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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Right to the Common

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HALIFAX – Last Wednesday January 20th, HRM staff presented the plan “Improvements to the North Common” [PDF] to a full house, where there were more people in attendance than there were chairs. The presentation of the plan lasted an hour, and although only 30 minutes was set aside for input from the public, the question period ended up continuing for over an hour and a half, until only a handful of people were left in the room.

In this new century, we are facing a different kind of threat to public space— not one of disuse, but of patterns of design and management that exclude some people and reduce social and cultural diversity.

– Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space & Cultural Diversity

There was clear support for certain aspects of the plan that fostered walkability, safety and passive enjoyment of the park, which include wider pathways, a redesigned fountain, diverse seating and an increase in trees in the park. The debate that ensued was not centered around the fact that the City is proposing improvements to the Common – that point was well-received and echoed by those in attendance. The more controversial elements of the proposed plan were those that cater to the facilitation of concerts: the removal of a baseball diamond in the southeast corner, a ‘special events plaza‘, and a permanent power supply housed in a new building proposed for development.

Peter Bigelow, the general manager of HRM parks and recreation services, started off the presentation with a warning: this consultation was not the place to debate the controversial mega-concerts on the Common. Huh? How can anyone critique a design proposal without taking into consideration the intended uses of the public space in question? Due to the fact that this was the first opportunity for the public to give their input on the matter, opposition to the mega-concerts ended up dominating the discussion. Despite that this plan is only in its public consultation phase, Bigelow admitted that there are already bookings in place for the ‘special events plaza’ for this summer.

Last summer Mayor Peter Kelly (and part-time concert promoter) was quoted in the Chronicle Herald saying that there had been no decision made on whether or not the Common was going to be established as a permanent concert venue.   It was made evident on Wednesday that this had been decided by municipal council in between then and now.  There was a palpable feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction in the room; heads shaking, eyes rolling left and right and people heading for the door.

The policies outlined in the 1994 Common plan [PDF] state:

  1. The city will continue to promote a diversity of activities in the Halifax Common which will include health care, education, sports, recreation, gardens and cultural activities.
  2. The city will maintain the public nature of the Halifax Common, as envisioned in the original terms of the grant.
  3. The city will facilitate public involvement in the future planning and design of the Halifax Common.

Jennifer Watts, peninsular councillor, requested a cost-benefit analysis from last summer’s concerts in December 2009 which has yet to be produced. Although HRM staff constantly refer to the ‘benefits to downtown’ when promoting the concerts, there is no evidence available to prove this. The plan presented by HRM staff last week, along with the scheduled phasing of the plan’s implementation over a 5 year period, caters to the facilitation of these controversial concerts. The breakdown of the budget shows that 70% of this year’s expenses will be geared towards infrastructure for the concerts.

The Common is not an appropriate venue for for-profit mega-concerts. The set-up, the concerts themselves and the take-down obstruct accessibility to our common land for weeks on end. The Common, which was intended to be used for ‘the public good’ and ‘common use of the inhabitants of peninsular Halifax’, is being hijacked to serve private interests to the chagrin of neighbours, community groups, dog-walkers, sports associations and local business owners.

A common sentiment shared amongst many who voiced their concerns last week was that this plan lacked genuine dialogue with the community.  Some suggested that the money used to subsidize these concerts (to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars) could alternately be used to support and promote the talents within our local vibrant arts and cultural community.

Peggy Cameron, from the Friends of the Halifax Common, suggested finding more permanent ways to draw people into the city and to help make the city more livable by supporting those who are making their living here.  Peter Bigelow argued that the ‘special events plaza’ – hardened turf in the southeast corner – could be used for other purposes, and that the power supply could potentially be used for community events, not solely concerts.

Review the 1994 Common Plan. Take a look at the proposed Improvements to the North Common. Get familiar with its history. Take a minute to imagine the best-case scenario: what do you see? Community gardens? Daylighting the Freshwater Brook? A permanent skating facility? An off-leash area for dog walkers?  Pathways that follow the desire lines?

If you were unable to attend last week’s meeting, you are encouraged to send your input via email to – and address it to the mayor and members of council. We must take responsibility for our common land and make sure our voices are heard.

photos by Katie McKay



  1. Kudos to Mr. Bigelow and city staff for having the foresight and dedication to recognize that the Halifax Commons needs multi-purpose event staging infrastructure and attractive features. For the sake of a single baseball diamond, of which the Commons is not lacking, North/Central Halifax will acquire a new ‘public square’, capable of hosting a wide variety of functions. This will not only contribute to the quality of events held on the Commons (such as the annual PlayOn! road hockey tournament), but also the ability of city staff to rehabilitate portions of the Commons that may be in need of some TLC after a public event.

