Story: City planning

Page 1. Early settlement planning

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Planning has been a hallmark of New Zealand towns and cities since the beginning of colonial settlement in 1840.

New Zealand Company

The New Zealand Company settlements – including Wellington, New Plymouth and Nelson – were highly planned. The company’s founder, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, had a vision of a closely settled rural society serviced by towns and small cities. It would be class-based, with a squire-like, landed elite ruling over a compliant working class. To ensure a sufficient labour supply, land would be priced so workers had to save to buy property.

Vision unrealised

The company’s vision was never realised. Rural hinterlands were difficult to access and develop, and there were disputes with Māori over dubious land sales. Too few capitalists emigrated to provide sufficient paid work. This led to squatting as workers were forced to eke out a living from the land. With no hinterland to service, the fledgling towns stagnated. From the late 1840s pastoralism provided a viable economy based on wool, but shattered Wakefield’s closer-settlement hopes.

Martin’s borough

Some pastoralists assumed squire-like roles in their communities. John Martin was a successful Wellington businessman and owned large pastoral estates in southern Wairarapa. In 1879 he founded his own town, Martinborough. He laid it out in the shape of a Union Jack with streets radiating from a central square. It eventually grew to become a market town and, in the late 20th century, the hub of Wairarapa’s wine industry.

The early pastoralists grew very wealthy and powerful – and in this way became the landed elite that Wakefield had imagined. But Wakefield’s wish for a subservient working class never eventuated. New Zealand soon became known as a workers’ paradise, not least because it provided easy access to cheap land.

Land package

The physical planning of Wakefield’s settlements was more enduring. Land was sold as a package: 1 town acre (around 0.4 hectares) and 100 country acres. The towns were speculative ventures, and the potentially lucrative town acre enticed investors. Almost all town acres were subdivided as towns became cities – the three acres at Premier House (the Prime Minister’s official residence) are the last intact Wellington town acres.

The grid

All towns were laid out on a rectilinear or grid plan. This had a number of advantages:

  • it imposed instant order over the landscape
  • it was easy to subdivide – a rectangular plot could be cut exactly in two by drawing a line down the middle
  • it enabled air to flow freely along streets. This was seen as important for dispersing miasmas of air-borne diseases.

However the grid took little account of the lay of the land, which on hilly sites created steep streets and sudden street endings. It could also make the construction of streets expensive, especially when hills had to be cut to keep the street in line.

The grid had a degree of monotony, albeit relieved sometimes by diagonal streets, such as High Street in Christchurch.

Dingy and monotonous

The visitor ‘Hopeful’ was no fan of the grid. In 1887 she wrote that Christchurch ‘with the exception of just the centre near the cathedral, is squalid and very poor looking – long, long straight streets, without curve or bend, greet the eye which ever way you look.’1

Variation within a theme

The uniformity of the grid did not mean all towns’ plans were the same. Christchurch was laid about a square and Dunedin about an octagon. Auckland’s early plan featured a (London-styled) circus and public squares – none of which were built. Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin each had a town belt, a recreational reserve that circled the settlement. The Domain was set aside as Auckland’s main reserve. Wellington’s plan also set aside 10% of all land as Māori reserves. Some of these remain and are known as the Wellington Tenths.

Growth pattern

The grid shaped a town’s functions. Commerce was located at a grid’s centre or stretched along a main street to attract passing trade. This accounts for the very long main streets of some provincial towns. The grid would gradually be filled with new streets and buildings as populations grew. If a town continued to expand new rectilinear blocks would be added to the original plan.

Footnotes:
  1. Hopeful, ‘Taken in’: being a sketch of New Zealand life. Christchurch: Capper, 1974, p. 79 (originally published 1887). Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'City planning - Early settlement planning', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/city-planning/page-1 (accessed 21 November 2018)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010, updated 26 Mar 2015