Mill Woods: From experimental start on the city's edge to hub of multicultural living

CBC Edmonton is setting up a pop-up newsroom at the Mill Woods Public Library for the week of Sept. 10-14. We'll be exploring stories and perspectives from one of Edmonton's oldest communities.

CBC is setting up a pop-up newsroom in Mill Woods from Sept. 10-14, to explore its stories and meet its people

Fowsiya Ali, Leila Are and Abdirahman Are met Mark Connolly, host of CBC's Edmonton AM in Jackie Parker Park. Connolly is one of many CBC staff who will be part of the pop-up newsroom at the Mill Woods Library. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

CBC Edmonton is setting up a pop-up newsroom at the Mill Woods Public Library for the week of Sept. 10-14. We'll be exploring stories and perspectives from one of Edmonton's oldest communities.

Standing on a hill at the Mill Woods Golf Course, Joan Kirillo eyes the spot where her children once skated when they were little.

Almost 40 years ago, the area was largely farmland and kids would hop on the ice that covered local ponds in winter. There was a small-town feeling that came with being in a neighbourhood perched at the edge of the city.

And the hill where Kirillo is standing? It used to be a dump.

"This was the big dump site here in the '70s and obviously the city was growing out to this area, as the city was developing, so it was closed. About 40 feet of dirt and clay was put on top of it," she says.

"It's one of the highest points in Edmonton. Where we're standing right now, you can see all the way to West Edmonton Mall, all the way downtown." 

From farmland to golf course, from garbage dump to scenic lookout, from outskirts to bustling suburb, Mill Woods has changed dramatically in just a few decades.

Nearly 50 years ago, the province purchased nine square miles of land southeast of Edmonton to build a neighbourhood where immigrants and refugees could participate in the Canadian dream.

Now, about 77,000 people call the area home. With a new LRT line poised to change the course of development yet again, it is as central to the development of this city as ever before.

(William Wang/CBC)

For people like Kirillo, who moved to south Edmonton with her family almost 30 years ago and who is now the business manager of the golf course, the area offers convenience, lots of amenities and a strong sense of community.

Even as the local population changes, young families continue to choose the neighbourhood as a place to put down roots, she says.

"We could be our own little community, all by ourselves, when I start thinking about all the things that we have here. We have two rec centres, we have a hospital, we have a golf course … it's just a great place to live."

Over the course of the next week, CBC Edmonton will be working in a pop-up newsroom in Mill Woods, creating a temporary home base from which to explore the community's future and its past.

We wanted to become part of what makes this community tick.

During the week, CBC's two current affairs radio programs, Edmonton AM and Radio Active, will be broadcasting live, CBC staff will be hosting family events, and we'll be reporting stories from — and about — the neighbourhood.

More from the series

Mill Woods, the social experiment

The community, conceived as a radical social experiment, has developed on its own terms.

Mill Woods means many things to many people. Consider the population — at 77,000 residents, spread across 26 individual neighbourhoods, the area has a bigger population than Grande Prairie or St. Albert.

Stop at the Mill Woods Transit Centre on a Monday morning and you'll see crowds gathered for the No. 8 bus heading downtown. The crush of people is part of what has prompted a $1.8-billion LRT expansion that will connect Mill Woods with downtown's Churchill Square by 2020.

But it's the demographic diversity, as much as its sprawling streets, that has come to define the area. Waves of South Asian immigrants, and their children who have chosen to stay in the area, give the area a distinct sense of multiculturalism.

(William Wang/CBC)

When CBC journalist Min Dhariwal grew up in Mill Woods in the 1980s, there was a tight-knit community of Punjabi immigrants. Kids all walked to the same schools and families travelled as far as St. Albert Trail to go to a gurdwara — a place of worship — on Sundays.

"All of the families kind of knew each other. Now, you'd be lucky if you ran into people that you know on a weekend," said Dhariwal, whose stories on Mill Woods will be appearing throughout this week on CBC television, radio and online.

These days, gurdwaras, samosa shops and sari stores are all part of the Mill Woods streetscape. In neighbourhoods such as Jackson Heights and Weinlos, residents of South Asian descent make up at least 25 per cent of the population.

There are other immigrant groups, too, that have settled in Mill Woods — from Asia, Africa and Latin America. It's estimated about 85 per cent of the world's cultures are represented in this swath of the city that stretches between 34th and 91st Streets, from the Whitemud to the Anthony Henday.

(William Wang/CBC)

In the late 1800s, long before it became the busy suburb it is today, the land had been claimed for the Papaschase Indian Reserve, settled under treaty between 1876 and 1891.

The descendants of that group are still fighting to have their nation recognized.

By the 1960s, provincial and municipal politicians facing a land crunch made a series of decisions that would shape the suburb that most of us know today.

An experiment in design

In a plan that was hailed as visionary, the neighbourhood was originally constructed and designed to provide affordable housing as an oil boom sent inflation rates soaring.

Based on a city planned and funded land assembly, Mill Woods was Edmonton's first socially planned community.

Edmonton's Zard Sarty, 80, helped draw up the original blueprints for the neighbourhood. He joined the Mill Woods project in 1973 and managed design competitions for various neighbourhoods over the next five years.

He said the area's signature curvilinear street design was introduced with pedestrians, not vehicles, in mind.

"Curvilinear design was invented in New York and spread like wildfire in the enlightened cities of America, and came to Canada," Sarty said in an interview with Mill Woods Living Heritage, a group dedicated to preserving the area's development and cultural history.

Zard Sarty, now 80, helped draw up the original blueprints for the neighbourhood. He can be seen talking about the early days of Mill Woods on the Mill Woods Oral History's YouTube channel. (YouTube)

In the end, the curved streets, considered novel at the time, were not exactly ideal, Sarty said.

He said the "overdone" design caused confusion for Edmonton motorists more accustomed to the standard city grid.

"Because everything in Mill Woods turned into curvilinear design, it was impossible to cut through and it also caused people to lose their way," Sarty said in a 2014 interview.  

"Nobody could find where they were going."

The area grew quickly, was hit by the economic downturn of the 1980s, and now is surging again. Adjacent new neighbourhoods like Laurel and The Meadows are booming.

For the future, there are hopes the LRT will transform the community once again, from a suburb of Edmonton to a fully-developed mini town centre — with towers and a European-inspired bus terminal and promenade.

As the winding streets defined Mill Woods' past, hopes are now high that the straight line of the LRT will point to a bright future, transforming the community once again.

The one-time social experiment on the south edge of town is cementing its position as central and important part of Edmonton.

CBC Edmonton will be the Mill Woods library all week, reporting from the community and hosting special events.