Mechanized River Valley Access

Edmonton, Alberta 

Photo Credit: DIALOG



Research by: Samantha Miller

Edited by: Nicole Brekelmans

Case study compiled in 2019


Project: Mechanized River Valley Access

Type of Urban Strategy: Water

Type of ProjectRiver Access / Urban Space

LocationEdmonton, Alberta 

Date Designed/Planned: March 2016

Construction Completed: December 2017

Designer: DIALOG


The City of Edmonton has long been hoping to improve connectivity between the North Saskatchewan River Valley and the urban areas for the public. One of the first significant steps to achieve this goal in the city was the implementation of the Mechanized River Valley Access project, created in partnership with the River Valley Alliance. Designed by DIALOG, this was an impactful project that has affected how citizens and visitors can connect from the core of Downtown Edmonton to the River Valley. The main intention of the project was to not only improve access to the River Valley and back to the downtown, but more importantly to make it easier for people of all ages and abilities to be free to explore Edmonton just as anyone else. The project connects “downtown Edmonton to the network of river valley trails and, conversely, a journey from the valley floor up the slope to the downtown urban core” (DIALOG, n.d. It hoped to be a focal point within the city, bringing people together and ‘allowing Edmontonians to become tourists in their own backyard’ (DIALOG, n.d.). There are many waterfront redevelopment case studies and case studies which have the sole intention of bringing more people to and from the waterfront. However, this project is unique because it focuses on the connection between urban and natural landscapes that should be enjoyable for everyone, no matter the age or level of physical ability. This case study is an excellent example of excellent urban design that is designed only for the people, and create spaces of athleticism, relaxation, play, and enjoyment.


The Mechanized River Valley Access project was designed by DIALOG, in an attempt to make the river valley more accessible to people of all ages and abilities. The intention is an innovative, barrier-free system that allows all people to enjoy the river valley and also Downtown Edmonton, all within minutes. The critical element of the project is improving connectivity, especially to nature, provide programmable spaces, play space, social engagement and relaxation. The project employs the use of a funicular, which is a cable-propelled system that hauls a car over an inclined track. A funicular was selected over other mechanized systems because it was believed to require less maintenance, be less susceptible to strong winds, provide better accessibility, be more economical, and have a smaller station footprint (City of Edmonton, n.d.). The Mechanized River Valley Access project is one of six projects that the City of Edmonton is undertaking that all aim to increase connectivity and use within the River Valley. All of these projects are in partnership with and developed by the River Valley Alliance (Wodzynska, 2017).


The Mechanized River Valley project connects 100 Street near the Hotel Macdonald, and the river valley trail system near the Low Level Bridge (City of Edmonton, n.d.). “A number of locations were considered for the Mechanized River Valley Access project. The locations were evaluated against a number of factors including slope stability, environmental considerations, construction costs, urban integration and design, and public use” (City of Edmonton, n.d.). The location of the project is on the riverbank on a susceptible area that could not support the slope of the project. During site analysis, the team dug deep cuts into the slope to understand its earthwork and stability. Instead of concrete piles that are conventionally used for a project such as this, they had to use groups of smaller piles coupled with large piles at the top of the slope, to improve the overall stability of the slope (Wodzynska, 2017).

During the site selection process, it became apparent that this site is situated very close to the city’s business conference centre, and the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald where visitors are hoping for a pleasant, relaxing stay. Because of this factor, they wanted to minimize the amount of disruption and noise that construction would typically produce. The team decided to avoid using driven piles, in hopes to reduce noise pollution (Wodzynska, 2017).


The Edmonton River Valley system is the largest urban park in Canada (over 18,000 acres), with over 160 km of maintained pathways and 20 major parks, with portions that run through the heart of the city of Edmonton. Edmontonians describe the river valley as a jewel of the city and is seen as a natural wonder. It was becoming apparent that citizens were hoping for more accessible connections to the river valley, and the City of Edmonton decided to begin planning projects and initiatives that would do just that (Guy, n.d.). In January of 2013, the River Valley Alliance (RVA) launched a $90 million Capital Project in which there would be 13 priority initiatives in 18 sites. They received contributions of funding from the Government of Canada through the Building Canada Fund, as well as the Government of Alberta through the Capital Region River Valley Park grant. The RVA aims to preserve, protect, and enhance the river valley in a combined seven municipalities along the capital region’s North Saskatchewan River Valley. A primary goal of the RVA is to improve year-round accessibility and enjoyment of the river valley for citizens and visitors of all different ages and abilities (City of Edmonton, n.d.). On June 23, 2015, the City of Edmonton Council approved the construction of the Mechanized River Valley Access project (City of Edmonton, n.d.).


