A Model Community

In 1995, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed Old Town Lunenburg on its list of World Heritage Sites. Along with Old Quebec City, Lunenburg is one of only two urban World Heritage Sites in North America.

UNESCO cited Old Town Lunenburg as “the best surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America. Established in 1753, it has retained its original layout and overall appearance, based on a rectangular grid pattern drawn up in the home country.”

The Town Plan

Lunenburg’s town plan was comprised of a grid of 48 blocks (6 by 8) each block being 280 feet by 120 feet containing 14 lots, each with 40 feet of frontage and 60 feet deep. The street allowances separating the blocks were 40 feet wide (running east/west) and 48 feet wide (running north/south) except for a central north/south street (King Street) which was 80 feet wide. In the middle of the plan, four blocks were reserved for civic purposes.

Today, this type of layout is common, but in the 1700s it was a radical departure from the centuries-old tradition in Britain and Europe of towns growing up organically around a castle or a cathedral or a regional marketplace.

It may be said that Lunenburg is an exemplar of the type of rational land use that would become the prevailing model of urban planning in Canada until the arrival of the suburban subdivision model with its crescents and cul-de-sacs post World War II.

It is also possible to make the case that the pre-settlement existence of the Lunenburg’s town plan with its rational layout of surveyed lots and streets had a much more profound effect on the development of Lunenburg as a community than simply as a practical means of organizing land use.

Ahead of Its Time

The British town plan may, in fact, have set the stage for individual achievement and collective success that Lunenburg has experienced for over 260 years.

Consider first that the land was given free and its assignment was profoundly democratic. The settlers who arrived in Lunenburg in 1753 got their town lots, garden lots and farm lots by drawing playing cards. The process was thus without favor or prejudice. The freedom to use the land was also democratic in that no settler had to report to a princely or ducal landlord. Right from the start, they were a community of individual and equal landholders not a group of tenants.

As a community, the settlers also had to manage their collective affairs long before the days of municipal government by mayor and council. The town grid was organized into six “divisions” of eight blocks each in a row running south to north up from the harbor. Each division was named in honor of an officer of the Lunenburg Militia regiment, each of whom was prominent figure in the early management of the settlement.

In addition, there was a group of overseers drawn from the settlers who managed civil affairs such as registry of deeds, processing of probates and the harbor under Lt Col Patrick Sutherland in his capacity as Chief Magistrate. By 1759, the freeholders of the Town and County of Lunenburg were able to send four elected representatives to the General Assembly in Halifax which had been established the previous year.

Finally, the dedication of the four blocks in the middle of the grid for civic functions, the garden lots at the edge of town together with the six irregular pieces of land at the water’s edge beyond the grid can be seen as an early form of zoning.