Sustainability | December 1, 2023
Echoes of the Valley: Driving Sustainable Change in Edmonton
Elyse Colville & Emily Homeniuk
Influence often seems confined to the domain of institutions and organizations, leaving individuals with a pervasive sense of limited agency. However, when citizens come together, they form communities that hold a collective power capable of shaping and driving change.
Within the city of Edmonton, the power of its residents has transcended these conventional boundaries. This article explores the intricate relationship between transportation, the environment, and the profound influence of two communities in Edmonton: one in the pursuit of climate justice, the other inhibiting it. First, this article examines the historical significance of Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River Valley, the challenges it faced during the Metropolitan Edmonton Transportation Study of the late 1960s, and the activists who worked to protect the valley. Building on this historical backdrop, the focus shifts to the contemporary 15-minute community movement and the misguided push-back against self-sufficient neighbourhoods, where essential amenities are conveniently accessible within a short distance, in the name of protecting personal freedoms. By analyzing these two periods, this article uncovers the transformative potential of community influence in shaping Edmonton’s sustainable future, shedding light on the often-underestimated agency of individuals and communities in navigating the delicate balance between transportation development and environmental preservation.
Metropolitan Edmonton Transportation Study
The North Saskatchewan River Valley, the heart of Edmonton and an emblem of the city’s natural heritage, has long been a haven for residents seeking solace and connection with the environment. However, despite the River Valley’s idyllic appearance, it conceals many environmental concerns, including one of Alberta’s most polluted creeks and green spaces (Bell & Colville, 2022). Mill Creek Ravine, one of the River Valley’s most visited branches, has played a crucial role in the city’s history. For thousands of years, the area served as a meeting and trading ground for Indigenous people, and in 1880, the Papaschase Cree Reserve was established in the region (Stewart, 2019). However, European settlers in the area vehemently opposed the reserve (Stewart, 2015). After years of dispute, the Canadian government removed the Papaschase Band from the ravine in 1886 and sold the land to industrialists (Stewart, 2019).
With the clang of steel and the roar of engines, the Edmonton, Yukon, and Pacific Railway Company blazed a trail through the ravine in 1902 (Stewart, 2019). The train brought the promise of progress and prosperity, ushering in an era of industrial growth. In just a few short years, the once-pristine landscape had transformed into a bustling hub of industry, teeming with coal mines, lumber mills, brickyards, and meatpacking plants. With the rise of meatpacking, the area quickly became the industrial backbone of Alberta, as the arrival of countless livestock forever altered the ecology of the ravine (Bell & Colville, 2022). It was a time of rapid change, as the landscape was reshaped by the needs of commerce and the relentless march of progress.
However, despite the initial surge, most industrial operations disappeared by the early 1920s, leaving behind a legacy of decay that can still be seen today (Bell & Colville, 2022). The remnants of the factories, including decayed buildings, clinker from burnt coal, and organic refuse like bones and hair, remained in the ecosystem (Stewart, 2019). While nature slowly took back the ruins, the industry’s residuum contaminated the soil, making it unsuitable for certain native plant species to thrive. Today, these haunting vestiges of the past serve as a poignant reminder of the rise and fall of industry in the area and the enduring power of nature to reclaim even the most desolate of landscapes. Despite its reputation as a natural oasis, Mill Creek Ravine is one of the most polluted parks in Alberta (Stewart, 2019).
Edmonton’s River Valley again became a crossroads between urbanization and conservation in the mid-twentieth century, as a proposed highway threatened to destroy the natural landscape that had drawn residents to the city. By the late 1950s, the city’s transportation system was overwhelmed by the demands of the growing population, industry, and economy (Stewart, 2019). In response, City Council proposed an ambitious plan: the Metropolitan Edmonton Transportation Study (METS), a network of four- to six-lane freeways that would alleviate traffic congestion (Bell & Colville, 2022). METS predicted that by 1980, the Edmonton metropolitan area’s population would increase by 91%, doubling the number of daily trips taken by the average person in the city (Edmonton District Planning Commission, 1963). The proposed Downtown Freeway Loop would surround the central core and distribute traffic in and out of the central business district without clogging the inner city. Meanwhile, the Mill Creek Freeway would connect the Downtown Freeway Loop to the South East Corner and Highway 2. The plan also proposed other freeway branches, including the Jasper, West, North East, 98th Avenue, and South Freeways, at an estimated cost of $133 million.
