period in 2020 in the pandemic.

Same story on the Gold Bar Trail-Gold Bar Bridge area where there was a 266 per cent increase in people for the period June 6 – Sept. 30, 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

Other areas don’t have comparable 2019 numbers, but impressive attendance numbers just the same. For instance, the Terwillegar Park footbridge saw 299,874 users from April 21 – Sept. 30, 2020. Or, a daily average of 1,840 people.

 “The parks in Edmonton are essential to our quality of life.”

– Gabriele Barry

The numbers make sense. Travel horizons in the pandemic are shorter. Budgets are tighter. From the beginning, the outdoors has been a relatively safe place to be.

Parks are free. They’re outside. They’re nearby. They naturally permit physical distancing. They’re good for walkers, joggers, photographers, they’re good for people on wheels, skis, on foot, on bus. They’re good for those that swim, hop and fly, too. They’re good for physical health. They’re good for mental health. They’re quiet. They have trees. And they’re beautiful parts of the city.

Suzanne Young, Director of Open Space Planning and Design, City of Edmonton.

The 4 Ps

Suzanne Young is the City of Edmonton’s Director of Open Space Planning and Design. Young pointed to the four Ps—people, planning, parks, pandemic—that have become a kind of visible constellation in our time.

“We’re so grateful to the people who planned the parks we now enjoy and, now, during the pandemic, even treasure,” Young said

From Abbottsfield to York, parks and open spaces have been there when they were needed.

One Edmontonian’s story

Dustin Tash is among those Edmontonians who have upped their park time in the pandemic.

“I’m definitely relying on parks more during the pandemic,” Tash said. “Parks are beautiful spaces where people can spread out safely.”

Tash lives in an apartment building.

“So between spending all of my time working and living there, it is so nice to be able to leave to find some solace at a park that’s just a short walk from my home.”

Dustin Tash parked in a park.

Dustin’s Top 3 parks, and why

Here are Tash’s Top 3 pre-pandemic fave parks that became only more popular with him in the time of coronavirus:

1. Ezio Faraone Memorial Park: “Stunning views of the river valley and a unique downtown feel.”

Const. Ezio Faraone Park is located at the north end of the High Level Bridge.

2. Victoria Park: “My friends and I have spent many weekends there with the place essentially to ourselves.”

Trees, path, quiet in Victoria Park along River Valley Road.

3. Louise McKinney Riverfront Park: “It’s so close to the river valley that you can forget you are in the middle of a big city there.”

Louise McKinney Riverfront Park lives up to its name.

Thanks, Dustin

Gabriele Barry is happy to hear Dustin Tash’s review of Louise McKinney Riverfront Park.

“That’s great,” Barry said. “I’m happy to hear that the park gave him that feeling. We did try to make everybody happy.”

Barry, who is now retired, served more than 25 years as the City of Edmonton’s Senior River Valley Parks Planner. She was the project manager on the McKinney Riverfront Park project.

Above the combination Turtle Rock effigy and Celtic labyrinth by Leah Marie Dorion in McKinney Park.

McKinney Park sits on 13 hectares of land west of the new Tawatinâ Bridge, south down the river bank from downtown, east of the Edmonton Convention Centre and just up from the North Saskatchewan River. It has open, grassy areas that deliver unobstructed views of the valley. The park is home to the Shumka Stage and a Chinese Garden and a First Nations turtle rock effigy with a Celtic labyrinth. There are paved paths and staircases.

Statue detail in Chinese Garden, McKinney Park.

The Chinese Garden was not part of the original design, but was woven into the plan through public engagement. The garden added to the park’s cultural story and gave park trail users another spot to stop. As did the Nine Dragon Wall, added in 2020.

Nine Dragon Wall, McKinney Park.

McKinney also has poetry.

Spring morning looking west in Louise McKinney Riverfront Park.

The park features 40 short poems by the late Edmonton poet E. D. Blodgett. The verses are printed on silver plates that ring light poles on a walkway with benches that look out on the river.

Here’s one of the poems that comes from where a reader is standing.

not mountains nor the sea
but casual hills and bluffs
of poplars are our lot

invisible beside
us coyotes walk along
the margins of the night

their voices strangely filled
with sorrows and with joy
and all around them light

as if pouring from
their mouths not notes but stars
were falling brightly home
Poetry by Ted Blodgett graces light standards in McKinney Park.

“When it works, it’s magic”

In her role, Barry had to make McKinney rhyme, find its harmony.

Her job was to bring together a team that considered every angle, view, bench, patch of grass, staircase, walkway, stage and tree in the park so that Edmontonians like Dustin Tash would one day forget they’re in the middle of a big city.

“When it works, it’s magic,” said Barry. “But things don’t just happen by waving a wand.”

As it turns out, there’s a lot of work and a lot of planning in magic-making.

“Listening to the public”

One of the first things that Barry and colleagues did was research. What were people doing on the future park site? How did they walk to it, across it, how did they use the space at lunch hour? How did they connect or want to connect from the park to the downtown neighbourhood? Then the question was how and what level of amenities to provide. And what activities they imagined doing at the park. Telephone surveys helped clarify the picture of the park people had in their minds. Extra creative touches like the poetry, too. Experts also studied the natural environment in the area, the plants that grew there, the animals that moved through and over, and came up with a plan that went back to the public.

