Canadian 'freezeway' could let residents skate to work

By Micah Luxen
BBC News, Toronto

image copyrightThe Edmonton Freezeway
image captionAn artist's rendering of how the Freezeway could look

Cold temperatures persist over much of North America this week. But rather than just trying to survive the winter, one Canadian city is trying to turn it into an asset.

With an average temperature of -12C (9.5F) in the heart of winter, and home to seven city-owned outdoor skating rinks, Edmonton, Alberta is no stranger to the cold.

Unlike other cities in the US and Canada that have banned activities such as tobogganing because of insurance costs, Edmonton has no such laws.

Now the city is considering flooding an 11km route for residents to commute through the city on skates.

It's called the Freezeway. Organisers are planning a pilot project for as early as next winter.

The premise first came about years ago, as an offhand comment from a civic leader with an environmental bent.

"Why don't we just crack the fire hydrants open, flood the streets and let people skate to work in the winter?" teased city councillor Tooker Gomberg, in the 1990s.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionOttawa's Rideau Canal is a popular winter skating route

Landscape architecture student Matthew Gibbs, who grew up in Edmonton, pondered the flippant idea, and built a very real design - winning him first place in the 2013 COLDSCAPES international design competition and the attention of city planners.

Researching the landscape for his master's thesis, Mr Gibbs looked to two old existing rail corridors, flat stretches of land that lead in the direction of Edmonton's downtown core. The land is currently used as a multi-purpose trail that runs along the tracks.

"I found if we bridged these together, we could create a unified 11km route that people could skate on - potentially to work, to school or to the hockey game," said Mr Gibbs.

The long ice corridor would be comparable to Ottawa's 8km Rideau Canal and Winnipeg's 9km The Forks on the Red River, except that the Freezeway would be an artificial skating trail.

He presented the idea at Edmonton's 2015 Winter Cities conference, an event that focuses on turning winter into an asset, rather than a yearly impediment, for northern cities.

In a video touting the benefits of the Freezeway, Gibbs says it would "promote winter programming, active lifestyles, sustainable forms of transportation, social activity," as well as giving Edmonton an "iconic" attraction that would attract tourists.

He said the Freezeway could combat the lethargy that comes during the darker winter months.

image copyrightNot Specified
image copyrightThe Edmonton Freezeway

Design plans

  • Use buildings as windbreaks
  • Concentrate developments and plazas in sunny areas
  • Provide built-in snow storage to serve as traffic dividers and contain the ice
  • "Curbside skating lanes" that use rubberised crossings, which can be rolled up come spring
  • Set up skate rentals in nearby metro stops
  • two-hour walk, 45-minute bike ride, or 1.25 hour skate.
image copyrightNot Specified

Edmonton City Planner Susan Holdsworth said the Freezeway idea took off immediately.

"We thought we'd have to push the snowball up hill," she said of selling Mr Gibbs' idea to the public

"Instead it's like we're riding downhill, gaining momentum, going faster all the time."

image captionMatt Gibbs has proposed a 11km route for ice skating in winter months

Councillor Scott McKeen said the Freezeway would be a welcome addition.

"Edmonton has not exploited to any great extent one of its greatest natural resources - winter," said Mr McKeen. "Like other North American cities in colder climates, we've tried to engineer our way out of it. … Even most of our hockey facilities are now indoors and heated."

The project is in its earliest stages and the logistics - not to mention cost - could be an impediment.

One of the more outspoken critics, Councillor Mike Nickel called the Freezeway "the stupidest idea I've heard".

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionFrom October to April, the average daily temperature in Edmonton is below freezing.

"Floating the idea out that we should spend money so people can skate to work just doesn't seem to sit right with the local tax payer, at least not in my constituency," said Mr Nickel. "People just wouldn't think that this is prudent."

It's a sentiment shared by many Edmontonians who took to social media after the plan made headlines.

"How about fixing all the broken things in the city first....roads, aging pipes, the homeless.....then yes, a nice skate-way," Lynn Chalifoux-Thrower wrote on a Facebook.

image copyrightThe Edmonton Freezeway
image captionThe Freezeway route would be a bike and walking path in summer months

Costs are unclear, as Gibbs has proposed several different iterations of the Freezeway - from a rustic natural path to an electrically-refrigerated version. Growth could be done in stages.

Gibbs estimates the Freezeway would cost $16-$400/metre (£10-£259/metre), which he anticipates could be paid for with crowd sourcing or corporate sponsorship.

Indeed, city leaders are optimistic - and nostalgic.

"Everyone's grown up skating," said Councillor Bev Esslinger. "Skating, cross-country skiing - those are things we want to be able to enjoy."

Designer Gibbs says he only wishes something like the Freezeway was around when he was growing up.

"I wanted to look at what it would take to make people fall in love with winter," said Mr Gibbs.

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