The fate of the River Valley hung in the balance as the city faced a daunting challenge. Though the city insisted that they would preserve much of the recreation and beauty of the ravine, the proposed freeway system required the destruction of hundreds of homes and 11% of the River Valley’s trees (Cinnamon, 2021). The proposed freeway system was a threat to the very existence of the natural landscape, and battle lines were drawn. On one side were residents and environmentalists, who saw the River Valley as a priceless treasure to be protected. On the other side, City Council advocated for an interconnected network of freeways, prioritizing industrial development at the expense of environmental conservation.
In 1957, a group of citizens appeared before City Council to fight against the potential destruction of the Mill Creek Ravine. One of the protestors was Reverend D.J. Elson, a Bonnie Doon resident who saw the proposed road as a threat to the city’s precious parkland (“Petition signed by 700”, 1957). Elson argued that as the population grew, more parkland was needed, not less, and made a passionate plea on behalf of future generations. The citizens’ determination to protect natural spaces reflected a growing concern for the environment and the need to preserve it for future generations.
Carolyn and Richard “Butch” Nutter’s early activism against the Mill Creek Freeway also made them key figures in the fight against the Metropolitan Edmonton Transportation Study. When the City identified the couple’s modest home in Mill Creek Ravine as an obstacle to the freeway construction, the Nutters rallied their community, launching a petition campaign to oppose the project (Reichwein & Olson, 2021). Their efforts drew support from 72 out of 75 households in the area, demonstrating the widespread opposition to the project. Despite resistance from some residents who believed the freeway would improve the area’s cleanliness or held concerns about their employment, the Nutters and their allies refused to back down in their fight to protect the ravine.
In 1968, Butch Nutter presented the petition to the Edmonton City Council (Reichwein & Olson, 2021). He was not alone in his fight, as other individuals and activist groups, such as the Save Our Parks Association (SOPA) and the Urban Reform Group of Edmonton (URGE), emerged in the 1960s to resist the freeway (Kruper, 2019). SOPA took a strong stance against the freeway’s ecological impact on Edmonton’s River Valley, and their protests and petitions gained significant community support (Bower, 2015). In fact, SOPA was so influential that in 1965, they were able to force a referendum on the decision to build Capilano Bridge by collecting 1,400 signatures (Bower, 2015).
SOPA demanded that the preservation of recreational landscapes take priority over transportation infrastructure projects and emphasized that evaluating human values was beyond the expertise of engineers (Bower, 2015). Furthermore, SOPA was concerned about the lack of park space for children’s development and advocated for parks as vital for recreation and character-building opportunities for younger generations. “Roads in the Valley, Kids in the Alley” was one of their slogans, underscoring the significance of natural urban spaces and the negative impact of the proposed freeway on childhood development (Bower, 2015). SOPA’s activism efforts were met with dismissive media coverage, with the Edmonton Journal strongly supporting the METS plan and disregarding any dissenting opinions, dubbing activists “homeowners” or “housewives” (Bower, 2015).
In the early 1970s, the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension played a pivotal role in redirecting the fate of Mill Creek Ravine. Gerald Wright, a department member, joined forces with SOPA to challenge the freeway proposal and introduce a fresh perspective on transportation in Edmonton (Bower, 2015). The University’s involvement marked a turning point in civic decision-making, uniting citizens, academics, experts, and city employees in a collaborative effort. Meanwhile, the Save Tomorrow Oppose Pollution (STOP) group also emerged at the University, rallying for environmental causes beyond the anti-freeway movement, from opposing DDT to raising awareness about asbestos and other pollutants through video campaigns (“Collection of DDT Urged to Avoid ‘Civil Disaster,’” 1970).
