HALIFAX – If you look it up on Google Maps, Canada’s oldest urban park, the Halifax Common hugs the western skirt of Citadel Hill. It’s shown as two triangular patches of green space — North and Central — divided by a yellow line that is Cogswell Street. The city seems to stop at its edges on all sides: Cunard, Robie, North Park Streets, and Bell Road define its present day boundaries as it sits sheltered by the Citadel from the east. Halifax’s early beginnings though, tell a different tale — there was also a South Commons — and that story can be read through the urban fabric that exists today.
It’s fun to be an urban sleuth — reading the physical city for windows back in time. Cities themselves can often tell the story if we’re willing to squint and read between the lines.
The Commons (as it is locally known) began as a much larger piece of land, a swath of open space ‘for common use’ that cut north-south across the peninsula reaching to the edge of what is now Saint Mary’s University.
As our biggest public room in the city, The Commons is lined with buildings, tall and short, and anchored by the Citadel from the east. You may think that there is a very clear edge to its domain on all sides, but the public and institutional spaces found a little further south challenge that boundary and show us hints into our city’s past.
Like most fortress-towns, Halifax grew out of the base of the Citadel that protected it. Early settlement was concentrated between the drumlin hill and the water. Historic maps show that to the west of the hill, large swaths of land were cleared and remained open, to protect themselves against surprise Mi’kmaq attacks from the west by keeping the view clear. As a result, its common public use, like military functions and grazing cattle, was encouraged.
The ghosts of a much larger Halifax Common can be found if you walk beyond its present day boundaries and go south: just look for the open spaces and the institutional land. Between Robie and South Park, the bulk of the land is either green space — the Commons, Wanderers Grounds, Public Gardens, Camp Hill Cemetery, Victoria Park — or it’s institutional land: various hospitals, schools/universities, The Nova Scotia Museum and All Saints Cathedral.
Like a line that ties them all together is Tower Road. It was originally continuous, starting at The Public Gardens leading straight into the heart of Point Pleasant Park: Martello Tower. Today a parking lot at the VG is the break in this line, and asphalt fills in a block-long section of what once was Tower Road.
How did much of The South Common disappear? In the 1800s, much of the land on the Peninsula was not taxable, and the city began to encroach on the South Common, allowing commercial properties to appear on the beginnings of Spring Garden Road. More importantly, institutions appeared, for ‘the public good’ such as The Halifax Infirmary, Camp Hill Cemetery, The Victoria General Hospital, an Exhibition Building, All Saints Cathedral, and a School for the Blind that once stood at the parking lot of the VG, facing east to Victoria Park. The Wanderers’ Grounds, the Public Gardens, Victoria Park and Gorsebrook Field (once a golf course) are South Common remnants. As open space, they are a testament to what once was. Interestingly, they are in direct axis with our other city park – Point Pleasant.
In comparison, the North Common resisted the growth of the city, largely because it was used as a military training ground. In recent years, it has hosted many famous people, including Princess Diana, the Pope and Sir Paul McCartney, but in the early days, cows grazed right up to the side of Citadel Hill, and in the 40s and 50s, there was a race track at its south west corner.
Beginning at the North Common, a small stream called Freshwater Brook once meandered south west and filled the Egg Pond, now the concrete bowl of the Skate Park. It crossed into the Public Gardens and moved along the west side of Victoria Park before turning towards the harbour.
Cities change; open spaces fill in, buildings come down. The evolution of our Halifax Common contributes to the ever-changing urban story of the Peninsula. With the proposed developments for the North Common [PDF], we should ask ourselves: what are we adding to that story?
image by Nova Tayona