For many New Zealanders the beach is the essence of the Kiwi dream – the sun, the space, the physical beauty and the sense of a relaxed escape into nature. Easy and free access to the beach has been seen as a national birthright. The beach is considered to be the place to go for a holiday. For over a century it has attracted campers, and about half of New Zealand’s campgrounds are located at beaches.
For some, a holiday at the beach is spent at the weekend crib or bach. This was a humble dwelling, often with the marks of the home handyman and painted in bright colours. It had old furniture and fading photos, along with collections of shells, discarded jandals, beach equipment and fishing gear. Initially there was little public regulation of these beach houses, and there were few facilities such as piped water or sewerage systems.
However, by the early 2000s the iconic Kiwi bach was fading. In 1989, the re-organisation of the local government brought beach areas under the jurisdiction of regional and district councils, instead of the counties, which had relaxed the rules for beach settlements. The Resource Management Act (1991) and the Coastal Policy Statement (1994) sought to protect beach areas from subdivisions that might harm the environment. The same building standards and facilities, like sewerage and footpaths, were required as in the city.
Further, there was a rush to buy coastal properties, which began to attract huge prices as overseas buyers and the new, urban wealthy looked to purchase their piece of paradise on the coast. Luxurious holiday homes became prominent, and more New Zealanders bought retirement homes close to the beach.
Children at the beach
The beach fulfils the New Zealand dream for the old and the young. Children see the beach as a place of freedom and escape from the domestic and suburban constraints, and in the past, many families have taken some of the beach for a sandpit at home.
Many New Zealanders considered their days at the beach as being the highpoint of childhood. The Children’s Health Camp movement sited many of their camps close to a beach, so that children could enjoy the sun, sand and sea. The largest of these camps was at Ōtaki, a settlement near the coast north of Wellington.
A good read
There are over 50 New Zealand children’s books about the beach. For many New Zealand adult writers too, from Katherine Mansfield’s At the bay, to Bruce Mason’s The end of the golden weather, the beach was a symbol of childhood.
Yet, the meaning of the beach is not the same for all people, and the clash of dreams has led to increasing conflicts between the competing interests. Those who see the beach as a natural transport route have met opposition from those for who believe it should be preserved as a place of nature, and a nesting place for birds such as dotterels and Caspian terns.
As the numbers of holiday homes have grown, people have discovered that sewage and recreational swimming do not mix. Those who gather seafood have found that the harvest has dwindled and the beds are polluted.
A national debate exploded in 2003–2004 when the Court of Appeal ruled that the Māori Land Court had jurisdiction to determine Māori claims to the foreshore and seabed. The argument was that Māori had traditionally used the beach and foreshore for such activities as collecting kai moana (seafood) and had never sold or formally relinquished those rights. Other New Zealanders, saw the possible loss of access to the beach as curtailing a national birthright. Parliament quickly legislated to determine the foreshore as Crown property with public access.