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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Early settlements also provided for parks and domains. These were cultivated, manicured spaces suitable for family outings, recreation, promenading and people-watching. Along with town belts, parks and domains were seen as healthy environments, and were often described as the ‘lungs’ of the city, where city dwellers could breathe fresh air. This metaphor was common in Britain and the United States, where parks were believed to provide important breathing space in polluted cities. It gained currency in New Zealand from the mid-19th century to the 20th, and is still common worldwide in the 2000s.
Green spaces have always been used as a place to meet, greet and promenade in front of others. In 1861, a correspondent in the Lyttelton Times wrote that ‘large spaces or parks are required, not usually for athletic or simple amusements, but that the people may have the opportunity [to] show themselves and be seen.’1
The number of green spaces in 19th-century New Zealand cities grew slowly. During the first few decades of colonisation, settlers were getting established in a new land and had little time to promenade in parks. Urban populations were small, and vacant town sections and nearby rural and coastal land provided green spaces. Once populations began to increase significantly from the 1860s and 1870s, provision of parks became an issue. However, the development of essential amenities such as waterworks and drainage was given priority, and parks came later.
In Auckland, Governor William Hobson reserved land for a public domain within the block purchased from Ngāti Whātua in 1841. The area – now known as the Auckland Domain – was the city’s main public green space for the next few decades.
Other early green spaces included Albert Park in the central city, Mount Eden, Western Park in Ponsonby, One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie) in Epsom, and nearby Cornwall Park, which was gifted to the city by businessman Sir John Logan Campbell in 1901.
In 1862 the Canterbury provincial government set aside part of what is now Little Hagley Park for Māori to tether their horses when visiting Christchurch. Previously they had left their horses in the marketplace (now Victoria Square), but for unknown reasons this bothered authorities. Māori visitors were told to ‘discontinue the habit’2 and move to Hagley Park.
Hagley Park in Christchurch has served a similar role to Auckland’s Domain. An area of around 200 hectares on the western fringe of the central city was reserved in 1850 as part of the town plan. Two large avenues soon divided it into North and South Hagley Park, with Little Hagley Park on the northern tip.
Over time the land was transformed from swamps, sandhills and shingle beds dotted with tussock to a park made up of open spaces, woodlands and recreational facilities, mainly sports grounds.
Other early green spaces in Christchurch include Latimer, Cranmer and Victoria squares, and the central city riverbanks, which were planted and tended from the 1890s.
Like the major centres, many of New Zealand’s smaller settlements reserved land for green spaces early on. It seems that no self-respecting small town or city went for long without acquiring a public park of some sort.
Queen Elizabeth Park in Masterton was reserved when the town was first surveyed in 1854. Like many such reserves, it was grazed for a number of years before becoming an official public park in 1875. Originally known as Masterton Park, its name was changed in 1952 to commemorate the accession of Queen Elizabeth II.
In 2007, New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park beat Palmerston North’s Square to win the top ‘Mayfair’ slot on the updated New Zealand version of the board game Monopoly. The winner was decided by popular vote.
New Plymouth’s 1841 city plan provided for a town belt, but the land was then allocated to settlers for farms. Conflict with Māori was brewing over land, and the governor limited the expansion of European settlement to areas close to the town. The belt was too valuable a resource to remain untouched.
Pukekura Park was created in 1875, when conflict over land had largely ceased. By this time, most of the site’s trees had been felled and it was covered with gorse and ferns. Over time, however, the 52-hectare park has become lush and tree-filled. It is home to the annual Festival of Lights, and the adjacent Brooklands Bowl hosts the annual WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival.
The Nelson City Council uses hundreds of sheep and cattle to keep the grass down on its parks and reserves. The ‘four-legged mowers’1 also control pest plants such as old man’s beard, broom and ragwort, so chemical sprays are not needed.
The Queenstown Gardens, now a tree-filled park on a peninsula in Lake Wakatipu, became a public reserve in 1866, three years after the township sprang up during the Otago gold rush. Exotic trees such as English oaks and Australian eucalyptus were planted there from 1866. Unlike most city parks, the reserve has been owned and managed by various government departments for most of its life. In the 2000s, the land was owned by the Department of Conservation but managed by the Queenstown Lakes District Council.
When Invercargill was formed in 1857, 80 hectares of bush was set aside for a public park. For a number of years the reserve, now known as Queen’s Park, was leased for grazing, and the trees were cut down and grass sown in their place. In 1911 the Invercargill and Suburban Beautifying Society lobbied for – and soon got – improvements to the park.
As cities grew and suburbs developed, green spaces followed. City dwellers began to have more leisure time, so open spaces for outdoor recreation became increasingly important. The 20th century saw local councils taking an active approach to the development of new urban parks. More parks appeared in central areas, while suburban parks popped up in the newer parts of town. Suburban parks are now dotted through all New Zealand cities and are an important part of the local landscape, providing space for amenities such as sports fields and children’s playgrounds.
