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Streets and lighting

by Adrian Humphris

Blundering along streets after dark in the 19th century, pedestrians risked banging into a cow or falling into open sewers. Streets were quagmires in winter and swirled with dust in the summer. In the early 2000s people walked on brightly lit pavements sheltered from all weathers.

Building and funding streets

First streets

Forming and constructing streets in early towns was largely left to the residents. With no local government to do the work, people had to either carry out the work themselves or hire labour through subscriptions raised from householders, sometimes helped by government grants. Streets were often little more than dirt tracks, which became dust bowls in summer and quagmires in winter. Such was the condition of Dunedin’s streets that it was nicknamed ‘Mud-edin’. Auckland’s Queen Street was bisected by the Ligar Canal (Te Wai Horotou), effectively an open sewer, and a hazard for late-night revellers, until it was covered over in the 1860s.

Provincial and local government

The introduction of provincial government in 1853 provided for town and roads boards throughout New Zealand, each able to levy rates to finance the construction and maintenance of streets. Grants in aid emerged as the standard model, where residents raised half the funds and the provincial government met the rest of the cost. The system required volunteers going door-to-door to solicit funds, and then a call for tenders. Construction costs could be kept low through the use of prison labour, but even so, the system favoured wealthier districts, and poorer areas often missed out altogether.

Footpaths by halves

In 1893 the Australian writer Henry Lawson visited Wellington: ‘Another thing that strikes a new chum is the way the footpaths are half-paved. There are flags from the kerb to a line running along the centre of the path, and the rest is gravel. The stranger is told that the Council agreed to pave one half, if the ratepayers did the other. The city fathers fulfilled their part of the contract, but the respected citizens didn’t come up to time: they declined to shell out. They walked on the paved half and chuckled.’1

By 1875 there were 314 boards administering streets in their local districts, with the provincial councils responsible for main roads between settlements. Unfortunately, the boards were hampered by a shortage of funds, and often achieved little. Borough and city councils were formed from the 1860s onwards, and they took over the functions of the boards in their areas.

Later developments

During the 20th century street building and maintenance was funded through council rates and central government subsidies. The inequity of the grants-in-aid system of funding was realised and it was scrapped, leading to a significant improvement in the condition of streets in poorer districts.

In 2008 central government funding was allocated through the New Zealand Transport Agency. Local authorities were still responsible for the planning and maintenance of streets. This was done through district plans prepared under the Resource Management Act 1991. Developers of new subdivisions built new streets, and paid a development contribution to the local authority to maintain them as part of their resource consent. Sometimes thoroughfares in new developments remained in private hands and were maintained by the owners.

  1. Fair Play 1, no. 9 (30 December 1893), p. 22. Back

Street standards and planning

Most New Zealand towns were first laid out in a grid plan. The usual pattern was for shops and houses to develop along a principal street or two, with new streets and buildings gradually filling in the grid as the population grew. The physical size of 19th-century towns was restricted by walking distances. New growth was generally accommodated through denser settlement rather than outward expansion. This encouraged the subdivision of land into smaller and smaller allotments, often leading to the creation of narrow streets and lanes.

World’s steepest straight street


The rigidity of the grid – which took no account of the lay of the land – led to the creation of Dunedin’s Baldwin Street. With a grade of 35˚ (1:2.86), it is recognised as the steepest street in the world. Each summer it is the site of the ‘Baldwin Street Gutbuster’, in which athletes try to run from the bottom to the top and back again. The event attracts up to 1,000 competitors.


Regulating streets

The Municipal Corporations Act 1867 defined the required widths of streets. The borough engineer’s approval was required before street construction could go ahead. If developers did not complete the work to standard, streets would not be taken over and maintained by the council. Similar requirements were introduced for county councils and roads boards under the Public Works Act 1876.

These requirements were initially difficult to enforce. Land developers often dominated councils or pressured councillors not to adhere strictly to standards. New streets were named terraces or crescents to avoid standard road widths, and councillors with land interests approved their own substandard streets. A revised Municipal Corporations Act in 1900 enforced regulations more strictly, evident in suburban areas developed after the Act. Planning of new subdivisions was more thorough, with wider and better street layouts.

Trams and footpaths

The electrification of tramways also affected street construction. Trams needed wide streets to run along. Where routes ran through existing streets they often had to be widened, and corner splays created to facilitate turning. The rapid growth in the number of motor vehicles in the 1920s saw pedestrians sidelined to footpaths, and streets given over to vehicle traffic. This led to the reconstruction of streets to allow better visibility at intersections. Pedestrian crossings and traffic lights were also introduced to discourage jaywalking and to control traffic flows.

Seeing red


Wellington’s first traffic lights were introduced at the main city intersections in 1931. Their aim was to speed up traffic flows, but at first they had the opposite effect. Only one tram could get through before the lights changed, causing traffic to back up and tempers to fray. Traffic engineers soon re-phased the lights so two trams could get through.


Town planning and motorways

Town planning requirements also shaped the layout and width of streets, particularly after the 1950s. Increasing congestion meant traffic flows had to be better managed, which involved identifying where different street widths were needed. Increasing traffic volumes led to the introduction of one-way street systems in the 1960s to relieve congestion – sometimes making navigation difficult for city visitors.

The transport planning initiative that had the biggest impact was the building of urban motorways through Auckland and Wellington in the 1960s and 1970s. Their aim was to relieve traffic congestion by diverting cross-city traffic away from the inner-city streets. However each project necessitated the destruction of some historic communities – areas of Newton and Grafton in Auckland, and Thorndon in Wellington. By the early 2000s central Auckland was almost entirely encircled or crossed by motorways.

National standards and practice

Central government had been involved in the development of standards for street construction since the establishment of the Main Highway Board in 1922, leading to the comprehensive Code of practice for the design for urban roading, published by the National Roads Board in 1969. The introduction of national standards led to consistency in the width, construction and layout of streets.

Street construction and surfaces

For a long time streets were either dirt or macadam – metal (small stones) laid and held together with clay cement. Grading or levelling was often limited, and some roads were crossed by streams or ran through swampy ground. Where possible, some improvements were carried out, such as bridges to cross streams. In winter streets were muddy and dangerous, often filled with slush composed of horse dung and grit. Auckland got a street sweeping machine as early as 1876, but most dung was still picked up with pans and brooms. In summer dust was a severe nuisance, and water carts had to be used to minimise it.

Early advances in street building

Forming, metalling, kerbing and channelling streets was the main focus in the late 19th century. The majority of streets constructed until the early 1900s were macadam, and were eminently suitable for horse-drawn vehicles.

Asphalt and wood-block paving were two other methods for forming streets. Wood-block paving was slightly cheaper as it did not require the same skill to lay and repair as asphalt. It could be installed by local authorities, whereas asphalt often had to be laid by skilled contractors. Both materials were an improvement over macadam for strength and durability. Although many cities began to use these new methods, the majority of streets in cities and towns up to the 1920s remained macadam.

Street terror

Wellington got its first steam-driven road roller in 1887. It was so noisy and hard to stop that a roadman with a red flag was required to walk 27 metres in front of it to warn other traffic. But the lumbering machine startled a tramcar horse, which took fright, pulling its car about 3 metres off the rails. The vehicle was thenceforth restricted to night-time use.

New surfaces

With the advent and rapid growth of motor traffic by the 1920s many centres were forced to look for some more permanent form of road surfacing. The need was for dust-free streets, capable of providing a smooth ride at far higher speeds than a horse-drawn vehicle could travel. Stronger road surfaces were also required to reduce the damage done by faster, heavier vehicles.

