Downtown Edmonton and the North Saskatchewan River

Downtown Edmonton and the North Saskatchewan River

Stretching along the North Saskatchewan River and its small urban tributaries within the City of

Edmonton is the largest interconnected parks system in North America. The parks are located

within the North Saskatchewan’s dramatic river valley, Edmonton’s most spectacular landscape

feature. Despite the prominence of the river valley to the physical and cultural geography of one

of Canada’s most important urban centres, little sustained research has been done to explore and

narrate the development of Edmonton as a river city. This project will create a digital atlas to

facilitate the examination of the historical geography of the river valley and parks system, the

relations between the two, and the larger urban landscape in which they are embedded. Placing the

North Saskatchewan River back in the centre of Edmonton’s history is crucial to understanding the

evolution of this modern North American metropolis.

Edmonton’s river valley is a multivalent site of memory and imagination, from the river’s first

aboriginal inhabitants who met here for trade, diplomacy, and worship to contemporary planners

who envision the river and its integrated park system as a key feature of vital, 21st

living. The river valley is a liminal urban space: domesticated as park yet sufficiently wild to

harbor coyotes; a site of clubs that cater to the rich yet offering shelter to Edmonton’s homeless; a

corridor through the city that is nevertheless often a barrier to urban transportation. The river valley

parks avail Edmontonians of many cultural and recreational opportunities, providing an oasis of

wilderness in what is otherwise metropolis. From another perspective, however, the river valley and

its parks system have become the staging ground for the conflicts and compromises that characterize

the modern urban experience. If the river valley park system seems remote from the city, its

existence and historical evolution has been inherently dependent upon it. How the river valley park

system came to be created and preserved in the face of pressures from urban planners and resource

developers is an important story, one that requires further study and more public awareness. Our

project will focus on the river valley within the city limits, and will create the infrastructure to

document the history of human interaction with the natural environment in an urban setting; it will

enrich existing scholarship in Canadian urban and environmental history on the nexus between

nature and urbanism.

This project is funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant.