Napier was Hawke’s Bay’s leading town throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. It was the region’s administrative centre and housed its most economically vital piece of infrastructure – the main port. However, the value of goods exported from the port fell from the 1890s, and, until the early 20th century, so did its population. Napier was built on a sandy spit of land surrounded by water, which also hindered expansion and growth, despite some land reclamation.
By contrast, the nearby town of Hastings grew steadily into the 20th century. It was supported by profitable industries such as meat processing and horticulture, and surrounded by flat land suitable for urban expansion.
The growth of Hastings, and its close proximity to Napier, created a sense of rivalry between the two towns. By the 1920s Hastings was the main shopping centre of the region. Though both were subject to fluctuating economic fortunes during this decade, Hastings seemed to be prospering ahead of Napier. The 1931 earthquake changed this.
1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck on 3 February 1931 was the most significant event in the region’s modern history. For people who lived through it, it became a boundary marker – life was divided into before and after the ‘quake’.
Its effect was complex. At least 256 people died, and most of central Napier and parts of other towns (mainly Hastings) were destroyed. However, the earthquake raised over 2,000 hectares of land around the Ahuriri Lagoon in Napier, providing vital room for the previously water-bound town to grow. New industry, housing and an airport were built on reclaimed land, which prevented Hastings from overtaking its rival.
The twin cities
Napier achieved city status (20,000 people) in 1950, followed by Hastings in 1956. Both had housing shortages after the Second World War and new suburbs, which included state (public) housing, were built.
In the 1960s and 1970s the two cities competed to secure a polytechnic (Napier won when it was built in nearby Taradale) and disagreed over local government reform, which Napier managed to control in its favour. Though Hastings was the regional centre of the agricultural and horticultural industries, and the favoured location of head offices by this period, Napier had more government department offices and retained a political edge.
In 1999 a proposal to merge the cities was mooted. It was supported by 67.1% of Hastings district voters but only 25.3% of Napier voters. Napier residents were reluctant to take on Hastings, with its large rural hinterland.
At times, the cities worked together on certain initiatives, most notably Hawke’s Bay Incorporated, the regional economic development agency.