The most common material adopted was asphalt or bitumen, used widely from the 1920s. It was strong, and quieter for traffic than wood blocks or macadam. It also eliminated the dust nuisance. Over the next decade many local authorities raised loans and carried out programmes for repaving the principal streets in cities.

Paving projects that started in the 1920s slowed in the 1930s as a result of the economic depression. The depression also had an impact on street construction when work was created for the unemployed making new streets. Street works slowed again with the outbreak of the Second World War. With limited staff, funds and resources, most local authorities had to suspend paving programmes and limit street maintenance.

Major redevelopment

The 1950s saw a period of significant investment and upgrading of streets. Many centres faced a growing need to improve streets that had seen little maintenance since the late 1930s. New town-planning legislation led to the need for major street reconstruction in cities. Modern motorised machinery such as graders, asphalt layers and road rollers replaced horse-drawn equipment and increased street-building efficiency – although the shovel remained an essential tool. Motorised street sweepers and water tankers also became common for cleaning.

Better surfaces

Once this backlog of road construction and maintenance was met, attention turned to maintenance and the provision of high-quality surfacing. In 2009 asphalt was the material predominantly used on New Zealand streets. Research was looking to develop asphalt that was quieter to drive on, smoother and more durable, with increased skid resistance and less splash and spray in wet weather.

Street verandahs

New fashion

A feature that came to distinguish commercial streets of towns and cities was street verandahs – roofed footpaths in front of shops to provide shelter for pedestrians and goods. The structures were fixed to the front of buildings, and supported by pillars. Roofs were usually of corrugated iron or glass, the latter allowing greater light to footpaths. Initially few shops had them, but by the mid-1860s they had become fashionable, possibly because shopkeepers recognised their potential to attract custom in inclement weather.

Verandahs for all seasons

An Australian visiting Christchurch in 1885 was startled to discover the ‘shop verandahs are nearly all of glass, which tells of mild summers and dark winter days. In Melbourne we would be frizzled into cinders under them.’1

Not everyone welcomed them. Aesthetes complained about their higgledy-piggledy appearance, with some higher, wider or grander than others. There were also gaps in their coverage because most bank, public and office buildings excluded them. This meant rushing from one verandah to the next to avoid getting wet in rain showers. Some verandahs were shoddily built or poorly maintained: ‘colanders on a large scale’, quipped one critic.2 Pillars were also regularly hit by vehicular traffic, leaving unsightly dents or buckles that could weaken the whole structure. From the 1910s municipalities began to require the erection of cantilevered verandahs without pillar supports on new buildings.

Pedestrian godsend

By the early 20th century most city dwellers had embraced verandahs. In providing shelter from both freezing winter rain and blazing summer sun, they made it easier to window-shop and stop and converse. In Wellington – where umbrellas were (and are) no match for wind-blown rain – they enabled people to walk the principal streets without being drenched. Recognition of their utility led the city council in the 1980s to force owners of buildings without verandahs to build them. By 2009 the gaps outside banks and offices had been largely filled.

Verandah signs

Business owners used the space beneath verandahs to erect signs advertising their business and wares, both below the roof eaves and on footpaths. This, complained one Whanganui resident in 1905, created ‘a mass of confusion, one sign obscuring the next one’,3 making it hard to distinguish one shop from another. On the other hand, brightly lit and (later) neon signs enlivened streets, giving them a ‘big city’ feel. After a while most citizens learnt to quickly read the signs or ignore them altogether. Periodic policing by municipalities ensured footpath signs did not obstruct pedestrian traffic.

Street cafés

With the rise of street cafés in the 1990s verandahs were given a new use as a place for outdoor tables and seating. Some cafés used portable gas burners to keep customers warm during crisp evenings and winter days.

