Story: City public spaces

Page 3. Parks and gardens

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The early surveyors who laid out the streets for New Zealand’s four main centres were conscious of the need to provide open public spaces for future parks and gardens. In Christchurch, Hagley Park was included in the first town plan as a large public space to the west of the town centre. In the 2000s it remains the country’s largest inner-city park (165 hectares). Auckland’s Domain (75 hectares) comes a distant second.

These public spaces were often used as sports grounds in the 19th century – for cricket in the summer and rugby in the winter. Some were used for horse racing, which is why Hastings has its racecourse so close to the town centre.

Wellington and Dunedin were encircled by green public reserves known as town belts.

Botanical gardens

Gardens were part of the Arcadian vision brought to New Zealand by British settlers eager to make a fresh start in a new land. They were keen to avoid the pollution and overcrowding of Britain’s industrial cities.

As early as 1855 government surveyor Alfred Domett set aside 7.3 hectares in Napier for a future botanical garden. However, the first such gardens to be established in New Zealand were in Dunedin and Christchurch in 1863. Botanical gardens were closely associated with the 19th-century acclimatisation movement, which encouraged the introduction of European plants, birds, animals and fish to the colony.

Parks or heritage?

During the 1980s there were battles between heritage and green-space advocates in central Wellington. The green brigade had the first win when it convinced the city council to raze Lambton’s Quay’s historic Midland Hotel for an inner-city park – Midland Park. The heritage brigade fought back, defeating a proposal to demolish the historic Bank of New Zealand head office for another park further along the quay. A truce was called and energies were redirected to creating more green space on the city’s waterfront.

City parks

By 1900 New Zealand was much influenced by the ‘city beautiful’ movement, which promoted parks and gardens as recreation spaces for jaded office and factory workers. Parks were spoken of as the lungs of cities – places of retreat away from city pollutants.

Municipal authorities began to spend more on maintaining lawns, flower beds, ponds, fountains, paths and seating. Tourism encouraged beautification at particular sites, for example the Government Gardens at Rotorua.

Pigeon Park dissenters

Some parks became places of protest and dissent. Wellington’s Pigeon Park (now Te Aro Park) was a popular spot for soapbox orators. In 1941 pacifist Archibald Barrington was arrested and imprisoned after speaking out against the Second World War in the park. It has also long been a place where the city’s homeless gather and drink, periodically sparking debate about ‘suitable’ uses of public space.

Memorial parks

Parks became favoured sites for war memorials and statues of local dignitaries. Auckland’s Domain provides a magnificent setting for its cenotaph and War Memorial Museum.

Smaller towns such as Stratford and Greymouth erected memorial gates at the entrances to parks. Hamilton has Memorial Gardens and Soldiers’ Memorial Park on the east bank of the Waikato River. Large crowds gather at these memorials every Anzac Day.


Brass bands were popular in New Zealand from earliest settlement, and many parks built band rotundas for weekend or holiday concerts. Sound shells (covered stages facing a lawn or amphitheatre) served a similar purpose.

Wellington’s sound shell in the Botanic Gardens is the hub of the Summer City programme of outdoor concerts. Such events grew more popular in the 1990s as a way of bringing citizens together and fostering a sense of community. Christmas in the Park is held annually in the Auckland Domain and attracts tens of thousands of people. Nelson’s New Year Jazzfest features concerts at various public parks around the city and region.

Cemeteries and churches

In the 2000s cemeteries are often overlooked as important public spaces. In Victorian and Edwardian times Sunday afternoons used to be set aside for families to visit the cemetery to remember lost loved ones and the pioneering generation.

Churches and their grounds are often open to the public as places of retreat, rest and recreation.

How to cite this page:

Geoffrey Rice, 'City public spaces - Parks and gardens', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2024)

Story by Geoffrey Rice, published 11 Mar 2010