Very cool: ‘Freezeway’ in Canada’s Edmonton would let people skate to work

In Edmonton, Canada, the northernmost big city in the Americas, people have been seized with the idea of flooding an old railway line so people can get out of their cars and skate to work in winter.

I wanted to look at what it would take to help people fall in love with that time of year when it can get down to minus forty degrees– Matthew Gibbs, Freezeway Architect

The "Freezeway" concept, developed two years ago by landscape architect Matthew Gibbs for a master’s thesis, envisages an 11-km route that would double as a cycle path in summer.

More than just a thoroughfare, the Freezeway would, in Gibbs’ vision, be a new kind of pedestrianised economic and cultural corridor in a car-dominated city, with cafés, restaurants and light shows. 

In the city centre would be an iced plaza, billed as "a vast urban skating experience, dotted with pavilions and markets".

His proposal, presented at the Winter Cities Shake-Up conference in Edmonton last month, seeks to turn the city’s five-month-long winter – during which the temperature rarely lifts above freezing and daylight is rationed to just seven hours a day on average – into a positive thing.

"I wanted to look at what it would take to help people fall in love with that time of year when it can get down to minus forty degrees," Gibbs told GCR. "They polled Edmontonians and they said they wanted a skating trail, so I looked at applying that in a comprehensive manner that would create this one-of-a-kind tourist attraction that would allow people to commute on skates." 

Lured out of hibernation

The idea fell on fertile soil in Edmonton, where there is a concerted push to turn the harshest season to the city’s advantage. A "WinterCity Strategy" has been drawn up, and a think tank established to explore design, business and tourism opportunities and to lure Edmontonians out of hibernation. Slogans like "embrace winter" and "four-season patio culture" have been doing the rounds.

But due to concerns over cost, and perhaps even liability issues for the city, the plan is unlikely to go ahead.

Susan Holdsworth, Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy coordinator, said the idea was great, but that it was just too big, and too new.

"I don’t think that it’s at all likely that he will get his proposal approved in the form it’s in right now," she told GCR. "People have to have a taste of it and see what it’s like, what it can do and the benefits, and figure out how much it costs and the challenges. It’s best to do an experiment and figure out all the kinks before you take it on at a bigger scale."

So that’s what’s going to happen.  

On the bunny hill

As part of a plan to rejuvenate itself after a difficult patch, the 105-year-old Edmonton Ski Club will pilot the idea next winter, creating a skating loop from the base of the hill that will connect to the nearby neighbourhood of Cloverdale.

In the city centre would be an iced plaza, billed as "a vast urban skating experience, dotted with pavilions and markets" (Matthew Gibbs)

In skiing terms, for the Freezeway, it’s a bit like having a go on the beginner’s slope, often called the "bunny hill". 

Holdsworth is pleased: "I’ve encouraged him to explore a private project and I’ve offered support in doing that," she said, "and apparently he’s making headway with the Edmonton Ski Club, which is fantastic."

Gibbs is happy too, but he remains convinced that a full-blown Freezeway would be good for Edmonton.

"There’s a reason that televised hockey is our favourite pastime," he said, "because it’s a winter sport you can watch indoors when it’s uncomfortably cold outside. We’ve done nothing to create things to do outside and nothing to make comfortable spaces to be in when you’re outside. We already know we’re not getting enough physical activity and when you combine that with cold weather, you’ve got a recipe for isolation."

For him it’s also about much-needed urban differentiation.

"We’ve basically stamped the exact same city all across North America and it doesn’t reveal anything about the spirit of the place that you’re in," he said. "I think Edmonton has an opportunity to embrace its climate and unveil the beauty and majestic nature of the winter season in a way that can be made comfortable for people."

Gibbs grew up in Edmonton but now lives in much milder Vancouver, on the Pacific coast, where he graduated from the University of British Columbia. 

He says he misses Edmonton’s cold: "I do miss how gorgeous it can be, that crisp winter air. It can be a pain but that’s because we’ve only designed spaces for summer."

"I’m very upset that my parents never put me in hockey because it was an over-priced activity," he adds, "so for me this is an opportunity to get more free activity in the city, as opposed to big-ticket events some people can’t afford."

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