“Dingy. Dirty. Unwelcoming.”
That’s how Cherie Klassen describes two former parking lots in an Old Strathcona alley. They’ve now been transformed into inviting pedestrian plazas with picnic tables, landscaping and bike racks for Edmontonians to enjoy.
Welcome to Strathcona Back Street, located next to the Varscona Theatre and across from the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market on 83 Avenue.
“It’s more attractive and functional, it’s now used by way more pedestrians and people sitting at tables,” says Klassen, executive director of the Old Strathcona Business Association (OSBA). “My office is close by so I’ll eat lunch here at times.”
Bringing people together
The City of Edmonton collaborated with OSBA, EPCOR, and other businesses and organizations to transform the space. Since its renewal, events such as the Fringe, Whyte Avenue Art Walk, and Reggae Up North have used the Back Street for their programming.
“We want people to feel like it’s an extension of the area around Whyte Avenue,” says Leanne Janke, project coordinator of the Strathcona Back Street.
“We designed it to make sure that people feel invited into the space, so they can come visit area businesses. People coming from the Farmers’ Market have a place to sit if they have something to eat. People also live here—there are some apartment buildings that face the plaza.”
Storefronts on Back Street
The City now considers alleys as “back streets” when there are commercial and residential units that have their main entrances in the alley.
Sugared & Spiced, a family-owned bakery, fronts onto the Back Street. Co-owner Jeff Nachtigall was one of the main advocates of the project. He sees a lot of customers using the new plaza, and he hopes it will encourage more people to check out the area and Sugared & Spiced’s cakes, cookies and other treats.
“We’re still a break-even business after six years,” he says. “COVID put us back probably three years, so we’re fighting for everything. If [the Back Street] brings us another $100 a day, that’s like another half an income in my family.”
Green alley improvements
Not all of the Back Street’s transformation took place above ground. Under the plazas, EPCOR and the City partnered to install soil cells to manage stormwater and help nearby trees grow. These soil cells are part of what is known as a Low Impact Development (LID) system.
“Usually when it rains, water will go into a catch basin, through some pipes across the city, into our wastewater treatment facility and eventually back to the river,” says Janke.
“The goal of LID is to really treat water and reuse it more locally. So, for example, in Strathcona Back Street, we put soil cells under the plaza. These basically look like large milk crates. You can put soil in them and the soil doesn’t get crushed and trees can grow nice, healthy roots. Stormwater can flow into these soil cells to feed these trees, and at the same time, reduce the risk of local flooding.”
Stormwater management is vital to building climate resiliency into our urban fabric. This work aligns with policies such as the City Plan, which outlines what matters most to Edmontonians, and EPCOR’s Stormwater Integrated Resource Plan. The City and EPCOR have partnered up to implement LID and other stormwater management techniques across the city.
Creating great spaces
The Strathcona Back Street project completed its first phase of construction in 2021 as part of the City’s Neighbourhood Renewal program; a program designed to improve roads, sidewalks and street lights in Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood Renewal also explores other opportunities—from bike lanes and shared pathway additions to traffic calming measures and school-area crossings to tree plantings, LID and improvements to City-owned parks.
OSBA, Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market and Old Strathcona Youth Society also contributed funding to the Back Street. Community partners will be responsible for any additional specialized features, as fundraising becomes available. This work will include elements like tree lighting, entrance features, custom bench seating, public art and murals.
“When I visit other cities as a tourist, I don’t remember the great parking lots, I remember the great spaces where people are at,” says Jen Rutledge, who helps oversee the planning and design of the Neighbourhood Renewal program.
“With Strathcona Back Street, there’s no better example of creating these little spaces across the city, building a city for people.”
Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post is a drone shot of Strathcona Back Street’s two plazas, which run parallel and perpendicular to 83 Avenue. Photo credit: Jason Pfeifer/EDA Design.
Read more about the City of Edmonton’s use of soil cells to grow healthy, happy trees throughout the city. For more on the City’s efforts to mitigate climate change, read Climate Resilient Edmonton: Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan.