Most of New Zealand’s early organised European settlements set aside land in their town plans for green spaces such as parks and town belts.
Public green spaces can be linked back to the common land (the ‘commons’) of medieval Europe. Commons were pieces of privately owned land which peasants were allowed to use for pasturing animals or growing crops. In Britain, most of this land was enclosed for private use by the mid-19th century.
Overcrowding in Europe
By 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, the cities of Britain and other parts of Europe were rapidly expanding in the wake of the industrial and agricultural revolutions. They had become intensively built-up, overcrowded and polluted. Although it was recognised that green spaces in cities could address health and social problems, public parks were rare. Those that did exist, such as London’s royal parks, were no longer sufficient for the growing population. For the ordinary person, access to green spaces was limited.
Hands off – sort of
When drawing up the plan for Wellington, New Zealand Company surveyor William Mein Smith was told to include ‘a broad belt of land, which you will declare that the Company intends to be public property, on condition that no buildings ever be erected upon it’.1 However, over time, a number of buildings were constructed on the town belt.
Green spaces in New Zealand cities
To avoid these problems, the New Zealand Company and its offshoots reserved green spaces in the new towns they planned. Moreover, when New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, the governor was instructed to set aside land ‘for public convenience, utility, health or enjoyment’.2
This did not always happen straight away. Some areas did not function as they were originally intended to, while others ended up in private ownership, but many have survived into the 2000s.