Student Project | Landscapes of Avulsion: Proposed Future Ecologies for Canadian Oil Sands Reclamation | Alyssa Magas

GIS Satellite Map: Athabasca Oil Sands context map
Aerial Photograph: A variety of industrial organisms move and shape the landscape at a Tar Island pit mine.

Landscapes of oil extraction are a world unknown. The Athabasca Oil Sands is an extraction industry with many complexities that require reclamation practices following their closure. Current small-scale reclamation practices do not incorporate a projection of future adaptation for this area. Landscape architecture provides an important viewpoint in the representation of time for areas like these that have undergone drastic changes. Due to the large scale of a pit mining site known as Tar Island near Fort McMurray, Alberta, a gap was identified where an overall reclamation plan could exist to recommend the implementation of a variety of strategies at the appropriate scale. An opportunity presents itself for landscape architecture in generating adaptations to climate change through the future uses of this region.

Map Overlay: Western Wildway Network, current Great Plains range, and projected grasslands range (Adapted from Menke, 2017; Savage, 2011; Rizzo and Wiken, 1992).

An analysis of the existing conditions of these extraction sites provides a framework for the implementation of resilient ecological strategies. By interpreting the Athabasca Oil Sands as a complex system and translating its functions into the definition of ecology, an understanding of how the land is used here can be gained. In defining the industrial ecology, instruments like haul trucks and hydraulic shovels represent the organisms inhabiting this environment; shaping the landscape to support production. The industrial ecology’s landscape components define and identify site conditions which are the basis for implementing reclamation strategies.

Phyto-remediation, Alvar communities, and grasslands are proposed strategies for toxic, absent, and thin soils that remain following extraction processes. Phyto remediation supports the reclamation goal to detoxify soils on site. Alvar communities are well suited to areas with no soil and underlying limestone to build up soils with the spread of vegetative cover in harsh conditions. Mixed grasslands provide the opportunity to infill areas to promote a heavier reliance on grassland species for the projected shift of the grassland ecozone in Canada. An extension of the Western Wildway Network proposes an assisted migration of the grasslands ecozone across northern Alberta and will act as a living lab for this type of migration initiative. These strategies can be implemented across varying Canadian Oil Sands sites to create a land mosaic that represents the scars of production through new ecologies.

Phyto-remediation Timeline Diagram: showing phyto-remediation strategies and impacts for toxic soils (information from Kennen and Kirkwood, 2015).
Alvar communities Timeline Diagram: Alvar community implementation strategies and impacts for absent soils (information from Neufeld, Friesen, and Hamel, 2012).
Mixed Grasslands Timeline Diagram: Grassland implementation strategies and impacts for thin soils (information from Savage, 2011).

A shift of language and ecological system is required in the transition from industrial production to reclamation. This habitat has been shaped by industrial organisms for over 50 years and they will continue to shape this land through its transition to future uses. Over time the habitat will shift to grassland ecozones while Alvar communities, Phyto-remediated areas, and sculptural traces will become remnants of this landscape. New organisms at a smaller ecological scale will move in following the departure of the industrial organisms.

Physical Transect Plan: Steel-grate boardwalks stretch five kilometres through Tar Island along Highway 63 as monitoring plots for the implemented reclamation ecologies.
Grassland Rendering: Grasslands support the needs of a variety of wildlife among infrastructure of this landscape’s industrial past.
A tailings pond edge as seen from Highway 63 within Tar Island. Left – the industrial past. Right – an implemented phyto-remediation ecology.

If the landscapes of avulsion are the open wounds of industrial ecology, then the scars are the healed reminder of its past. This productive energy landscape can transition to a mosaic of sustainable ecologies. The opportunities that this industry presents following its extraction are the basis for proposing new systems of ecology that are suited to the future resilience of this landscape.

Landscapes of Avulsion: Proposed Future Ecologies for Canadian Oil Sands Reclamation

Student: Alyssa Magas, Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba

See the full practicum work on MSpace for further details at:

Course: Master of Landscape Architecture
Advisor: Dr. Karen Wilson Baptist
Project: Practicum/Thesis work

Images/Figures/Text: Alyssa Magas

About Damian Holmes 3266 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing my work WLA! If you’re reading this and would like to chat more about and how it could be applied in Fort McMurray, AB, Canada, please reach out to me on LinkedIn!

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