Band rotundas were built in many parks in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and brass-band performances often accompanied a Sunday stroll through the park. Today, musical events such as Opera in the Park in Nelson, or Summer City concerts in Wellington’s Botanic Garden, bring large crowds to urban green spaces.
In Auckland, the number of green spaces increased significantly from the early 20th century. In the first few decades a number of sports fields, such as Victoria Park in Freemans Bay, were established, and land in the Waitākere Ranges was purchased for a reserve. In 1911 parks enthusiast Christopher Parr was elected mayor. Under his tenure new parks appeared throughout the city, including Point Erin Park in Ponsonby, Myers Park off Queen Street, and Parnell Park (now Dove-Myer Robinson Park) in Parnell.
In the early 20th century, a number of parks were built or extended in Wellington suburbs, including Kelburn, Berhampore, Brooklyn and Kilbirnie.
From the 1970s, small ‘pocket parks’ began appearing in the central city. These spaces, such as Midland Park off Lambton Quay, are popular with workers at lunchtime and with apartment dwellers, as is the waterfront Waitangi Park, constructed in the early 2000s.
In Christchurch, the older inner-city suburbs were initially not well provided with parks, but this was later remedied. Parks were created from old homesteads in St Albans (Abberly Park in 1940), Opawa (Risingholme in 1943) and Fendalton (Mona Vale in 1968). As Christchurch expanded beyond this early core, new parks were created, such as Fendalton Park (1944), Burnside Park (1955) and Jellie Park (1960).
During the Second World War, United States army and marine forces were stationed in New Zealand. Some were housed in temporary barracks and camping grounds in city parks, such as Cornwall Park in Auckland, and Anderson and Central parks in Wellington. After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, a collection of historic cannons in Auckland’s Albert Park was buried in case the Japanese mistook them for modern weaponry and bombed the central city. They were not dug up until 1977.
Central government included green spaces in state housing schemes. In the Savage Crescent settlement in Palmerston North, built between 1938 and 1945, houses were situated around a large, oval park where children could play safely. Naenae in Lower Hutt, built in 1945, was well-supplied with parks and green ‘corridors’ which allowed children to walk to school without using roads.
These spaces did not always work. Like Savage Crescent, Talbot Park in Glen Innes, Auckland, was constructed around a central park. The park’s enclosed nature made it unsafe, and when the area was redeveloped by Housing New Zealand from 2006 to 2008, two new parks were created next to main roads.
A regional park is a large area of open space intended for the use of town and city dwellers in a particular region. Regional parks are larger than the city-based parks managed by city and district councils, and smaller than the vast national parks managed by the Department of Conservation. They accommodate a wide range of functions, including recreation, farming, forestry, water management, heritage and conservation.
From the late 1950s, councils recognised a need for large, open green spaces beyond city boundaries. Planners, particularly in Auckland and Wellington, were concerned that coastal and rural land would be subdivided and swallowed up by urban sprawl. Regional parks were established, often in areas that had some history of public recreational use.
Until 2002, only the Auckland and Wellington regional councils were authorised to own and manage regional parks. The Local Government Act 2002 changed this, and regional parks began to appear in other parts of the country.
Through its network of parks, the Auckland Regional Council is not only the region’s largest landowner, but also the largest farmer. It has 8,400 sheep and 950 cattle in its parks, most notably in Awhitu Regional Park, which is a working farm.
Auckland was the first area to develop a network of regional parks. When the Auckland Regional Authority (predecessor of the Auckland Regional Council) was formed in 1963, it borrowed money to buy land for this purpose.
The 556-hectare Centennial Memorial Park in the Waitākere Ranges, established in 1940 to mark Auckland city’s centenary, was transferred to the authority in 1964. This forms part of the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park, a 16,000-hectare reserve of native forest and coastline.
The authority’s first purchase was the Wenderholm estate on the east coast north of Auckland in 1965. Auckland now has 25 regional parks – 42,000 hectares in total. Four to five million people visit the parks annually, three-quarters of them Auckland residents.
Battle Hill Farm Forest Park, north of Wellington, was the site of a clash between Ngāti Toa and British troops in 1846. After a period of Māori resistance to New Zealand Company attempts to buy land, Crown forces besieged the hilltop pā of Ngāti Toa chief Te Rangihaeata for several days. Te Rangihaeata and his depleted forces escaped north. He spent the rest of his life at Poroutawhao, near Levin.
In the 1960s and 1970s, rapid population growth was predicted for the Wellington region. As in Auckland, a network of regional parks was planned to address potential problems.
Planning took many years, and Belmont Regional Park, Wellington’s first, opened in 1989. The region has four other regional parks and two forests, all managed by the Greater Wellington Regional Council. These cover 35,000 hectares and receive about 800,000 visitors per year. Half of the regional population visits the parks annually.
The first regional park outside Auckland and Wellington opened in the Bay of Plenty in 2004. The Papamoa Hills Regional Park, owned and managed by Environment Bay of Plenty, contains many Māori archaeological sites stretching back to the 14th century. Conservation of these sites is its main focus, but it also provides recreational opportunities, while other parts are run as a working farm.