The goals of the project were to increase access to the River Valley from the downtown Edmonton core, which will hopefully enhance the use and connection of the trail system and North Saskatchewan River. A significant part of this connection strategy was improving accessibility for all visitors. The funicular and elevators aim to carry people of all abilities so that there are no restraints to any user that desire increased access to leisure spaces by the river and the trails. “While a significant benefit of this project is the creation of an accessible connection from the top of the bank to the river valley trail system, the project is also about designing places for active play, social interaction and relaxation as well as creating programmable spaces for ongoing use” - Rob Marchak, Edmonton’s strategic projects director (Anonymous, 2016).


“100 Street Funicular is more than just a funicular! An urban staircase follows the slope alongside the funicular, between the historic Fairmont Hotel MacDonald and a promenade midway through the valley. The boardwalk and promenade features public art and space to rest and enjoy the view. A pedestrian bridge carries visitors over traffic and leads to the Frederick G. Todd Lookout that hovers 19m above the river valley. At the southern end of the project, a glass elevator connects the pedestrian bridge to over 160km of river valley trails” (DIALOG, n.d.). The materials chosen for this project were said to be highly influenced by the already existing infrastructure used in the connection of the city’s river valley system. These systems consist of a series of meandering wood stairs, boardwalks and deteriorating steel footbridges. The designers did not want to rid the city of these material experiences but wished to reinforce them through the design of the new infrastructure. DIALOG decided to use Kebony wood for the boardwalk and architectural cladding because of its beauty and warmth, but also because of its outstanding dimensional stability, resistance to rot and long lifecycle (said to last six times longer than normal pressure treated wood) (DIALOG, n.d.). These material choices were very meticulous, looking for the best materials that will last a long time, with little maintenance, and that would look elegant. Part of the design of the project also included the planting of 50 new trees and 2,000 new shrubs (City of Edmonton, n.d.). The design of the funicular is meant to be one of a kind, in that it is the only one in Canada, and among only a few in the world that does not require an on-site operator. The design includes space for 20 people on the funicular at once, being large enough to accommodate all kinds of uses such as individuals with bikes (even adult bikes with a child trailer), wheelchairs, walkers and more. The users on the funicular maintain one direction of travel, entering and exiting in the same direction. The design allows for a maximum speed of about 2m/s, and it generates electricity during its downhill motion, intended to lower overall energy usage (DIALOG, n.d.). “The Frederick G. Todd Lookout is a highlight of the journey. Past the elevator, the bridge gently rises to cantilever about 20m to the edge of the river. Visitors are encouraged to walk out towards the water, pause for a moment and enjoy the view of the river valley. A glass railing provides a seamless, breathtaking experience” (DIALOG, n.d.).


DIALOG compiled a team of engineers, architects, landscape architects and planners who saw this as a fantastic opportunity to create better accessible river access and to celebrate the river valley within the heart of the city. DIALOG provided mechanical, structural and electrical engineering services, along with both landscape architecture and architecture for the project (Wodzynska, 2017).


Anonymous. (2016, March 14). Construction begins for Mechanized River Valley Access project. Journal of Commerce, pp. 1–2. Retrieved from City of Edmonton | About Mechanized Access. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2019, from City of Edmonton, Citizen Services | Community and Recreation Facilities. (2019). Funicular year-in-review update. Retrieved July 12, 2019, from City of Edmonton | Mechanized Access Project History. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2019, from City of Edmonton | Mechanized River Valley Access. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2019, from City of Edmonton, River Valley Connections. (n.d.). Boat Docks and Launches and Mechanized River Valley Access. Edmonton. Retrieved July 12, 2019, from 1 - Boards.pdf. DIALOG | Mechanized River Valley Access. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2019, from DIALOG | 100 Street Funicular: Free rides. No tickets. Every day. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2019, from Guy, A. (n.d.). Mechanized River Valley Access Project. Business Elite Canada. Retrieved July 12, 2019, from Johnson, L. (2019, July 11). Edmonton's funicular wins international architecture award. Edmonton Journal. Retrieved July 12, 2019, from River Valley Alliance | Phase I. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2019, from
Wodzynska, Z. (2017). Mechanized River Valley Access Project. Award Magazine; Architecture, Construction, Interior Design, 31(5). Retrieved from


The City of Edmonton has reported on the usage of the park; specifically, the funicular and the reports have indicated that the funicular is extremely popular and heavily used daily. By the end of November 2018, the city reports that the funicular had made 114,038 trips either up and down the track, after being opened in December of 2017. The funicular makes about 28 trips an hour daily, carrying about 135 people per hour. Interestingly, they report that 22% of visitors use the funicular as part of their daily commute to work, and 31% of people use it to access the River Valley for leisure (City of Edmonton, 2019). This last fact is an excellent indicator that this project has been successful in providing individuals with a more connected-to-nature commute to work; there is an increase in Edmontonians desire to be outside and explore the city.

