Edmonton Freezeway: Designer thinks it will help winter be more bearable

Edmonton Freezeway, courtesy designer Matthew Gibbs.
Edmonton Freezeway, courtesy designer Matthew Gibbs.

When it comes to winter, Canadians fall roughly into two categories: Those who glory in the cold and snow, who can’t wait to get out on a rink or ski hill, and those who hunker down until spring arrives, except for unavoidable excursions like butt-clenching commutes on icy freeways.

Matthew Gibbs wants more of us in the first group. He thinks he’s found a way of luring more people outdoors by turning city sidewalks into vast urban skating trails.

The Edmonton native is the creative force behind an ambitious concept to transform stretches in the Alberta capital’s downtown into what he calls a “freezeway.”

The idea, he says, would draw people out of their homes, providing physical activity and making Edmonton’s often bleak downtown winterscape into a cultural hub of cafes, restaurants, cultural activities and just plain fun.

The concept ties in well with Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy, says its co-ordinator, Sue Holdsworth. The strategy aims to turn Edmonton's climactic reality into a cultural advantage.

“It’s a way also for people to get out together to connect in wintertime,” she said. “Historically people still tend to hibernate and kind of wait for it to be over. We know that winter can be a time of social isolation so it also will impact health and well-being.”

The freezeway grew out of Gibbs’ thesis studies at the University of British Columbia’s school of landscape architecture.

“I was inspired about missing the seasons that aren’t really as apparent in Vancouver that I was accustomed to in my life in Edmonton,” Gibbs, now a designer with Vancouver-based PWL Partnership, said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.

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Edmonton spends an average five months of the year below freezing, with downtown denizens retreating to its network of heated underground passageways. That’s something that won’t change much even with climate change, he said.

“We’re not going to run out of winter in Edmonton but with the changing climate apparently it’s been a lot harder to maintain and get going the pond-based skating in Edmonton,” he said.

Land-based skating trails fairly easy to create, designer says

What Gibbs calls land-based skating then becomes more attractive because it doesn’t require a thick layer of ice to support skaters as ponds or lakes do, just a carefully laid strip like on a neighbourhood hockey rink.

Refrigeration pipes that indoor rinks use also can be laid under sidewalks to provide ice consistency and extend the skating season, something Gibbs doubts would be needed for his freezeway.

“We have a climate that’s cold weather,” he said. “We don’t need to refrigerate this. This could be of use when the weather is cold enough.”

The number of people who are willing make their way to a recreation area is limited, Gibbs suggested.

“Essentially we’re not getting enough physical activity,” he said. “In a winter city that can get to -40, it’s pretty hard to get outdoors and interact with people, which has lead to some pretty insular lifestyles. I saw that as the problem and was looking for solutions.”

Edmonton Freezeway, courtesy designer Matthew Gibbs.
Edmonton Freezeway, courtesy designer Matthew Gibbs.

Canada is not without urban skating trails. Probably the most famous is the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, which features a cleared stretch of the historic waterway from downtown 7.8 kilometres past Carleton University.
Depending on the length of the season, it can draw a million or more visitors (this year roughly 778,000 so far) between December and early March.

Jean Wolff, communications manager for the National Capital Commission, said the daily average over the last five years has been about 20,000, though it’s dropped to 17,000 this year because of unseasonably cold weather. Activity peaks during the Winterlude Festival in early February, with 30,000 daily visits.

In Winnipeg, there’s the Red River Mutual Trail, at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. It’s operated by The Forks, an agency that maintains the heritage district. Winnipeg has had a river skating trail since the early 1900s, said communications manager Chelsea Thompson, but The Forks has managed it since 1993.

Its length varies depending on the level of freezing on the river. This year it’s just over six kilometres long but it has been as long as 10 km. One year, it held the Guinness world record as the longest skating trail at 8.5 km.

The trail draws between 250,000 and 350,000 users a year, said Thompson.

And St. John’s, N.L., last season opened what’s been dubbed The Loop in Bannerman Park, which features a 300-metre refrigerated trail.

Edmonton Freezeway, courtesy designer Matthew Gibbs.
Edmonton Freezeway, courtesy designer Matthew Gibbs.

Edmonton freezeway concept uses abandoned rail corridors

Gibbs’ overall plan, which won the 2013 Coldscapes design competition, is more far-reaching. Initially, it would use two unused railway corridors leading into the downtown core, about three kilometres each, with only three intersections to cross.

“So anybody living along those routes could have a 15-minute skate that would guide them all the way to the downtown area,” said Gibbs.

Ultimately, Gibbs envisions an interconnected 11-km. loop that would be part commuter route, part playground, with access to restaurants, cultural venues and other amenities along the route. In the summer, it would provide pedestrian-friendly access to downtown.

“It’s about creating that connectivity in a city that makes all those parts work greater as a whole,” said Gibbs.

The freezeway proposal fits neatly into Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy but it’s still just a concept that needs to be proven.

To that end, Gibbs has become involved with a pilot project for a skating trail in Edmonton’s river valley, which divides the northern and southern sections of downtown, as part of a redevelopment of the Edmonton Ski Club’s facilities.

“We would like to have it in the ground for next winter,” he said.

The success of the river valley skating trail would demonstrate the idea’s popularity, Gibbs hopes.

“Once we can demonstrate what a great idea this is, this could hopefully be its ticket to taking this further,” he said.

Edmonton is in the midst of a development boom launched before the bottom fell out of world oil prices, so it’s unlikely Gibbs’ dream project will be built or even begun anytime soon.

But Gibbs said some elements could be done without tax dollars using volunteers experienced in creating community and backyard rinks.

“If we gave them one place to combine their efforts I think we could have this thing up and running by volunteers with next to no investment from the city,” he said.

Money could be raised by donation, similar to a crowd-sourcing effort that that raised $2 million to decorate Edmonton’s landmark High Level Bridge with LED lights that change colour continuously.

“That was a completely community-run and funded initiative, which is what the city of Edmonton is all about,” he said. “It’s all about volunteering and community efforts.”

Edmonton Freezeway, courtesy designer Matthew Gibbs.
Edmonton Freezeway, courtesy designer Matthew Gibbs.