Character of Towns and Cities
At first glance New Zealand towns and cities appear typically British in character, but lacking the intrinsic charm which the latter have gained through the centuries. Superficially, this is a correct impression; indeed, it would be exPected when it is remembered that over 90 per cent of the population of New Zealand is of British origin and that development over a century and a quarter is inadequate, historically, to produce markedly national characteristics in the absence of compelling geographical or climatic reasons for them. The impression, too, is given colour by the nature of the country's treatment – its green fields, hedgerows or stone divisions, and even the names bestowed upon the towns such as Cambridge, Christchurch, Dunedin, and New Plymouth. Dunedin was founded by members of the Scottish Free Kirk, Christchurch as an Anglican community, and New Plymouth's first settlers came from Plymouth. All these factors tend to create the impression of a Britain in the Southern Seas. It is, however, a superficial impression because towns and cities are built to serve specific needs. The primitive requirements of the early settlements were very different from the traditional cities of the Old Country and in the course of time the way of life in New Zealand has been expressed in the character and form of all its towns and cities.
A feature of the urban areas is their low density in terms of land use. Seen from the air the cities give a false impression of size owing to their extensive land coverage. The four main centres have overall densities of between three and four people per acre and the smaller cities and larger towns have less than two persons per acre. This characteristic had its origin in the size of the urban lots sold to the first settlers. It persisted through the years by a standard minimum requirement of a quarter acre for residential subdivisions. This large unit may have been due to the common use of inflammable timber for buildings and a fixed determination to prevent in this new land the overcrowded conditions of many cities in Britain, a condition which influenced many early settlers to migrate.
Now that the cities have increased in size to metropolitan status, this policy is the subject of criticism. The fertile lands available for rural use are limited and the “urban sprawl”, as it is called, is extravagant not only because of the lands occupied but also due to the cost of civic services, water, power, drainage, and transportation. This policy has also produced a tiresome appearance of long monotonous streets lined with villa-like houses on uniform lots. Recent town planning policy has therefore been directed towards increasing the density by reducing the minimum size of residential lots and providing the legal means of consolidating existing subdivisions in central locations into sizes suitable for high-density use by high buildings and for comprehensive estate planning to produce aesthetically satisfying communities in a more restricted space. It is a worthy objective, but its realisation will take a long time and in the meantime the urban areas expand by ribbon development along the main highways and by the subdivision of more rural land.
The individual character of New Zealand cities is largely due to the natural beauty of their surroundings. The sites of the original settlements – Russell in the Bay of Islands, Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch with Lyttelton, Dunedin with Port Chalmers, and others, were chosen, no doubt, because they had good harbours and were otherwise suitable for trade, but nature had endowed each of them with a beautiful setting. Each has a distinctive visual character and each is revered by its residents for its special features. During the progressive growth of the main urban centres some features have been mutilated and others changed in expression, but the essential character of each site has been carefully preserved. Considered as a group, the main urban centres of New Zealand are unique for their natural beauty in a materialistic world