Despite the heated debate and mounting opposition, parts of the METS project moved forward, leaving an indelible mark on Edmonton’s urban development and the city’s relationship with nature. The James MacDonald Bridge and its tangled overpasses are the only parts to have ever been completed (Kruper, 2019). After the estimated cost of the project skyrocketed to $750 million and with persistent activism from groups such as SOPA, URGE, and STOP, Edmonton City Council voted to scrap METS in 1972 (Kruper, 2019). In its place, a more sustainable light rail transit (LRT) system was adopted to balance transportation needs with the protection of natural and urban environments (Kruper, 2019).
Today, the River Valley is a vital site of Edmonton’s history, and its story is a testament to the complex interplay between humans and the environment. The Mill Creek Ravine remains a popular destination for hikers, joggers, and cyclists, with its scenic trails and stunning views offering a respite from the city’s frenetic pace. However, it is also a reminder of the environmental challenges that face us and the need for ongoing efforts to protect and preserve our natural spaces. The intervention of METS is only one example of the tension between Edmonton’s transportation system and the environment. In the present day, there is a new movement taking root—the 15-minute community. This burgeoning concept, also referred to as “small towns in our big city” (City of Edmonton, 2023, para. 1), revolves around the notion of self-sufficient neighbourhoods where residents can access amenities, services, and opportunities within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their homes. It envisions a more sustainable and livable urban landscape, where the reliance on cars diminishes and the bonds of a community grow stronger. However, what began as an urban planning effort to make amenities and public transportation more accessible soon became an international controversy, steeped in suspicion and theories of government control over citizens’ freedom of movement.
15 Minute City
In 2020, the City of Edmonton proposed the adoption of the 15-minute city as part of their District Planning project to make Edmonton’s communities and transportation more efficient, accessible, and sustainable (City of Edmonton, 2020). In 2023, amid growing controversial theories about the concept being a means to restrict citizens’ movement to within 15 minutes of their home, the right-wing youth organization YegUnited organized a protest in Edmonton on February 10th to counter the 15-minute city plan (Posa, 2023). Exploring the origins of the 15-minute city and its evolution from an urban planning concept to a source of controversy and fear may shed light on how the politics surrounding urban spaces can influence how Edmontonians feel about sustainability initiatives.
In 2016, the term 15-minute city was coined by Carlos Moreno, a scientist and business professor from Columbia who teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris (Hsu, 2023). Moreno was inspired by community-based urban planning concepts like the garden cities of the early 1900s, the work of 1960s activist and urban planner Jane Jacobs, the “walkable cities” of the 1990s, and British low-traffic neighbourhoods (Hsu, 2023). The 15-minute city is described as an “ideal geography where most human needs and many desires are located within a travel distance of 15 minutes” (Duany & Steuteville, 2021, para. 4). Although the 15-minute city plan is based on sustainable modes of transportation such as walking, cycling, and public transportation, motor vehicles are still included, but not considered the standard form of transportation (Duany & Steuteville, 2021).
In 2020, the Cities Climate Leaders Group Inc. (C40), a global network of over 100 mayors dedicated to climate action, adopted the 15-minute city concept as part of their plan to restore health, well-being, and community to their cities as part of the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic (C40, 2020). Within Canada, only three cities are members of the C40 network: Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver (C40, 2023). While these cities are bound by the C40 membership to adopt the 15-minute city initiative, many who are not members have begun to adopt the urban planning method.
To understand where the miscommunication started, it is important to travel across the pond to Oxford, England. Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTN) have existed in London since the 1970s, but when Oxford City Council announced in September 2022 that their Local Plan 2040 included the 15-minute city model, something was lost in translation (Limb, 2023; Tfl Community Team, 2020). The Local Plan envisioned that by 2040, Oxford would be a “healthy and inclusive city” (Oxford City Council, 2022, p. 10), where citizens would be near housing, community, businesses, and employment opportunities. But by December, social media was rife with theories and disinformation about the plan, with claims “that a surveillance system would be used to restrict people to within a 15-minute radius of their homes” (Limb, 2023, para. 12). Thousands of people, including public figures, took to Oxford’s streets, protesting that the government was attempting to restrict and police their freedom of movement (Hernández-Morales, 2023). Right-wing media personalities like Katy Hopkins and politicians like Tory MP Mark Dolan influenced the narrative by comparing the British government to Pyongyang, North Korea, where citizens had their personal freedoms restricted. These inflammatory reactions to the 15-minute city plan are one contemporary example of how fearmongering can influence sustainability initiatives and how the public receives them.