In 2008, Canterbury contained two regional parks. The Waimakariri River Regional Park, based around the braided river and managed by Environment Canterbury, is opening in stages. It will accommodate recreation, conservation and flood protection activities, and when completed will be 11,000 hectares in size.
Environment Canterbury approved the establishment of Lake Tekapo Regional Park in 2008. The park, on the shores of the lake to the east of the village, was originally a 165-hectare soil conservation area, first planted with various exotic pine species in 1963.
Community gardens are plots of land gardened by a group of people, usually voluntarily. Some are divided into allotments while others are large areas gardened collectively. Because New Zealand has a long history of gardening in the backyard – the iconic quarter-acre section – community gardens only appeared in numbers in the late 20th century, as private gardens shrank in size or disappeared.
The Hundertwasser toilet block in Kawakawa features one of New Zealand’s first roof gardens. Designed by renowned architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1998, the building is topped by a grassed roof with a thriving tree in the middle. It lays claim to being the country’s most photographed public toilet.
Roof gardens are another way of creating more green spaces in cities. They are made by building beds and filling them with soil, or simply by placing containers and pots on the roof.
Green roofs, where plants are grown directly on a specially prepared rooftop, were starting to appear in New Zealand in the 2000s. Recent green roofs include the engineering building at the University of Auckland and the Waitākere Central Civic Centre.
Wildlife sanctuaries aim to protect and re-introduce native plants and animals and to try and eradicate pests. They also give people the chance to take part in sanctuary activities.
The world’s first urban wildlife sanctuary, the only one in New Zealand, is Zealandia, formerly the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, in Wellington.
Other wildlife sanctuaries near New Zealand cities include:
Community involvement in the guardianship of New Zealand cities’ green spaces began in the late 19th century. Different groups have come and gone, but a tradition of guardianship has endured.
As well as planting trees and lobbying to preserve native bush, the Wellington Scenery Preservation Society busied itself with more obscure beautification projects. In 1905 the society took issue with ‘the eyesore of advertising notices on rocks and fences in public reserves’.1 However they failed to rid the city of this menace.
The Dunedin and Suburban Reserves Conservation Society (now the Dunedin Amenities Society) is New Zealand’s longest-running conservation group. Started by lawyer and conservationist Alexander Bathgate in 1888, this group is credited with transforming Dunedin’s scruffy open spaces into tidy parks planted in trees and shrubs, along with many other activities. The society was still active in 2010.
Scenery preservation societies were among the earliest groups with an interest in protecting urban green spaces. Starting in the 1880s and increasing in popularity in the 1890s, they were formed in Auckland, Taranaki, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin. They were concerned with preserving native bush and beautifying cities by planting on bare land, usually council reserves. In some cases they successfully lobbied for the creation of new reserves, such as Kennedy’s Bush in the Port Hills of Christchurch. By the 1920s most had disbanded.
Beautifying societies, also active from the late 19th century, but much longer-lived, carried out similar voluntary work. The Christchurch Beautifying Association started in 1897 and was still active in 2010.
The Trelissick Park/Ngāio Gorge Working Group in Wellington has a novel approach to involving the community in restoring the park. Under the ‘Adopt-a-Spot’ scheme, participants have their own area to look after. Spots are planted with native species approved by the group and supplied by the Wellington City Council.
In the 2000s, many green spaces in New Zealand cities were looked after and protected by voluntary community groups, such as friends’ groups or protection societies, as well as by councils and management boards. They undertook a range of activities such as tree planting, pest and weed management, guided tours, and report and submission writing. These groups acted as watchdogs, keeping an eye on how councils managed green spaces.
Many councils ran volunteer programmes, allowing the community to play an active role in the protection and care of green spaces. The work was usually hands-on – mostly planting, weeding and cleaning up.
Auckland Regional Council. Regional parks management plan. Auckland: Auckland Regional Council, 2008.
Christchurch City Council. Draft Hagley Park management plan. Christchurch: Christchurch City Council, 2006.
Cook, Walter. ‘Wellington’s town belt – a people’s park and a heritage for everyone. The 1991 Ian Galloway Memorial Lecture.’ Horticulture in New Zealand 2, no. 2 (Winter 1991): 15–18.
Hargreaves, R. P. ‘Urban open spaces in Victorian New Zealand.’ In L. D. B. Hennan and G. W. Kearsley, eds. Man, environment and planning: essays in honour of Ronald Lister. Dunedin: University of Otago, Dept. of Geography, 1981.
Strongman, Thelma. City beautiful: the first 100 years of the Christchurch Beautifying Association. Christchurch: Clerestory, 1999.
Tritenbach, Paul. Botanic gardens and parks in New Zealand: an illustrated record. Auckland: Excellence Press, 1987.
Information on the many parks in Auckland city and region.
A website about Wellington’s town belt.
A website aimed at people managing biodiversity sanctuaries.
Information about the history of scenery preservation laws and practice, on NZHistory.net.
Information about community gardens in Wellington, contact details and information for getting involved.