The Jewel of Edmonton

How a grassroots organization is connecting north and south – and everything in between

At 18,000 acres, the North Saskatchewan River Valley System is the largest urban park in Canada and the 11th largest in the world.

The River Valley Alliance (RVA) is a not-for-profit organization working on connecting this vast area by establishing one connected trail, 100 kilometres long, from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan.

Kristine Archibald has been with the organization for seven years and became executive director in January. The RVA was created almost 20 years ago by volunteers who wanted to connect the river valley, and is made up of six shareholders representing the municipalities that border the river valley area. “Our mandate is [to] preserve, protect, enhance but also connect … that’s the overriding mandate of what we are doing,” she says.

The RVA has already created 75 kilometres of trails, and Phase 1 of RVA’s plan of action has seen the development of a number of other large projects, including the 100th Street Funicular and the Terwillegar Park Footbridge. At 262 metres long, it’s the second-longest stressed-ribbon footbridge in the world.

Currently, two other pedestrian bridges are being developed. The Highway 15 underslung pedestrian bridge will connect the river valley from Sturgeon County to Fort Saskatchewan, and is scheduled to open in 2022. A footbridge from Edmonton to Strathcona County is also in early planning stages. These two bridges, once completed, will provide full connectivity along the 75 kilometres of trails.

Looking forward, Phase 2 will include the creation of the remaining 25 kilometres of trails in the southwest quadrant of Edmonton.

The RVA secures funding for projects from federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. All in, the cost of Phase 1 is $90 million, of which $50 million is from the provincial government, $30 million from the federal government and the rest funded by municipalities. All projects in Phase 1 are fully funded, except for municipal funding on the construction phase of the Edmonton-to-Strathcona County footbridge. This will be up for budget deliberations in the fall.

From site views and bridge counters, the RVA has seen increased use of the river valley. “We were already seeing so much increased usage with the trails and awareness [of them] … but COVID almost tripled [usage] in some areas, if not more,” says Archibald. One of the organization’s goals moving forward is to gather measurable data to verifiably show how many people are using the trail system.

The hope? To create a world-class trail. “You have probably heard of the Cabot Trail, Bruce Trail and the West Coast Trail … these are tourist destinations where people travel just to access these trails, see different parts of the world and explore nature in those areas. Ours could certainly be one of them,” says Archibald.

“We are already ‘Festival City’ — this is just another thing to draw people in and show them, and be proud of what we have,” she says. “It’s the jewel of our region; it really is.”

Interested in knowing more? Check out Episode 95 of The Well Endowed Podcast, which features Archibald and more information on the River Valley Alliance.