  2. While I agree with you that mega-concerts (or any private, for profit events) shouldn’t be held on the Common, I can’t agree about your assessment of the “events plaza.” The events plaza itself would not be useful for mega-concerts in any event, as Peter Bigelow stated. Personally I think that an events plaza, if built, will turn out to be a well used and appreciated bit of infrastructure on the North Common. Myself, I’d love to see AlFresco FilmFesto moved up to this location from the windy and uncomfortable boardwalk where it is now.

    As per your list of questions about things to do with the Common, here’s my two cents:
    Community gardens? Community Gardens are great for pockets of unused land. I think a demonstration garden on that unused turf beside the Museum of Natural History would be great…on the main fields of the North Common? not so great. Security and vandalism would be big issues too.
    Daylighting the Freshwater Brook? A lovely dream. Unfortunately it would require removing almost half of the sports fields, and besides, what is now the skate park was once “Egg Pond”, which was part of Freshwater Brook. Just try suggesting we remove the skate park. Good luck. (btw I’d love to see Freshwater Brook daylighted, and I’d love to be proved wrong on this point)
    A permanent skating facility? Love the idea. The wading pool can be (and has in the past) been flooded in winter for skating. I think we’ll see some serious support for this idea after the speed skating oval is enjoyed by Haligonians next year.
    An off-leash area for dog walkers? In practice (if not bylaw) it already is. The area adjacent to the events plaza would seem to be well suited for this use (ie no more ball field). As long as they pick up after their pooches.
    Pathways that follow the desire lines? Agree big time. This is a problem that just won’t go away, and will continue to get worse as more and more people cut across the North Common to Robie/Cunard. What are they thinking by ignoring this??

  3. Despite the legitimate — although generally short-lived — problems the surrounding community has vocally expressed, in many ways the Commons is the ideal location for megaconcerts. So accessible by transit, cycling, surrounded by dense neighbourhoods, the open grass fields provide an infinitely better atmosphere for a concert than in other more suburban locations, or even the Metro Centre. In fact, there are few spots in all of HRM that are even close to being as appropriate for concerts of this scale than the Commons.

    I think the community surrounding the Commons should stop refusing to address the reality of these concerts and instead start looking for ways to make them work for the benefit of the local residents.

    That starts with building good infrastructure to protect the park and better handle these crowds. Infrastructure that can also be used by the public and can be molded to fit different uses, such as creating a skating rink, accommodating smaller concerts, plays, or maybe even public washrooms.

    Instead of refusing to even consider the idea that these concerts might continue, the friends of the Commons should focus their efforts on getting the City to use some of the money generated from the shows to benefit the community who use the park regularly. Why not have some of the money made go to organizing a more local music festival to be held on the Commons? Or to supporting other community projects?

  4. with respect, Nordheimer, the mega-concerts COST the city money, not the other way around! We give the concert promoters hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the concerts, and hope that there is a benefit in terms of taxes…but we have yet to see any real numbers on this supposed benefit.
    At any rate, there is no pot of easily accessible money that could be earmarked for other community projects coming directly from the concerts.

  5. Eh? What money “generated by the concerts”, Nordheimer? The private promoter got the money. As far as I can figure out (and we have yet to see any Concert economic impact report as requested by Councillor Uteck), all us HRM taxpayers paid to have these concerts there: we paid the private promoter to bring the event; we paid to have our city workers fix up the land afterwards; and we paid to lose the space that everyone used to use all summer for recreation/pedestrian commute to go elsewhere. I personally paid in a month’s disturbed sleep, as did many neighbours. I personally hauled my bed and mattress down my hall to a back room at 6:30 am after being awakened yet again by an event company that broke all the rules about neighbourliness and all the relaxed noise by-laws. I personally paid extra on my electric bill to run my air-conditioner (against my will) because I couldn’t sleep with open windows for all of July. I will personally pay in lost work shifts this coming summer when business in both places I work downtown suddenly go very very quiet for the concert weekends. A co-worker personally paid with a black eye, cut face and broken prescription glasses after tripping on a bent raised fence-leg propped up on Robie Street’s sidewalk. Her new glasses were replaced by the event promoter after complaining but she had to work in the public eye while the bruises healed. I believe every District in HRM should host one of these mega-concerts or two to really understand their impact on their taxpayers and infrastructure; it seems ludicrous to say this is THE best place in HRM to hold concerts when no other venues have been tried.

