Most of the urban areas were preplanned; that is to say, a development plan was prepared before settlement took place. In this respect they differed from many English towns which grew in a haphazard fashion from small hamlets at main road intersections or on the banks of rivers. In New Zealand the land was first purchased from the Maoris by the Crown or the settlement companies; an urban area was chosen and the site surveyed and sold to prospective settlers, in many cases without inspection. The design pattern followed well established town-planning ideas of the period. In essence it was a rectilineal pattern of streets relieved by some form of central open space. It is often called Roman planning because the Roman military towns were designed in the same way, the central square being used for an assembly ground or market square. Later, the public buildings were built adjacent to the central square which became known as “Civic Square”. The method was used freely in America – Philadelphia is an excellent example – and many Australian cities, such as Melbourne, were planned on the same principle. It had its limitations; it was unsuitable for hilly country and was very monotonous when extended for a large population. It proved, too, unsuitable for modern motor transportation, but big cities and rapid transport were not envisaged in the early Victorian age. Christchurch, with its central square and surrounding rectangular pattern of streets, is the best example in New Zealand. The central square idea had variations; in Dunedin it was an octagon which is still a central feature of the city. In Auckland, Victoria Street was the planned main street connecting a “Circus” at the site of Albert Park with a square called “Hobson Square” adjacent to St. Matthew's Church. This was never built because the plan was misapplied to irregular country and the city logically developed along Queen Street up the valley connecting the waterfront with the hinterland. Wellington, after the first settler landing at Petone (Britannia) was originally planned on the Te Aro flat area, where the rectangular plan may still be seen, the Basin Reserve occupying a space that could have been meant for the market square. In smaller towns further variations may be seen. It was quite common to widen the main street at the shopping site and plant a central rectangular space with trees or a garden. This is often used today for car parking. Cambridge, Pahiatua, and Gore are examples, Palmerston North, however, went back to the square, in this case a very large one, now developed as a city park.
Towns of later foundation were not so generous in the use of space; they appear to have developed outwards from a main street in a somewhat haphazard fashion, probably because the land was in private ownership and therefore subdivided piecemeal; they are thus featureless and often very dull.
The design pattern described was quite unsuitable for hilly land and when the comparatively level land was limited, as in Wellington and Dunedin, it proved insufficient for expansion. Wellington progressed along Lambton Quay and finally to the Hutt Valley, leaving the hills for development as residential areas. The resulting building sites are unique and perhaps unrivalled in their expansive views, but it has proved a costly procedure. Dunedin had similar limitations. In both cases the use of reclaimed land has been freely used for the extension of business and industry. Auckland city moved up the Queen Street valley and spread, tee-shaped, along the ridge called Karangahape Road, with a further extension to Symonds Street. Thus the merit of the early preplanning was to a certain degree restricted by the lack of foresight for the future requirements of traffic and for expansion.
When the preplanned spaces of the “urban areas” had been fully utilised, the adjoining lands were privately owned; hence further subdivision was a matter for the individual owners. This was controlled by regulations as to the size of lots, frontage, and so forth. It therefore lacked the coordination of the original preplanned town and was in a measure haphazard development. Consequently, in recent years, town-planning legislation was enacted to control development in a logical predetermined manner. The full effect of this policy is a matter for the future, but it recognises the wisdom of predetermined development in the interests of efficiency and amenity.
Notwithstanding the defects of these early plans, the urban areas acquired many attractive and useful features as a result. Reference has been made to the squares and gardens which still remain salient points of interest. In addition, parks and recreation grounds were provided in the plans – for instance, the town belt of Dunedin – and these together with generous gifts from citizens constitute the major open spaces in the urban communities. These areas, so essential for health and amenity, would be difficult and costly to acquire under the later haphazard methods of subdivision. Many of them today occupy very valuable central land, but few citizens would permit them to be exploited for material gain.