The Halifax Common was once a treed marsh in K’jipuktuk, as the Halifax Peninsula was known to the original inhabitants, and within the larger still-unceded area of Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral home of the Mi’kmaq.
Much is now vastly different, but elements remain, including flowing water from Freshwater Brook, now largely in underground pipes but causing construction difficulties for the new parkade adjacent to the Natural History Museum.
English settlers arrived in 1749 and soon claimed the land of the Halifax Common for grazing and crops. A decade later, in 1763, King George III of England formally established the Halifax Common by decree as a land grant “to and for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax forever.” This decree is recorded in the Nova Scotia Land Grants, Old Book 3.
The Halifax Common is 240 acres of land from Cunard Street on the north to South Street on the south and North and South Park Streets on the east to Robie Street on the west. It is the largest and oldest Common in Canada. Much has changed on the Common, although it remains dear to the hearts of Haligonians and somewhat true to its guiding principle of “to and for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax forever.”
In recent generations, this principle has swayed toward hospital and university uses, organized sports and activities, and increased privatization through high-density development. The amount of public, open, green space is now about 20 per cent of the Common, and much of that is for dedicated purposes.
While it can be argued that many of these new uses are extensions of the guiding principle and previous uses, what is seen is an accelerating diminishment of one of the defining features of the urban form of Halifax — the expansive, public, open, green area at the centre of the peninsula. The reduction of the Halifax Common has been going on since its inception and will almost certainly continue in coming generations, unless current municipal and provincial policies and points of view change, or to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, we won’t know what we’ve lost until it’s gone.
The 1994 Halifax Common Plan was developed after a lengthy, involved and genuine public consultation. It was approved by Halifax council but never adopted by staff. As a legitimately negotiated and approved document, it is a valid compromise to provide guidance for the substantive matters with respect to the management, detailed planning, capital expenditures and evaluation of proposals for the Halifax Common.
In 2017, when the current HRM effort to develop a master plan for the Halifax Common was initiated, staff made a point that the effort was to “update” the 1994 plan. However, it quickly became apparent that new directions were being taken. Numerous substantive changes from the 1994 plan are in the new draft plan, but the most significant change is that the entire Halifax Common is not considered. The 1994 plan, while acknowledging private ownership of parts of the Common, addressed the Common as a whole. A second significant change is that increased protection of the Halifax Common is not discussed in the draft plan. Still, all recognize that a master plan for the Halifax Common is needed, and the current draft plan, challenged by COVID restrictions and what many see as an overly directed public consultation process, continues to move slowly forward.
The Dartmouth Common has substantial protection under provincial legislation enacted in the early 1990s. The Halifax Common does not have similar protection, although many have advocated for it over the years including in the 1994 plan. Recently, Friends of the Halifax Common, in a formal letter to Premier Iain Rankin and Municipal Affairs Minister Brendan Macguire, requested similar legislation for the Halifax Common. Unfortunately, there is no member of government at any level willing to champion such legislation, perhaps because the central location of the Halifax Common is desirable for so many specialized uses.
Where things stand
The time of COVID has brought a new face to many areas of the Halifax Common, particularly to the North Common, typically the fair-weather site of softball games and cricket matches. Lately, this programmed, reserved use of the North Common has been curtailed by COVID and the North Common has seen more open and casual use by individuals and small groups.
On a warm day, particularly on the weekend, hundreds of people can be seen loosely gathering on the North Common. It is warming to see so many people quietly enjoying light, space, green grass, fresh air, simple games, a little food and drink, and shared experience. Unfortunately, the current draft plan calls for about three-quarters of the North Common and almost the entire Central Common to remain available for programmed sports.
Celebrate the Common
Celebrate the 258th anniversary of the gift of the Halifax Common by joining a four-kilometre walk around the Halifax Common and picnic at 4 p.m., on Wednesday, June 23rd, beginning at Victoria Park.
David Garrett is co-chair, Friends of the Halifax Common