  6. Peter, while you may be technically correct, there are many ways the city indirectly makes money from having these concerts. Why else would they go through the trouble of resident complaints, park preparation and cleanup, booking cost, all addressed here:

    A Coast article from July 2009 had an Events Halifax organizer estimate that about $12M would be generated from the McCartney concert. Some of that will be related to car parking and other municipal/provincial revenue draws, but by making the public aware of how much money is made by restaurants, hotels, museums, art galleries, etc., all of a sudden, investing in keeping the affected community as happy as possible both before, during and after the concert will be far more agreeable to otherwise uninterested taxpayers and politicians.

    You’re right that there’s no pot of money readily available, but neither is there much political willpower for preventing well-attended concerts. So instead of crying NIMBY, we should instead be asking the City to earmark money for local projects, better year-round park maintenance, improved infrastructure and concert regulations to compensate for the few weeks of disturbance and potential damage to the Common (which the new plan’s design would combat).

  7. I put my email as which is a valid email and then wrote a good comment, if I say so myself, and thanked Katie for a nice job done!! And I pushed ‘submit’. And I was told to submit a valid email which I could not figure out how do do since my message was destroyed. This is a truly truly dumb way of penalizing persons with finger problems, or who use the for an email as much of the world does. Helas……..

  8. Nordheimer…perhaps you should have been at the meeting. The Chronicle-Herald estimated there were 75 people there on a very nasty night. They represented neighbours, members of the arts community, members of the native community, local business people, baseball players, casual recreational users of the Common whether for pick up games or just a walk, and members of the Friends of the Halifax Common. Only ONE person spoke in favour of the mega-concerts. On the matter of the economic benefits, you quote stats provided by Events Halifax (or Eh! as they like to call themselves). Considering that Events Halifax is the city’s interface with the concert promoters I think we need to be a bit skeptical of their assertions of the marvelous spin-offs from these mega concerts. Except for Eh! there has been no indication from any of the business community that these things are an economic boon. Re: Peter Rogers’s comment on the events plaza. People at the meeting welcomed the concept (although there were comments that its placement was rather odd considering it will block a major pathway between downtown and the west and north Peninsula). There was lots of talk of small concerts by local artists and other interesting events …that would be FREE, or nearly so, and not disrupt the use of the Common or the neighbourhood. But, of course, it is apparent that the events plaza is a red herring..Yes, it could be used for smaller events but the electrical infrastructure suitable for the mega concerts…including the construction of a small building to house it… and the reinforcement of the turf so, as Mr. Bigelow explained, those big tractor trailer trucks can drive right up to the site, doesn’t sound like Sunday afternoon concerts by local groups to me. The small size of the paved area is just for show. Also it came as no surprise to anyone that almost all the ‘phased’ funding in the first year of the infrasturcture program would be for the turf reinforcing and the electrical. Thank you to Katie for starting this discussion and for her great pictures. The one of the line up of ‘Johnny on the Spots’ pretty much sums it up.

  9. I’ve lived around the common area for the past 26 years and have walked around and through the area all those years. We haven’t owned a car for 20 of those years. During the past 15 years I have noticed that very little city monies have been injected into the maintenance and improvement of the area. The green spaces have become overused by the city residences. Normal wear and tear, year in year out. So, when the concerts started taking place the City began injecting monies into the green area that in previous years had been neglected from day to day use and of course the “mega- concerts”.
    Wow, now we actually have grass growing, where once we had pretty green weeds and rocks. The city actually grassed over the “donkey paths” that have been worn into grass/soil from years of people walking from Robie to Cogswell St. etc. and now those paths are back worn right through the new grass. People being people. Let’s face it the majority of HRM residences do not respect the area and it’s something to drive or walk through ( to get to downtown) or even walk around on a limited basis. If this is how the city will spend it’s monies generated from these events then I say keep up the good work. Any kind of upgrades are good upgrades. The fear of mega-concerts could come to a natural end when groups stop touring, the economy keeps going down and a host of other factors make “the fear” go away on its own. When people stop buying tickets it will go away and with it the monies needed to look after the area.
    Great comments Nordheimer !