Taking Natural Urban Spaces to the Next Level: Is It Possible for Edmonton’s River Valley?

This blog post is brought to you by Nikita Rubuliak at the University of Alberta. We will be featuring guest blog posts for the next few months from University students.

A few months ago, I was introduced to the concept of Urban National Parks. I am sure many are aware of the term ‘urban parks’ or ‘urban natural parks’; they are found in many cities and towns across the world. Yet, adding the word “national” in the middle changes things up a bit. An Urban National Park is the establishment of a National Park within or overlapping into an urban area. As of now, no ‘official’ National Parks have been established in an urban setting. However, there is an initiative already underway to develop the Rouge National Urban Park (“Rouge Park”), located in the Greater Toronto area. The Rouge Park offers a beautifully natural environment in the middle of the city, boasting forest, wetlands, and beaches providing the Toronto area with a dose of nature (Rouge National Urban Park Initiative, 2016). The park provides opportunities to both hike and camp, and contains over 10,000 years of human history (Rouge Park, 2015). Not only does the park contain over 1,700 different plant and animal species, but once the park is established it will be 79.1 square kilometers in size, “making it one of the largest and best protected urban parks of its kind in the world” (Rouge National Urban Park Initiative 2016).

If you have been following CPAWS Northern Alberta’s blog, you may have read my previous post about the City of Edmonton’s fabulous river valley. To follow up on this previous post, and despite the importance of Edmonton’s river valley, I believe it lacks the recognition it deserves, both for its ecological and social value. The question I keep asking myself is, how do we take the river valley to the next level? How do we attract more users while maintaining or increasing the river valley’s ecological integrity?

Despite being Canada’s largest urban park, Edmonton’s river valley has not been established as a National Park nor has there been an official initiative to establish it as one. Should it be? Would taking the river valley to this “next level” be feasible or even a good idea for Edmonton?

As seen with the Rouge National Urban Park Initiative, or even any National or Provincial park, the process of transforming an area it into an actual ‘National’ Park possesses many benefits including and not limited to the preservation of land, ecosystems, and historical sites. In addition, it is noted that parks often facilitate strong science programs and aid in the restoration of native species (Rouge National Urban Park Initiative, 2016).

Would an Urban National Park be feasible, viable, or even a good idea for Edmonton? After all, Edmonton’s river valley is already considered Canada’s largest urban park (River Valley Parks, 2016). Similarly to Rouge Park, establishing the river valley as a National Park would provide a variety of benefits to Edmonton’s people and ecosystems. Re-inventing the river valley as a designated National Park would:
- Bring many conservation benefits including the protection of species and their habitats;
- Facilitate a higher emphasis on river quality (water and surrounding areas);
- Ensure protection of the land and ecological integrity into the future aiding in the prevention of the purchasing of land from the city for commercial or industrial use; and
- Attract more users who would gain a greater appreciated for the area (Edmonton is always striving to gain more usage for the river valley). 

However, the development of a National Park does have its difficulties. Despite the efforts to be established as a National Park, Rouge Park has become the subject of a variety of criticisms. A common one which I have come across and which I believe is most relevant is recognizing the challenges in implementing the same management practices as one would in a traditional national park i.e. Jasper, Banff, Yoho etc. The argument is that, for a city, these levels of environmental protection would be impractical. As well, there have been specific criticisms of the proposed legislation, Bill C-40 (Rouge National Urban Park Act). The bill essentially outlines the conservation and management strategies of Rouge Park if/when it is established as a National Park. Organizations such as CPAWS-Wildlands League, David Suzuki Foundation, Friends of the Rouge Watershed, Environmental Defence Canada, Nature Canada, Ontario Nature, Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, and Sierra Club Foundation have all been involved in examining and evaluating the legislation (Bill C-40) while advocating for the strengthening of the proposed conservation and management strategies. The bill lacks the degree to which protection and management strategies should be implemented; “the proposed legislation fails to establish nature conservation as the priority in park management, ignoring provincial, national, and international standards for protected areas.” (Proposed legislation to establish Canada’s first national urban park misses the mark, 2015). It was stressed that the improvement of environmental safeguards is vital before control of the park is transferred to the federal government (Bill to Create Canada’s First National Urban Park Remains Flawed, 2015). Although the park is located in close proximity to one of Canada’s largest urban areas, it’s value as an ecological treasure should not be downplayed and nature conservation by international standards must be a prioritization (Media Backgrounder: Information on Rouge Park, 2016).

In comparison to the Edmonton river valley, Rouge Park is a bit different. In particular, Rouge Park does not cut right through the city limits — it is located on the border of the City of Toronto. In contrast, Edmonton’s river valley lies right in the centre. If the establishment of the river valley as a National Urban Park were to be considered, discussing potential boundaries and where a park would start and end is important. Since the river valley stretches right through the city, would it be beneficial to have only a section of the river valley as a designated National or Provincial Park? This may increase the feasibility of establishing a park if it were in a less developed area of the river valley or farther from the areas where city density is higher. I also mention the term ‘Provincial Park’ which might be another interesting point of discussion. For instance, a Provincial Park may be more manageable in a city setting rather a National Park.

Another aspect to consider for Edmonton is looking at the players already involved in river valley conservation. As mentioned in my previous blog post, there are already various efforts being made to protect and conserve the area. There have also been many efforts aimed to increase usage of the parks in the river valley. Organizations and initiatives such as the River Valley Alliance, Alberta Trail Net, North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society, North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance and the City of Edmonton are a few of the groups involved. Perhaps the investment of these groups in the development of any future National or Provincial Park may provide the city and the river valley with an edge to gain support for such an initiative.

To conclude, Edmonton’s river valley truly is something special. For us Canadians it is natural to long for wild spaces. Most cities in the world do not have access to these vast green areas, but for Edmontonians, the river valley has always been part of our backyard and it truly deserves more credit. However, if we were to take the river valley to this ‘next level,’ with the establishment of a National or Provincial Park, a delicate balance between the social and ecological aspects must be struck. Would a transition to a National Park limit the sense of freedom people feel when they go to the river valley? Would they feel that they are constantly having to abide by rules, rather than simply just enjoying and exploring their surroundings? No matter what, there will be trade-offs on either end — weighing out the costs and benefits is vital.



“Bill to Create Canada’s First National Urban Park Remains Flawed”. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Last modified March 13, 2015. http://cpaws.org/news/bill-to-create-canadas-first-national-urban-park-remains-flawed

“Media Backgrounder: Information on Rouge Park.” Environmental Defence. PDF. Accessed April 4, 2016. http://environmentaldefence.ca/reports/media-backgrounder-information-rouge-park


“Proposed legislation to establish Canada’s first national urban park misses the mark.” Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Last modified January 28, 2015. http://cpaws.org/news/proposed-legislation-to-establish-canadas-first-national-urban-park-misses

“River Valley Parks”. The City of Edmonton. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://www.edmonton.ca/activities_parks_recreation/parks_rivervalley/river-valley-parks.aspx

“Rouge National Urban Park Initiative”. Parks Canada. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/progs/np-pn/cnpn-cnnp/rouge/index.aspx

“Rouge Park”. Toronto and Region Conservation. Accessed April 3, 2016. https://trca.ca/parks/rouge-park/