This blog post is written by Cecily Poohkay, Community Safety Liaison from the City of Edmonton.
It was an unlikely winter project.
First of all, it was the end of summer when community members first came together to talk about ideas to improve a walking path, known as Arrowhead Trail, in the Callingwood North neighbourhood. The trail hasn’t ever been a particularly lonely path; up to a thousand people a day use it to get to West Edmonton Mall, the cross-city Transit Centre, the Misericordia Hospital and beyond. In spite of the high numbers of people walking this path every day, and light posts guiding the way through, Arrowhead Trail had an isolated feeling to it because of the tall back fences closing the space in. This isolated feeling was especially true after dark.
As winter approached, and the nights became colder and longer, a little magic happened. At the end of January, with the support of WinterCity Edmonton, West Edmonton Canadian Tire, as well as residents who back onto the trail, string lights began to appear along the back fences that border the walking path.
This new lighting wasn’t the harsh, white industrial sort that normally comes from the poles above. The strings gave off a softer and more welcoming light, which was also at the same height as the people using the trail. Corey Lawless, Manager of the West Edmonton Canadian Tire, says that the locally-owned and operated business enjoys supporting community initiatives like this.
Once the lights went in, the sense of isolation vanished. One resident remarked, “I have children who use the trail to and from school every day. They loved the lights and always bragged about having a special place to walk. I think they thought they were in a movie.” Residents loved the way the lights helped make the space feel friendlier, especially in the early winter darkness. People on the trail agreed that they enjoyed the ambience the soft lights gave off, and that it made the community more inviting. The trail also felt safer because of the lights.
The string lights had other unexpected consequences. Arrowhead Trail is located right across 76 Avenue, near Callingwood School. Surprisingly, the novelty of the lights began slowing traffic down in front of the elementary school, right where children cross the street to get to school. One ETS bus driver said that during the long winter nights, seeing the lights was one of his favourite parts of his route. Gradually, the number of households involved in the project grew, and community members across the Whitemud footbridge in Thorncliff wanted to be included.
That was until the early hours of April 5. During that night, someone cut down nearly every strand of lights, leaving piles of wires in the place of welcoming light. Disheartened but not defeated, residents were saddened by the vandalism, but they’re not about to give up. One resident’s comment sums up the spirit of the community well: “The trail was so welcoming and delightful to walk through… This community is far more caring about others than the vandal, let’s motor on.”
Now, as warmer months approach, the folks in Callingwood North are eager to continue the momentum they started over the winter. Residents are looking forward to growing flowers along the path in the spring and summer, and even adding some murals to the back fences for people to enjoy. And as winter is a reality in this northern climate of ours, residents are also looking forward to trying the lights again, especially when the long, cold nights let them be appreciated best.