Opinion: It’s time to turn Edmonton’s River Valley golf courses into public parks

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The news that Hawrelak Park will be closed for at least three years raises concerns and raises the question of the distribution of green spaces in a growing and modernizing city. The city did not provide comparable green space options during the shutdown, especially for those residing in surrounding downtown neighborhoods.

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Hawrelak Park is Edmonton’s central park. It’s a gathering place for festivals, families and friends getting together to share food, youngsters throwing frisbees or kicking a soccer ball, and others just sitting by the pond at watch the ducks. It offers the inhabitants of the city a respite from the daily grind. For those residing in apartments, they can sit on the grass, bask in the shade of a tree, and barbecue on the grills available throughout the park. City residents, especially during the pandemic, have flocked to Hawrelak Park. It is obviously full to bursting.

While Edmonton has some wonderful river valley trails for exercising and enjoying nature, it’s the park’s green space that provides a “public square” – a place where you can sit quietly with friends and converse with strangers to create community and a sense of well-being. Beautiful parks and well-designed green spaces are essential attributes of a modern, progressive and smart city. Citizens who go on foot, by bike or by public transport to these spaces benefit from an improved quality of life.

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The past few decades have seen increased densification with more condos, apartments, and townhouses in central neighborhoods. Oliver is now a very densely populated area. With the closure of Hawrelak Park, families and others in central neighborhoods will have limited access to nearby green spaces. Oliver has two small patches of green – Paul Kane Park and Kitchener Park – a completely inadequate and unacceptable situation.

And yet, it is abundantly clear that there are plenty of green spaces in our central river valley. It’s about how this public green space is allocated, who has priority and what decisions were made by previous city councils to allocate this now valuable space. Four golf courses — Victoria (1909), Mayfair (1923), Highlands (1929) and Riverside (1953) — occupy 600 acres of our green ribbon, just minutes from downtown. Mayfair is about the same size as Hawrelak Park.

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These decisions that put golfers first were made in another era, when the city was smaller, less populated and less diverse. Even if these decisions made sense at the time, they no longer do. Many cities in North America are turning golf courses into public spaces and parks. Can we still make sense of the decision to allocate 640 acres of the city’s prime green space to golfers, who have many other options to enjoy their pastimes?

We need to ask ourselves: Who can use public spaces? For whom is the city designed? What decisions need to be reviewed? What is the fairest and most efficient way to use public spaces such as our river valley?

With respect to the closure of Hawrelak Park and the increasing density of central neighborhoods like Oliver, the city should recommend turning Victoria into an easily accessible green space and public park. We have an opportunity to re-evaluate how public lands in the Central River Valley — the crown jewel of our city — are being used. Is it fair, efficient, smart and environmentally friendly?

Helen Sadowski is an engaged, centrally-living resident concerned about access to green space, public parks, and other quality of life issues in a growing modern city.

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