The English settlers who reached Lyttelton in December 1850 first saw the Canterbury Plains from the top of the Bridle Path, which took them up the Port Hills from Lyttelton Harbour. Below them was marshy, open country. The city of Christchurch now sprawls across these plains. But the wider Canterbury landscape has changed little in more than 150 years. Behind the curved coastline of Pegasus Bay, the great plain recedes to the distant Southern Alps.
Canterbury is a region of vast skies, extensive views and bold contrasts – from flat plains to high mountains, and from the indented coastline of Banks Peninsula to the featureless beaches that edge the plains.
Christchurch and its hinterland
Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city. More than any other New Zealand city, it has kept strong ties with its farming hinterland. Farming is now less important in the Canterbury economy than it was. But the region is still defined by images of farmland with long lines of shelter belts, and high-country sheep runs with lonely homesteads in magnificent mountain country.
Today the Canterbury regional council, known as Environment Canterbury, covers north, mid- and south Canterbury, and Kaikōura. North and mid-Canterbury are discussed here. The northern limit is the Conway River, and its southern boundary is the Rangitātā River. Its western boundary is the main divide (the summit line) of the Southern Alps.
Canterbury was once a bigger area. The Canterbury Province of 1853 ran from the Waitaki to the Hurunui rivers, and from the east to west coasts. But the region now known as Westland, on the West Coast, became a separate province in 1873, and the area around the port town of Timaru sought (unsuccessfully) to separate as South Canterbury.
The people of Canterbury
Especially compared to North Island urban regions, Canterbury has relatively more people of European descent and relatively fewer Māori, Pacific Islanders and Asians. Its population is slightly older and more settled than in many other regions.
The Māori people of Ngāi Tahu and earlier iwi (tribes) knew Canterbury intimately and used many of its resources. But the Māori population was always quite sparse.
The Canterbury Association
Canterbury’s origins are quite distinct from those of Auckland and Wellington.
English immigrants arrived in 1850, organised by the Canterbury Association. The community they envisaged was different from others in New Zealand: the goal was a hierarchical English society, with the Anglican Church at its centre.
Plains of vast extent
In 1844, from a hilltop on Banks Peninsula, Bishop G. A. Selwyn ‘obtained a magnificent view over the vast plains of the South. Below us stretched the apparently interminable line of the ‘Ninety mile beach’, a continuous range of uniform shingle without headland or bay. Within this shingle bank is a great lake, Waihora [Ellesmere]… Beyond the lake are plains of vast extent, bounded by a range of snowy mountains behind which the sun was setting.’ 1
The association’s plan was to base the settlement on labour-intensive small farms. Instead, huge leased sheep runs developed on the expanse of grassland, followed by vast freehold estates. The last of the freehold estates were not broken up into smaller farms until the early 20th century. Large leasehold pastoral runs still dominate the high country.
Geography and climate
Canterbury’s identity is also bound up in its geography and climate. The extensive Canterbury Plains, the wide braided rivers that cross them, the hot, dry nor’west winds, the rugged grandeur of the glaciated mountains, the dramatic landscape of the high country – together, these features distinguish the region.
The Canterbury earthquakes
The Canterbury earthquakes comprised two main events: the magnitude 7.1 Darfield earthquake on 4 September 2010 and the magnitude 6.3 Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011. The latter was an aftershock of the first event, but due to its shallowness and closeness to the city it was more destructive and caused 185 deaths, mainly in the central city from building collapses. During the aftermath thousands of dwellings and buildings were condemned as unsafe and demolished. In 2014 the city was still in the process of rebuilding its physical and social fabric.