Making connections: community leagues in Edmonton bring folks together

Whitney Corbett grew up in a small town and always wanted to experience city life. Her husband, Greg,  grew up in a city and wanted to live in a small town. 

They ended up with the best of both worlds in 2017 when they bought a home in Hawks Ridge, a new neighbourhood in northwest Edmonton. It’s next to Big Lake and Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park, yet only 15 minutes from West Edmonton Mall and 25 minutes from Ice District and the Winspear Centre. 

“There are a lot of young families and retirees here,” said Corbett, as she pushed her son Emerson on a playground swing. A flock of geese honked as they flew overhead. 

“It’s a great place to live because you have all the connections of the main roadways, but as you can hear, we’re close to nature. The moose visit us from time to time, we hear the coyotes nightly, so it feels like living in the country within a city.”

Emerson with his mom, the president of Big Lake Community League.

“At least you know you’re not alone”

Connections are important to Corbett. As the president of the Big Lake Community League, she tries to meet as many of her neighbours as she can. There’s a lot of ‘em—4,073, according to the 2019 municipal census. Big Lake is one of the city’s few “superleagues,” consisting of six young neighbourhoods, including Starling, Trumpeter, Pintail Landing, Kinglet’s Garden and Kinokamau Plains.

“Every time I see someone on the street, I ask: ‘Do you know we have a community league?’” said Corbett. “Everybody’s got a fast-paced life, they pull in their driveway and they go in their house and they might not necessarily know who their neighbours are. With a community league, at least you know you’re not alone.” 

 Six neighbourhoods make up the Big Lake community superleague.

Community leagues are vital to bringing neighbours closer together, as well as building communities and the city as a whole. They offer activities such as skating, yoga lessons, soccer, childcare, and babysitting courses. They also let residents have a voice in shaping the amenities and values of their neighbourhoods. Should we build a dog park? Do we need basketball courts? What kind of special events should we organize? 

Those are some of the questions facing Big Lake. Formed in 2019, it doesn’t have a lot of amenities (or even schools) yet. Most leagues have their own halls and rinks. Big Lake only has a portable rink. While walking trails are plentiful, Corbett said residents would like more options for activities. 

Construction is ongoing in the new neighbourhood of Starling, part of the Big Lake Community League.

Neighbourhood Resource Coordinators

To help establish community priorities and implement initiatives, each of the city’s 162 leagues turns to its Neighbourhood Resource Coordinator at the City of Edmonton. 

Cameron Nattress is the coordinator for Big Lake (along with about a dozen others in Nakota Isga, formerly known as Ward 1). He attends their meetings and helps link the league to the City’s programs, services and facilities. He provides information on things like how to apply for funding grants, how to get a licence for a special event, how to get neighbourhood input on proposed initiatives or how to put together a proposal for a community rink. He also helps residents find the right avenues to voice their concerns on municipal matters, such as lighting or road construction in their neighbourhood. 

“We wear a lot of hats,” said Nattress.

 “I just love working with the communities, being able to help them make the changes or build the things that they want. If I can make things easier for them or if I can answer any of their questions quickly, then I’m happy. Because at the end of the day, these people are all volunteers and the amount of time and effort they put into their communities is amazing.” 

Crestwood was North America’s original community league.

Community leagues: an Edmonton first

Community leagues have been an essential part of Edmonton since 1917. In fact, the first one in North America was founded in what is now Crestwood. In 1921, the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues was born. Now in its 100th year, the EFCL is another essential resource for the city’s leagues—offering equipment rentals, mentorship programs, as well as online courses to help volunteers learn how a board of directors works, how to raise money for their league, and other subjects. 

To mark its centennial, the EFCL built the Community League Plaza in Hawrelak Park, featuring a gas-lit fireplace, picnic spots and art installations for residents to enjoy year-round. 

The plaza is a tribute to the community league volunteers who help build Edmonton.

Each year, the EFCL marks Community League Day to pay tribute to volunteers who help build Edmonton. This year’s Community League Day is Sept. 18.

As the city continues to grow, so do the number of community leagues.

 “I think they’re fundamental to the city’s development—we have a ground-level democracy baked into the fabric of the city,” said Laura Cunningham-Shpeley, executive director of the EFCL. 

“Neighbours can come together to shape the place that they live and I think people really appreciate this model. We’ve seen five new community leagues created in the last three years. To me, that says this model is still vibrant, it’s still relevant, people really feel there’s a need for this.” 

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows some homes in Starling, a new neighbourhood in northwest Edmonton with lush wetlands and plenty of walking trails, on September 10, 2021.