DIALOG’s design has won many awards, including the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction - Alberta Steel Design Award of Excellence (Engineering) in 2019 (DIALOG, n.d.), and was recognized by the International Architecture Awards for “its innovation and originality, its capacity to stimulate, engage and delight occupants and visitors, and its accessibility and sustainability” (Johnson, 2019).


After its first year after being opened, the City staff responded to approximately 550 alarms, some of which were results of passengers pressing the emergency stop button, door malfunctions, heavy winds, overloading, ice and snow build up, sensor problems, and a small percentage (3%) were of incidents that occurred inside the elevator (City of Edmonton, 2019). These issues meant that the city had to follow their regular maintenance requirements and monitor the site at all times, to try to minimize the number of stoppages and problems.


The Mechanized River Valley Access is part of the Phase I Capital Program created by the River Valley Alliance, focused on increasing connectivity and access to the river. Phase I of this program consisted of 12 other projects, and 70km of new trails. The $90 million capital program was launched in November of 2012, intending to improve access to the river, improve existing infrastructure, add new features, and add new trails. The initiatives set out by this capital program were identified in the River Valley Alliance Plan of Action, which was released in 2007 (River Valley Alliance, n.d.). Before the start of the project, there were conversations about something such as a funicular, but this project provided a unique opportunity that didn’t end at the installation of a funicular. The project included a unique urban staircase, that would hopefully be iconic for Edmonton, along with a promenade and grass lawn, a bridge, and elevator and river lookout point. The Accessibility Advisory Committee was in great support of a project like this because it will provide people of all abilities with access from the core of Downtown Edmonton to the River Valley (Anonymous, 2016).


The total cost of the project was $24 million. The River Valley Alliance provided funding and supported by the provincial and federal governments and the City of Edmonton. This project was one project of five capital projects to receive a total of $72.9 million in funding from the River Valley Alliance, provincial and federal government. The City contributed $1.4 million of this total funding (City of Edmonton, n.d.).


The project consists of seven key elements: The Promontory (top platform): -This section of the project includes a sheltered canopy and funicular, where visitors can take advantage of the views from the top of the bank near the Hotel Macdonald. -Visitors can sit in the seating area and relax, or take in the sites at the top of the urban staircase. The Stairs: -Visitors can stop and linger on the stairs, or use them to climb up and down from downtown Edmonton to the river valley trails -The stairs can be used for daily workouts, or for cyclists there is a bike trail running down the length of the stairs. The 100 Street Funicular: -The funicular has space for wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, and bikes. -The glass-enclosed funicular carries people from the top of the bank to the promenade above the valley floor. -The funicular has a motor that pulls it up the hill using electricity. When it travels back down the slope, the motion of the motor generates the electricity that goes back into the grid for use. The Promenade: -The steps and funicular all lead to an end at the promenade, which has benches and a grassy seating area for visitors to stop and enjoy the view and rest. -It is designed to accommodate both people walking through, and people wanting to stop and eat, hang out or relax. The Bridge: -The bridge connects the promenade to the lookout, crossing over Grierson Hill Road. The Frederick G. Todd Lookout: -With a glass railing and built-in seating, the bridge slopes down and over the edge of the river to allow visitors to absorb the view and the downtown Edmonton skyline. The Elevator: -The elevator is one of the essential parts of the project because it makes the space entirely accessible for all users. -It connects to the existing river trail systems, Louise McKinney Park, the Low Level Bridge and the Rossdale/River Crossing area. There is also plenty of public art because the project qualified for the City’s Percent for Art Program. Currently, “Turbulent” by Jill Anholt is featured. On the grass lawn north of the promenade, this art project consists of thin, brightly coloured metal ribbons that float above concrete benches. Aside from the ribbons being an art piece, they also offer seating for visitors to interact and lounge along with the river valley views. (City of Edmonton, n.d.)


In coordination with the AEDARSA, the City is required to perform regular preventative maintenance and inspections on the funicular. These inspections include an eight-hour shutdown each month, and a three-day shutdown each year. There are often unplanned maintenance and repairs, which often occur due to weather-related issues, connection or electrical failures, and damaged glass repairs. The funicular is often shut down anywhere from 4 hours to over 24 hours (City of Edmonton, 2019). However, the City of Edmonton has been very active on social media, informing Edmontonians about upcoming scheduled maintenance. Social media also allows the City to see how people are feeling about the site, asking for extended hours during special events, and reporting vandalism. The social media presence has helped staff identify requests and issues so that they can act on them to best please Edmontonians and keep their interest in mind at all times. In December of 2018 and January of 2019, the City made some improvements and enhancements to the funicular to prevent issues and improve safety and accessibility. Some of these improvements were installing a heat loop at the door to avoid ice formation, a glass roof over the door to reduce issues in winter, installing surface raised markers, handrails, and signage for visually impaired visitors, and modified bike rails (City of Edmonton, 2019).