Lace Up Your Skates and Breeze Along the Edmonton Freezeway

Edmonton Freezeway: the trippiest frozen-over trail in all of Canada. (Photo: Jeff Wallace/flickr)

When wintertime hits in Edmonton, a very cold city with a very large mall, many residents of the Albertan capital confine themselves to a labyrinthine network of underground tunnels and enclosed bridges. Similar to skyway networks found in other cold-weather cities like Duluth, Des Moines and Minneapolis, the aim of the 8-mile Edmonton Pedway is to allow pedestrians to comfortably walk from point A to B within the city’s downtown core without ever having to, god forbid, step outside. (As of publication, the current temperature in Edmonton is a somewhat balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Other residents of Canada’s fifth largest city bundle up real good and deal with it.

And for those who don’t mind — and even embrace — Edmonton’s bone-chilling wintertime temps, there’s a new way to get around town in the form of an artificial ice trail. Called the Edmonton Freezeway, it’s easiest to think of the recently unveiled trail as a sort of linear ice rink in which bicycle wheels have been swapped out with blades. (It’s safe to assume that a large percentage of the populace own a pair of ice skates ... it’s Alberta, after all.)

Now in the pilot stages, the Edmonton Freezeway currently consists of a 400-meter (about 1,300 feet) tree-lined path looping through a patch of woods near the Victoria Park Oval, one of the city’s most popular al fresco public ice rinks.

A map of the Edmonton Freezeway pilot
A map of the Edmonton Freezeway pilot. (Photo: Edmonton Freezeway/Facebook)

However, Matt Gibbs, a former Edmondtonian who conceived the urban skateway concept while studying as a graduate student in landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, initially envisioned the Edmonton Freezeway as stretching nearly 11 kilometers (7 miles) through the heart of the city, a city that spends, on average, five months per year below the freezing mark. A fully realized Edmonton Freezeway wouldn’t just serve as a gee-wiz tourist magnet but a viable commuter link that offers residents a new way to travel to and from work, school and, err, hockey practice that doesn't involve scurrying about underground tunnels.

Most importantly, the Edmonton Freezeway breaths new life into “Deadmonton,” the nickname for a city that tends to go into full-on hibernation mode during the dark and dreary winter months. It’s a reason to strap on those skates and venture out and embrace — even celebrate — the cold. As David Staples writes in an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal: “We have a choice: winter can beat the hell out of us, or we can beat the hell out of winter.”

On a crusade to “make people fall in love with winter,” Gibbs lays out the basic vision behind Edmonton Freezeway in a J. Geils Band-soundtracked concept video. The video was presented at COLDSCAPES, a 2013 international design competition sponsored by Kent State University's Center for Outdoor Living Design (COLD) that sought innovative ideas for cities challenged by chilly climes.

The Freezeway is a unique urban design intervention that transforms the way people live and move in a winter city. Its objectives are to promote winter programming, active lifestyles, sustainable forms of transportation, social activity and iconic identity for a city looking to differentiate itself.

Gibbs’ concept, by the way, took first place at COLDSCAPES.

While the Edmonton Freezeway won’t reach the 11-kilometer mark anytime soon, extension plans that would double the length of the Zamboni-maintained trail at Victoria Park to 800 meters are planned for next winter. Within the next few years, the trail could potentially grow to 3.5 kilometers in length — that’s a little over 2 miles of iced-over goodness.

Perhaps after that, the concept, true to Gibbs' original proposal, will be implemented in downtown Edmonton. Just imagine commuters gliding along dedicated skate lanes right next to vehicular and bike traffic.

"This is just the start of something," Gibbs tells the CBC.

In the summer, when the ice melts and Edmontonians put their well-loved Riedells into seasonal retirement, the path will convert into a cycling trail.

Despite its modest proportions, the pilot section of the Edmonton Freezeway, illuminated by a psychedelic lighting scheme by artist Dylan Toymaker that's been likened to a “70s roller disco,” has garnered a positive reaction from locals despite some backlash when the concept was first presented.

There have also been, as expected, a few crashes and spills since the trail opened.

"It seems to have really struck a nerve in the city of Edmonton,” Gibbs explains to the Edmonton Journal of his concept. “People are really ripe and ready for exploring what we can do to make the city a more exciting and interactive place. The Freezeway is one more space to take (a) date, take the family, or engage strangers in that time of year when it’s so easy to spend the entire time locked up behind four walls.”

“We could create a new winter recreation destination for the entire province,” Gibbs adds. “If anybody is poised to serve winter to the world, it’s Edmonton.”

The Freezeway pilot skating path was launched as part of Edmonton's WinterCity Strategy in collaboration with Make Something Edmonton and the Edmonton Speed Skating Association. The trail will be open to skaters, weather dependent, through the end of winter.

Via [Edmonton Journal], [BBC]