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The sun sets over the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton on March 29.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Edmonton’s mayor is pushing ahead with his plan to create a national urban park, potentially along the city’s picturesque North Saskatchewan River Valley.

The Alberta capital is one of several cities seeking the relatively new designation, meant to provide easier access to nature for the majority of Canadians, who now live in urban centres – often hours away from more famous national parks such as Banff, Alta., or Ontario’s Georgian Bay Islands. Currently, the only one is Toronto’s Rouge National Urban Park, created seven years ago.

In Edmonton, where Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s campaign last year included a promise to pursue such a park, one suggested site is the River Valley. Currently operated by the city, it is already the largest stretch of urban parkland in Canada, comprising more than 160 kilometres of maintained trails and 20 major parks. The city recently announced an agreement with Parks Canada and area Indigenous nations to study the idea.

Mr. Sohi, for one, is excited about the ecological and conservation benefits funding from Ottawa could bring.

“The whole purpose from my perspective is to enhance the biodiversity within the River Valley,” the mayor said in an interview. “Use federal support to restore some of the land that we have lost because of erosion.”

There would be benefits for Edmontonians themselves, as well, Mr. Sohi said. The city would be able to better maintain the park, improve infrastructure such as signage, and add enhancements to the trail system that would make the valley more open and accessible. Official national urban park status would also attract tourism from around the country, the mayor said.

But it will take time and consultation before any decisions are made for the River Valley. To start, Parks Canada says it is receiving input from each of the partners on what they would like an urban national park in Edmonton to look like before moving forward with the selection of a site or governance model.

Edmonton is not the only city hoping to make it to the next step. Parks Canada is also considering proposals for Victoria, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Windsor, Halifax and Montreal, after the federal government announced in August, 2021, that it would invest $130-million dollars to establish a “network” of national urban parks across the country.

Traditionally, national parks are found in more natural settings.

“People travel three, five hours to go to a national park to be immersed in nature to see scenic views and experience green space that is, you know, for the most part, unscathed by human impacts,” said Scott MacIvor, a professor at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, and an expert on conservation and urban green spaces.

But with 73.7 per cent of Canadians living in urban centres, according to 2021 data from Statistics Canada, and not everyone having equal means of transportation, the aim is to increase access to nature for city dwellers – along with the conservation benefits of green spaces.

The national urban park program fits into the government’s larger goals of addressing climate change, said Steven Guilbeault, the federal Minister of Environment, in a statement: “We have barely scratched the surface of what is possible.”

Urban parks share a common purpose but have their own unique draws, Dr. MacIvor said.

“The focus can still be biodiversity conservation, the focus can still be tourism and human engagement. But then nuanced ways in which that’s applied may be different.”

For example, one thing that sets Toronto’s Rouge National Urban Park apart is that visitors do not have to purchase an entry pass.

Large green spaces in urban areas, such as the Rouge, come with a multitude of conservation benefits, environmental experts say. These include reducing the effects of flooding, encouraging biodiversity and providing refuge for species that cannot survive in smaller parks.

Still, when the Rouge park was created in 2015 by combining several existing green spaces, it was not an easy process. The idea had been proposed four years earlier, and development was hampered by tensions between the federal and provincial governments over environmental protections. Plans also pitted conservationists against about 75 working farms within the park’s boundaries.

This time around, Parks Canada says it is exploring alternative governance models.

“One of the big differences from the Rouge National Urban Park is that we’re really focused on collaborative approaches and working with partners,” said Miriam Padolsky, director of urban parks and ecological corridors at Parks Canada. The agency sees national urban parks as sites where they can work with Indigenous partners, she explained. In Alberta, this includes the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations and the Métis Nation of Alberta.

Audrey Poitras, president of the Métis Nation of Alberta, said in a statement that the urban park should be designed in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.

“First Nations, Métis and Inuit people roamed these lands long before the settlers came to Canada,” Ms. Poitras said.

“These lands were our home, our source of food and shelter; the waterways provided modes of transportation; the forests were shelters from the storms.”

The Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations said in a statement that a national urban park will provide opportunities to showcase Indigenous stewardship and connections to the land based on Indigenous knowledge and values.

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