While the 15-minute city had been included in Edmonton’s District City Plan since 2020, the uproar from Oxford was echoed on Edmonton’s streets. On February 7th and 9th, 2023, YegUnited posted calls to protest on their social media platforms. YegUnited is a right-wing, conservative organization of members ages 18 to 30, who claim to be “empowering youth to engage in free speech” and are self-described as a non-profit, youth organization (YegUnited, n.d.). The post rallied Edmontonians to gather on February 10th, 2023, on Whyte Avenue—the heart of one of Edmonton’s most walkable communities—to protest the 15-minute city plan. Additionally, the social media post advertised featured speeches from Chris Saccoccia, also known as Chris Sky, an anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist from Ontario, and Benita Pederson, a DJ and karaoke host from Westlock, AB. Radio station 95.7 CRUZ FM boosted their call by interviewing YegUnited leader, 19-year-old Alexa Posa, on February 9th (Cross, 2023). Here, Posa explained that the plan would restrict the public’s movement to a 15-minute district and that they would not be allowed to leave their district without a permit.
The City of Edmonton’s use of the term district became a dystopian keyword fueled by fear. According to the District Planning report, the term was used to describe how Edmonton is already divided into invisible districts, or “small towns,” based on existing communities and neighbourhoods that the public travel through every day (District Planning, n.d.; City of Edmonton, 2023). When senior city planner Sean Bohle and one of his colleagues attended the February 10th protest to answer questions, many of the protesters were open to listening but not convinced by their answers (Anderssen, 2023).
In the case of the 15-minute city, it is clear that the influence of international attitudes and social media, as displayed by the Oxford protests and spread of disinformation online, have played a significant role in how sustainability efforts are received and interpreted by Edmonton residents. Instead of focusing on the potential benefits to accessibility and sustainability that may come from the plan, the local focus has been pulled towards the vitriol and misinformation pushed by organizations like YegUnited. The City of Edmonton is still trying to understand the intricacies of the situation, and the impacts of this negative feedback are still unknown.
The City of Edmonton District Plan (n.d.) is currently completing Phase 4 of the five-phase district plan, which focuses primarily on revising the plan based on feedback received from the public during and after the plan was proposed (Phase 3) (para. 11). This phase has been in progress since November 2022 and is on schedule to be completed in August 2023 (City of Edmonton, n.d., para. 11). The future of Edmonton’s 15-minute city plan will be addressed in Phase 5, which begins in August 2023 and will continue through 2024 when the refined plan will be released for feedback and finalized (City of Edmonton, n.d., para. 4). According to the City of Edmonton’s District Planning website, public engagement opportunities will be available throughout the remainder of 2023, and Edmonton residents can sign up via email for notifications of their happening (City of Edmonton, n.d.).
These two stories, one past and one present, demonstrate that individuals can hold the power to influence sustainability initiatives—whether for good or bad. The interplay between the demands of transportation and development and the imperative of environmental preservation comes sharply into focus, showcasing the capacity of communities to shape the trajectory of their cities. SOPA’s slogan, “Roads in the Valley, Kids in the Alley” (Bower, 2015), and the phrase “small towns in our big city” (City of Edmonton, n.d., para. 1-3) from Edmonton’s District Planning website reflect our community’s enduring commitment to sustainability and environmental preservation. Thus, by drawing inspiration from the past, individuals can pave the way for meaningful change in the future.
This exploration serves as a reaffirmation of the agency and effectiveness of communities in navigating the complex dynamics of urban life. It underscores their indispensable role as catalysts for transformative change, propelling discussions on the dynamics of influence within our cities. From the historic battles waged along the banks of the River Valley to the visionary aspirations of the 15-minute community movement, it becomes apparent that the true power to effect change lies not solely in the hands of policymakers and institutions but rather in the collective will of the people.