A tale of two commons



he American Revolution aside, Halifax and Boston have more in common than not.
Over the years Boston has become home to thousands of expatriate Haligonians, people who migrated south to find work (including James Ernest McLaughlin, who designed Fenway Park). Both cities pride themselves on rich history, university population, lively arts scenes, East Coast charm, and seafood in general (lobster rolls in particular).
And both the Halifax Common and the Boston Common are the oldest urban parks in their respective countries.
Both commons in part initially encompassed swamp-like areas and were pastures for grazing farm animals. Then they became grounds where military regiments set up camp. Today, both host gatherings of all sorts: concerts, sports, and festivals.
But there are big differences.
Halifax’s common originally sprawled across about 100 hectares and is now 12 hectares. Early on, Boston put a fence around its common and retained its 20 hectares as a singular space. Officials wrote a commitment to protect the land from sale or encroachment into the city charter of 1822.
Boston’s Friends of the Public Garden maintain its common (the Public Garden being adjacent to the Common), in collaboration with Boston Parks and Recreation. HRM manages the Halifax Common.

While development has nibbled away Halifax Common over the years, Boston Common’s size has been strictly protected.

“The Friends of the Halifax Common is an advocacy group with no official status,” says former HRM councillor, MLA and lawyer Howard Epstein, a long-standing member of the group. “We do have a decent working relationship with the municipality, however.”
While Halifax has cultural festivals and concerts on its common, Boston’s is a hub for public assembly and free speech.
In 1634, the town of Boston bought 20 hectares from the land’s first European owner. Townsfolk used it as a cow pasture; householders paid tax accordingly. With limits imposed on how many could graze at one time, cows foraged there for two centuries; a municipal order banished the bovines in 1830.
Workers planted trees and levelled the ground, replacing a rustic post and rail fence with an iron fence.
Like the Halifax Common, Boston Common sometimes saw military use. British forces camped there before the American Revolution and, up until 1817, the site hosted public hangings, most of which were from a large oak (until they built a gallows in 1769).
The Boston Bread Riot of 1713 began on the Common. Charles Lindbergh held court there to promote commercial aviation. There were civil-rights and anti-war rallies. Pope John Paul II held Mass.
On January 21, 2017, approximately 175,000 people met at the Common to demonstrate against new president Donald Trump. Last August approximately 40,000 people gathered to protest white supremacy and hate speech.
The Boston Common was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1987.
Halifax Common also began as an agricultural site. In 1763 King George III granted about 100 hectares of common land “for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax forever.”
A rocky, lightly forested, swampy area, it was designated to provide pasture for horses and livestock that belonged to the military garrison and Halifax citizens, create an area in which regiments stationed in or in transit through Halifax could encamp, and provide clear lines of fire for the Citadel garrison, so enemy forces would have no cover if they attacked the fort.
However, as early as 1871, Halifax City Council authorized the selling of lots to private citizens in order to encourage suitable development without public cost. “There was an understanding that the private owners would limit their use of the space, maintaining open areas, but that didn’t happen,” says Epstein.
Institutions such as the Public Gardens, Camp Hill Cemetery, Poor Asylum, School for the Blind and Dalhousie College, built on the South Common, followed by hospitals and schools, the Nova Scotia Museum, and the old CBC building.
Meanwhile, recreation and sport took ahold of the North and Central grounds. The Wanderer’s Amateur Athletic Club leased what is now known as the Wanderer’s Grounds from 1882 to 1992. The Halifax Harness Horse Racing Club, used the North Common from 1946 to 1966.
In 1991, council changed the Halifax City Charter to permit Grand Prix auto racing on the perimeter of the North and Central commons.
Planners originally said the skating Oval, a track the size of four NHL rinks, was a temporary site to host events in the 2011 Canada Games. Due to strong public support, it became a permanent year-round facility.
A Rolling Stones concert on the North Common in 2006 hit a nerve: many said it put commerce over protecting a public space for all and damaging the land itself.
Military monuments, tree-lined malls, and historic plaques define Boston Common. But competing interests have fragmented Halifax Common. Still, last December, 23 years after the City adopted a plan to protect the public space, HRM started a series of consultations to determine how the space should further develop with public interest in mind.
A Halifax organization called the Halifax Common Link Association is hoping to at least in part, help connect the fragments. “We’re developing a pathway to link green spaces in partnership with HRM, which will help inform the Halifax Common Master Plan,” says association president Ronald Scott. “There will be several loops to define the path, and decals to brand it, taking you from, say, Victoria Park to the Public Gardens, Halifax Citadel, and North Common.”
The Emerald Necklace in Massachusetts, a chain of linked parks that includes Boston Common, helped inspire the idea. “I was impressed by the emphasis they give to walking and enjoying what the city has to offer in terms of green space,” says Scott.


Halifax and Boston have a long-standing relationship, but not always as allies. The colonial politics and alliances of its day shaped each burgeoning town, sometimes pitting Haligonians and Bostonians against each other.
As the American Revolution (1775 to 1783) progressed, some 34,000 Loyalists migrated north to what is now Nova Scotia, walking away from what they worked hard to establish.
During the War of 1812, Joseph Barss Jr., from Liverpool, N.S., was a successful privateer on the Atlantic coast, capturing, sinking, or burning dozens of American vessels. As captain of the Liverpool Packet, he became the most wanted man in New England.
During the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), when the United States was beating the Confederate rebels, newspapers urged its troops to carry on until they’d driven the British out of Canada.
But sometimes, the worst brings out the best in folks. An hour after the Mont-Blanc exploded in The Narrows between Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin on the morning of December 6, 1917, leaders in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, and New York received a brief telegram about the Explosion.
“Doctors and nurses arrived from outlying provincial towns and substantial help was on the way from Montreal and Toronto, but the first and most valuable assistance came from the ancient foe beyond the Bay of Fundy,” wrote Explosion survivor and Halifax historian Thomas Raddall, referring to Boston.
Although Canada and the U.S. officially became allies when the latter joined the First World War in April 1917, “it took Canada’s greatest disaster, and the Americans’ surprising response, to change their relationship,” writes John U. Bacon in The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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