How One Presentation Slide Became a Mission to Bring Communal Comfort to Edmonton's River Valley

On February 16th, 2017, a crowd of more than 600 filed into the Shaw Conference Centre to hear a handful of Edmontonians share their personal thoughts on a simple question: how can we make Edmonton’s winter better?

At this 27th edition of Pecha Kucha Night, we heard about everything from bike commuters sharing coffees outside and the myriad benefits of Nordic walking to how we can bring the warmth of pubs outdoors and consider the many positives of negative temperatures.

About halfway through the lineup, Emma Sanborn walked up on stage and switched gears to deliver a memoir of sorts — the story of time spent as a Masters student in Luleå, Sweden, and how badly she craved bringing some Scandinavian magic back to Edmonton. As Emma spoke on Life in Luleå, little did she know that, of the 20 slides that comprised her 6 minute and 40 second talk, it would be one slide—number 7—that would really strike a chord.

“Winter in Sweden is cozy, cozy, cozy, but it’s also easy, easy, easy,” she told the crowd that night. “For example, the sauna. Saunas are everywhere, and the easiest escape from the cold. In both student apartments that I had, there was a big, gorgeous sauna I could book with the swipe of a key. They’re in every home, apartment, gym—and definitely at the cabin.”

Emma Sanborn speaking at Pecha Kucha Night 27

Emma Sanborn speaking at Pecha Kucha Night 27

It was one of many passing mentions of Scandinavian winter staples, and like many of the others it didn’t come with a direct application for Edmonton. But nonetheless, her enthusiasm for winter left an impression on many in the audience.

“The people that came up to talk to me afterwards were just excited about learning more about Sweden and my perspective,” Emma recalled during a recent chat. “But there was nothing that I offered concretely in that presentation that I could move forward with.”

Soon after PKN 27, Emma once again visited Sweden and once again returned home to Edmonton, this time arriving with a stronger urge to make something happen. Conveniently, a brand new project had recently launched in town with a goal of making one Edmontonians’ idea into a reality.

“I was talking to my friend Ranon [Soans] and lamenting about how Edmonton is missing all these things that I miss from Sweden’s winter culture,” she remembers, “and he proposed that we enter the Edmonton Project, with some idea. And the idea I had at the time was saunas in the river valley.”

Slide #7 from Emma’s presentation “Life in Luleå”

Slide #7 from Emma’s presentation “Life in Luleå”

The sauna idea took hold for several reasons. For one, the Edmonton Project was looking for an idea with physical permanence, with community in mind, and with potential to become an iconic feature of the landscape.

Fast forward several months and the River Valley Saunas are now a Top 10 finalist for the Edmonton Project. On March 6th at their Idea Den Event, these remaining ten ideas will be pitched live to a panel of judges, with one idea to be chosen for implementation.

Having already spoken at PKN 27 will no doubt prove beneficial when Emma and her team pitch to the judges, but most of all Emma is glad that she had the courage and enthusiasm to jump up on stage in front of hundreds. She hadn't anticipated how much it would nudge her to take her ideas further.

“Once you start talking about something publicly like that, then I think people start to hold you accountable for your enthusiasm for something,” she says. “Because, you know, you’ve put in the effort to speak publicly, so you can’t really shy away from taking action on it.”

A rendering of what River Valley Saunas could look like. Courtesy of

A rendering of what River Valley Saunas could look like. Courtesy of

Regardless of the results on March 6th, after this last year, the well-traveled Emma is energized by what she sees as a uniquely open and generous community to develop, share, and eventually launch ideas.

“Coming back [from abroad], my eyes were really open to how Edmonton is kind of the Wild West in a way and anything is possible here. I think PKN and the Edmonton Project are great examples of that. There are so many platforms to meet people and launch your idea,” she says.

“If anybody ever starts spewing their idea to me with lots of passion but with no plan, I would just say, ‘Go start talking to people, and you’ll be surprised where it goes.’”

Watch Emma’s presentation “Life in Luleå” below. For more information on the River Valley Saunas project, visit or give them a follow on Twitter at @yegsauna.

 Learn more about Pecha Kucha Nights in Edmonton and how you can get up on stage with your idea here.