“We ranked things and weighed pros and cons,” said Barry.

The new Tawatinâ Bridge will deliver a new experience of McKinney Park.

And then decided what parts of the park would be built first and where the money went first.

“It was always a case of listening to the public, thinking and figuring out what we can afford to maintain and operate,” said Barry.

In good time, on the site of what used to be a coal mine and a landfill, Louise McKinney Riverfront Park officially opened as a Millennium Project on July 1, 2000.

Barry said the park is about to enjoy a re-debut, of sorts.

“Just wait until the LRT is zipping people in over the new bridge and there’s the pedestrian bridge, as well,” said Barry.

“That’ll be a whole new perspective on a park that is still evolving.”

Not nice-to-haves

Barry said parks and open spaces are not nice-to-haves.

“The parks in Edmonton are essential to our quality of life,” she said. “They provide spaces for active and passive leisure. They beautify our city. They provide the ability to escape within the urban form. You have to give thought to ensure it will last and that it connects to the public and helps us define our city.”

And then Barry added a thought for our time:

“Parks have been a godsend during the pandemic.”

McKinney Park features benches to soak in the view.

City Plan and city planning

Edmonton has a new document called The City Plan. It’s intended to be a kind of road map, helping Edmontonians see the issues and make the decisions needed to keep this place—and to build this place—as a place to live, move to, plant yourself in, do business in, feel good about.

How is land used? How will Edmontonians move across the city? Those are the kinds of really important questions looked at in The City Plan. The City Plan exists because, like parks and open spaces, cities and a good life in them don’t just happen. It takes planning and conversations now so that in 40 years, Edmonton is a good place for another million people. Like conversations and plans 40 years ago set the stage for today.

Another million people is what The City Plan imagines. That means now is the time to be thinking about all kinds of municipal issues. Including parks and open spaces, and their equity and accessibility.

“We identify strongly with our natural and human-made network of greenspaces and water bodies,” says The City Plan.

“It’s part of being an Edmontonian. This network is our beautiful boulevard trees, creek, wetlands and other natural areas. It’s our river valley and ravines. Our parks. Our forests. Our wetlands, grasslands and dunes.”

The City Plan imagines green space and open space as a vital network, like roadways.

Suggested reading for a future park visit: The City Plan. 🙂

The City Plan says 2 million new urban trees will be planted.

The City Plan channels the spirit and work of planners and project managers like Grant Pearsell and Gabriele Barry when it says:

“Edmontonians understand the value of our environment and habitat, so it is protected and, where possible, restored and repaired. People need access to nature for recreation and health. The Green and Blue Network is used by people for cycling, walking, running, rolling, canoeing and relaxation. It is vital to support local biodiversity and ecological connectivity.”

Warehouse Campus Neighbourhood Central Park

Among the new parks being planned in Edmonton is the Warehouse Campus Neighbourhood Central Park. To be located in the Downtown Warehouse District, the park will cover 1.33 hectares (that’s about two football fields) between 106 Street and 107 Street and Jasper Avenue and 102 Avenue.

This is an illustration. Design work has not yet been done.

By 2030, an estimated 25,000 people are expected to be living downtown. For them, for visitors, for businesses, the park will be an important space, in the shadow of the office towers and right next to the Valley Line West LRT line, to do what parks do to renew and refresh those who stop by.

Construction of Kinistinâw Park, near 96 Street and 102 Avenue, continues this year.

Parks in a city of 2 million people

In all of the numbers and data and statistics about parks, Grant Pearsell does the simple math.

“As we move to a city of two million people, it all becomes more important, because if you double the population, then park space per person is cut in half,” he said.

The need for parks doesn’t mean speed for parks, though. Pearsell said parks are successful when they take shape slowly, professionally and respectfully.

“Parks come out better when different communities and different generations talk about what’s important to them,” Pearsell said.

“There is a real power to strategic planning of parks. It’s getting everyone lined up to solve problems and make life better,” he said.

Young agreed. She said planning aims to ensure that abstract goods—diversity, access, equity, inclusion, safety, fun—have a space to land.

“Ultimately, it’s about creating the conditions needed to provide the experiences that Edmontonians, through the planning and engagement phases of our projects, tell us they want in their parks and open spaces, now and in the future.”

Pearsell plans to get back to the Roper Park and Natural Area for a visit soon.

Once the pelicans drop in for some refreshment.

Editor’s note: the Roper pelican pics at the top and bottom of the post come from photographer Jason Teare in Nature Edmonton, a blog rich in photos that celebrate life big and small in Edmonton’s parks. Earlier this month, we walked through the Roper Park And Natural Area with Grant Pearsell while he told the story of the teamwork that went into the making of it. He would routinely interrupt himself with unique takes on design, teamwork, willows, bridges and more. Here’s Grant Pearsell in his own voice:

Grant Pearsell, now retired, has more time to visit the Roper Park and Natural Area.