A government-sponsored town-planning conference was held in Wellington in May 1919. Minister of Internal Affairs George Russell said it aimed to ‘avoid the mistakes of the mother-country [Britain] where slums created an environment where a healthy race cannot be reared.’1
One solution was to resettle city dwellers in the health-inducing countryside. Architect Samuel Hurst Seager suggested Letchworth-style towns be built to house them. The other solution was to use town planning to reform cities. People thought town planning would make towns and cities healthier and more socially stable. Revolution was slum-bred, minister Russell said, and not a product of people who had ‘happy homes and delightful gardens’.2 His government would promote suburban home ownership so workers had a stake in the country.
Seager’s plans for garden towns came to nought. More successful were garden suburbs. These took garden-city planning principles and applied them to suburban contexts. London’s Hampstead became a blueprint for other garden suburbs. In 1920 Seager won a commission to design a garden suburb on Durie Hill, Whanganui. The street plan, reserves, bowling green and croquet lawn were realised, but plans for a community hall – as the focus of social life – was not.
In 1925 another architect, Reginald Hammond, designed a garden suburb on contested Māori land at Ōrākei, Auckland. Wide avenues were planned along the site’s ridges (now Coates Avenue and Kupe Street). There was generous provision for parks, and space was set aside for a new university. The plan was only partly built. In 1928 a block of the land was sold and became the wealthy area of Paritai Drive. The rest of the land was later used for state housing.
By this time state provision of cheap mortgage credit had created a suburban housing boom. But while developers adopted garden suburb imagery, their schemes were lesser versions of the real thing.
Garden suburb spin
Developers adopted garden-suburb language to promote their schemes. Subdivisions that varied from the grid were ‘on the best lines of Modern Town Planning’.3 Unsaleable corner sections were ‘garden reserves’. A subdivision which had both curving roads and garden reserves was, ipso facto, a garden suburb.
Town Planning Act
In 1926 a Town Planning Act was finally passed. Its central provision was the requirement of municipalities to prepare a town-planning scheme, where land uses were functionally zoned, preventing the haphazard growth of towns. A statutory board would administer the act and vet schemes.
‘City beautiful’ planning sought to create grand civic and ceremonial spaces, in the manner of Washington DC and Canberra. In New Zealand these ideas were popular between the world wars, but no significant schemes were completed. Among those proposed was a 1920s plan to create a new civic centre beside the Auckland town hall. It comprised two imposing edifices, an administration building and an art gallery, fronting a large civic square. In Wellington a proposal to build a ceremonial tree-lined avenue from the National War Memorial to Courtenay Place for Anzac and other parades was also unrealised.
The Hawke’s Bay earthquake had national town-planning implications. In Wellington, the city council ordered the removal of dangerous ornamentation from buildings – including the town hall clock tower – and introduced a 31-metre building height limit.
In 1931 a large earthquake and fire destroyed central Napier. The disaster provided an opportunity to rebuild on modern lines. Financial constraints and a desire to reopen businesses meant town planning initiatives were restricted to street widening, the splaying of street corners, a few new streets and service lanes, and the placement of power and telephone cables underground. The decision to design new buildings in art deco and Spanish mission styles gave Napier an aesthetic harmony that other towns lacked. A new model garden suburb was also built on uplifted land at Marewa.