  1. Timaru Herald, 21 May 1885, p. 3. Back
  2. Evening Post, 20 July 1909, p. 3. Back
  3. Wanganui Herald, 22 August 1905, p. 7. Back

Street lighting

Early street lighting

For the first European settlers street lighting was almost non-existent, making travelling after dark hazardous unless guided by moonlight. There were few if any lights in public streets. Citizens regularly fell into streams and open sewers or banged into wandering stock and other obstacles. Lighting was limited to a few candle lanterns over the entrances to hotels, which produced only feeble, flickering light. Kerosene lamps were introduced from the 1860s in many cities, often placed beside bridges, drains and other night-time hazards. Though brighter than candle lamps, they were still dim. They were not used on many streets.

Gas lighting

The first system of street lighting to be installed in many towns and cities was gas street lighting. Gas lamps were in use in the main cities from the 1860s. By 1876 Christchurch boasted 152 gas lamps. Although far superior to previous lighting, their illumination and extent was still limited. In 1902 one commentator thought there were not enough gas lights in Auckland, though lighting was adequate on Queen Street, the main business street.1 Early systems required lamp lighters, although pilot lights were soon introduced, which lit the lamp when the gas was turned on centrally. Their use was also not continuous; the Wellington gas lights were ‘lighted on moonless nights only and then not later than twelve o’clock.’2

Early to bed

In 1897 a Hokitika resident wrote to the West Coast Times enquiring why the town’s lamps were not being lit during the summer holidays ‘when people are apt to be put out later than usual.’ The editor replied that the lights were not being lit because it was ‘scarcely dark till after nine’ and the lights were extinguished at eleven. ‘The City Fathers, being models of propriety, think all people, the lamplighter included, should be in their homes at the last hour named.’3

Electric lighting

The next significant change was replacement of gas with electricity. For many cities this transition carried significant costs. Christchurch debated the change for over a decade, but continued to use gas street lights until 1903, as the cost of changing was beyond its means. Lights were usually on from dusk to dawn, though some suburban areas extinguished them in the early morning. Electric lights were significantly brighter than gas lights. The first street lights were arc lamps. By 1912 incandescent lamps had been invented. They had a longer life and easier maintenance, and most councils began to use them.


Requirements for the brightness of street lights increased – as well as needing stronger and smoother roads, faster motor traffic required much brighter lighting. Experiments were carried out with new bulbs to increase brightness. They led to the introduction of sodium or mercury vapour lamps. These had the added advantage of using less power than the older bulb types.

From the 1950s fluorescent lights also began to be installed and used. In Wellington the city council called tenders in 1964 to replace 5,000 old lamps with modern fluorescent lights.

Fluorescent lighting produces a cool white light, which is very bright, and the lamps have a very long life. They were the predominant method of lighting used until the 1970s, when they began to be replaced by high-pressure sodium and metal halide lights.

In the early 2000s cut-off glass fittings were in use to minimise light spillage onto apartment buildings. These fittings also reduce light pollution, which limits views of the night sky in cities and towns.

Safer streets

Thugs have used the cover of darkness to attack unsuspecting victims since time immemorial. Recognition in the 1990s that many women were afraid to walk city streets at night led women’s groups to lobby for brighter street lighting. Many city councils responded by installing stronger lighting on principal streets and along alleys and lanes, banishing night-time shadows.

Greater efficiency

In 2009 the majority of street lights in New Zealand were high-pressure sodium lamps. There were over 330,000 street lights across the country, running for over 4,000 hours each per year, consuming some $18 million worth of electricity.

The focus in the early 2000s was on lighting that was cheaper and more energy-efficient. The New Zealand Efficient Lighting Strategy, released in 2008 by the Energy Commission, aimed to eliminate inefficient street lights. One option was to use light-emitting diode bulbs. While these were well-suited for traffic lights, the technology needed further advancement before they could be used for street lighting.

  1. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand (Auckland Provincial District), 1902, p. 116. Back
  2. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand (Wellington Provincial District), 1897, p. 274. Back
  3. West Coast Times, 30 December 1897, p. 4. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Adrian Humphris, 'Streets and lighting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 December 2023)

Story by Adrian Humphris, published 11 Mar 2010