Waskasoo Park and beyond – preservation of a natural resource

By Craig Curtis

In 1981 the Province announced an Urban Parks Program for Red Deer and four other middle-sized cities in the province.

A $20 million grant from the Heritage Savings Trust Fund was assigned to Red Deer with the dual objective of preserving the natural environment of the Red Deer River Valley and providing major recreation facilities.

One of the requirements of the funding was the preparation of a master plan showing how the Province’s investment would enhance the City.

The master plan was prepared by the Red Deer Regional Planning Commission which acted as the City’s planning department at that time.

The Waskasoo Park Master Plan was completed in 1982 following public consultation.

As the proposed park system extended beyond the City’s boundaries, the policy committee included City and County councillors, and the master plan was adopted by both City and County councils.

The final master plan followed earlier planning documents and presented a bold vision of an integrated river valley and creek park system of over 2,500 acres stretching 12 km along the Red Deer River valley from what is now River Bend to Fort Normandeau.

The park would be linked by 75 km of trails as well as a designated area for equestrian use.

Although there were controversies during development, Waskasoo Park today closely follows the 1982 blueprint.

Land acquisition was a key component, and about 60% of the land base was obtained from private landowners.

The overriding principle of the plan was to preserve the river valley as a unique natural resource for public access and maintain a continuous migration corridor for wildlife through the City.

With the acquisition of critical parcels of land from private landowners and the Province, residents reclaimed access to the river along its entire length within the City.

Today Waskasoo Park is listed in all surveys as Red Deer’s greatest asset.

However, it was built 30 years ago when the City had a population less than half it has today.

At the time, it was recognized the park would serve a much larger population, and much of the land including Heritage Ranch and River Bend have been incorporated within the City.

However, use of the park has expanded, with cyclists using the trail system.

The master plan was updated in 2005 through the Waskasoo Park Special Gathering Spaces Master Plan which proposed improvements at Three Mile Bend, Bower Ponds, Heritage Ranch, and River Bend.

City council endorsed the plan and upgrades have included a new playground and gazebo at Bower Ponds and canoe and trail facilities at Three Mile Bend.

In 2007, the City and County adopted an Intermunicipal Development Plan (IDP) which includes a proposal to establish a continuous ‘intermunicipal park system’ focused on the floodways, flood fringes, and natural areas of Waskasoo Creek, Piper Creek, and the Red Deer and Blindman Rivers.

This policy resulted in a new River Valley and Tributaries Park Concept Plan adopted by both councils in 2010.

The plan provides a broad vision for an extended park system within the City’s future growth area. The plan includes proposed park areas north of River Bend focused on the confluence of the Red Deer and Blindman Rivers, as well as an extended linear corridor west of Fort Normandeau.

New nodes are also proposed at Cameo and Hazlett Lakes.

As the City celebrates its centennial, new initiatives are underway that expand the park system.

Maskepetoon Park, south of Oriole Park was part of the original master plan which was not completed.

In 2007, a plan was developed including nature trails and natural history interpretation of the Tamarack forest. The park has been under development for the past four years and will be officially opened on Sept. 22, this year’s National Tree Day.

With the development of the area south of the Red Deer College, named Southpointe Junction, an agreement has been reached to acquire and protect a large tree stand and escarpment known as the Bower Natural Area.

From its inception, Waskasoo Park has included two interpretive centres that focus on the built and natural environment: Fort Normandeau and the Kerry Wood Nature Centre. Centennial funding has been approved for major upgrades to each centre, and major federal funding was also received.

When considering the planning and urban design of the City, one can ask the following questions:

What is unique about Red Deer? What distinguishes Red Deer from other cities?

In my view, Red Deer’s character is in large measure provided by its natural setting and topography.

The natural features give Red Deer a character that has been recognized and built upon. It is appropriate that the initial investment was part of a provincial vision funded through the Heritage Savings Trust Fund and supported by every subsequent municipal council.

Craig Curtis is Red Deer’s City manager.