Tag Archives: Celebrate the Common

RONALD COLMAN: Shrunken Halifax Common mirrors global assault on green spaces

On June 23, 1763, King George III granted the 235-acre Halifax Common “to and for the use of the inhabitants of the town of Halifax as common forever.”

an 18th century song protesting the English enclosures has stands proudly at St. Pat’s site since 2019.

Today, exactly 258 years later, what we fondly call “the Commons” is a mere 20 per cent of that original grant.

Some was used for public institutions. Some was sold to private developers for residential and commercial buildings. Another 20 per cent is for parking.

What happened here mirrors the loss of the commons in England.

In 1773, just 10 years after our Halifax Common grant, the English Parliament passed the Enclosure Act allowing landlords to fence off and privatize common land and remove commoners’ access.

Such enclosures over time consumed a fifth of England’s total area. They marked the end of the feudal era and the beginning of commercial agriculture and the economic system we call capitalism.

The goose’s song

That relentless enclosure of the Common and privatization of public land by so-called “public authorities” continues to this day.

For example, despite public consultations in 2015-16 strongly favouring community use of the public’s 3.3-acre St. Patrick’s High School site on Quinpool Road, Halifax regional council secretly sold the site last year for $37.6 million to developers.

Citizens wanted the space kept public — especially for the Common Roots Urban Farm. Now, 2019 zoning rules permit the developers to build up to 28 storeys there.

 

As a wonderfully pithy reminder of the rapacious hypocrisy of such state-aided privatizing of common space, an 18th century song protesting the English enclosures has stood proudly on that St. Patrick’s High site since 2019.

But the enclosure of the Common is not just a local story. And it’s not just ancient history. In fact, the theft of the Common is very literally the theft of our children’s inheritance. They will pay the bill for our present plunder.

Our global commons

The commons, after all, are our air and our water, our soils and our forests — our beautiful planet Earth upon which we depend for our very survival, and which our predatory economic system is relentlessly looting and destroying.

But this economic system so cleverly covers its tracks and conceals its true costs.

The greedier we are, the more we shop and buy, the faster we cut down our forests, overfish, kill other species, heat the planet, and poison the earth, water and sky, the more the economy grows. We call that “progress” and “development” and a “healthy” economy.

To avoid counting the true costs of our economic activity, economists have invented a whole language to befuddle and confuse us. They only count what we produce, buy and sell — a counting system they blandly call Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

And any collateral damage, like pollution, climate change, stress, addiction, and growing inequality, they conveniently label “externalities,” meaning they don’t count those things. They make them invisible as they do everything for which no money is exchanged — like raising your child, like green spaces, like the generous volunteer work of those staffing our COVID-testing sites.

Starting in 1997, our Nova Scotia Genuine Progress Index measured what really counts. Sadly, though, governments still swallow the old economic myths hook, line and sinker.

And so it has been for 258 years as the Halifax Common and the Earth’s commons were carved up and enclosed to make way for capital and commerce. And so it is with the St. Pat’s lands today.

GDP won’t count the value of a community-run urban farm or the joy of a family playing on a green meadow. But it celebrates the $37.6-million sale of that meadow to a developer, and it can’t wait to count the concrete, steel, fossil fuels, rent income, and boutique sales in the tower that will rise there.

Taking it back

So long as we refuse to value our commons, including this precious Earth, and turn a blind eye to its enclosure and privatization, we are wilfully complicit in its destruction and degradation.

And so, this 258th anniversary of the Halifax Common is bittersweet. We celebrate the precious green corner we have left, and can’t help but mourn the loss of what’s been stolen from the public domain and from our children.

Might we even use this moment of reflection to question our blind belief in this economic system whose harm now vastly exceeds its benefit?

Might we even dare to turn back the tide of expropriation? To honour the Indigenous view that “we belong to the land” instead of “the land belongs to us”? To reassert our common good? To take back our precious inheritance?

As that daring 18th century song on the St. Pat’s site proclaims: “Geese will still a common lack, Till they go and steal it back”! https://bit.ly/3qmtN7H
Guest Opinion: Ronald Colman of Halifax is founder of Genuine Progress Index Atlantic and author of What Really Counts: The Case for a Sustainable and Equitable Economy (Columbia University Press. 2021)

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DAVID GARRETT: Whither the withering Halifax Common?

The North Common represents about one-fifth of the 240-acre Halifax Common grant. - David Garrett
“On a warm day, particularly on the weekend, hundreds of people can be seen loosely gathering on the North Common,” writes David Garrett. The North Common represents about one-fifth of the 240-acre Halifax Common grant. – David Garrett

 

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. 

Master plan 

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. 

 Protection 

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.   

https://www.saltwire.com/halifax/opinion/david-garrett-whither-the-withering-halifax-common-100602349/

David Garrett is co-chair, Friends of the Halifax Common 

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