Town belts are large tree-filled wilderness spaces that encircle cities and are, in theory, protected from development. Though the idea of town belts emerged in Britain in the early 19th century, the first ones were created in the new settlements of Australia and New Zealand in the 1830s and 1840s.
Town belts in New Zealand
In New Zealand, town belts were set aside in Wellington (625 hectares) and Dunedin (225 hectares). Belts were also reserved in other settlements, including New Plymouth, Christchurch, Invercargill and Port Chalmers, but the land was seen as too valuable to leave untouched, and was partly or completely developed.
Town belts were not simply parks by another name. They were also intended to act as a buffer between the city and countryside, and to limit the number of sections in new towns, thereby maintaining the land’s economic value.
The milk belt
For much of the 19th and part of the 20th century, Wellington’s town belt was home to a number of dairy farms which provided the city with milk. By the 1920s refrigerated transport had improved, and cows were no longer needed so close to town. The farms, which had been stripped of foliage by grazing cows and horses, were replanted by the Wellington City Council.
New Zealand’s surviving town belts are peppered with buildings, parks and sports grounds. Some land has been privatised, limiting public access. From the early days, belts were used for private purposes such as grazing cattle, and were a handy source of firewood and timber for a developing city. Much of the native forest in the areas was lost, and town belts were often treeless until replanted.
In the early 2000s, the Wellington town belt was 425 hectares, two-thirds its original size. Dunedin’s belt was 203 hectares, which included land added more recently. Both were covered with a mixture of exotic and native trees and shrubs.
Wellington also has an outer green belt of around 5,000 hectares. This is a series of hilltop ridgelines to the west of the city, extending from the south coast to Colonial Knob near Tawa in the north. First proposed in 1976, the outer green belt is a mixture of public and private land, and has a number of functions, including public recreation; conservation of native forest, wildlife and soil; and protection of the western skyline.