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City planning

by Ben Schrader

New Zealand’s earliest towns were planned as model settlements, but ad hoc building meant disease-ridden slums developed. Town planning focused on clean water and sewerage. In the early 2000s planning was more concerned with the environment and creating spaces which people enjoyed inhabiting.

Early settlement planning

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.

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

Town planning emerges

Planning retreat

The attention to planning that characterised the first phases of settlement fell away as towns became larger, and laissez-faire (free-market) ideas became fashionable. Planning and regulations were thought to inhibit private enterprise and were avoided unless absolutely necessary.

The order of the grid plan was compromised as landowners subdivided their properties and built narrow streets and lanes. Inner-city houses were built cheek by jowl, and land uses were mixed – houses could be next to noxious workshops and factories. Household waste either festered in backyard piles or was thrown into streets and drains, encouraging vermin, and polluted streams and drinking water. High death rates from bacterial diseases like typhoid resulted.

Public health movement

While many accepted outbreaks of disease as a facet of city life, from the mid-1870s local boards of health challenged this thinking. In Christchurch the board banned cesspits and contracted scavengers to collect night-soil (human waste) from domestic pan closets. Other cities followed suit. Alongside the construction of water and sewerage networks, the initiative cut mortality rates from bacterial diseases. The improvement in public health highlighted how planning and intervention could improve the quality of city life, giving encouragement to other urban reformers.


The garden-city movement was characterised by environmentalism – the idea that human behaviour was shaped by physical environments, and mean streets created mean people. By placing people in well-designed surroundings, environmentalists believed, it was possible to improve behaviours. It became a core principle of planning, and while belief in it waned over time, the idea that good design and planning can enhance city life did not.

Garden cities

Reformers included the garden-city and town-planning movement. This arose in Britain in the 1890s in response to the squalid conditions in industrial cities. The movement feared these cities were creating a degenerate working population and would cause national decline. The solution was to remove people from metropolitan areas and resettle them in suburban-like garden cities. In such settlements land uses would be zoned and populations restricted to 30,000. The nuclear family would be the main social unit and local community centres would facilitate public life. Not only would former inner-city dwellers’ health improve in garden cities, they might also adopt middle-class values.

The Letchworth model

Letchworth was the first garden city, built outside London in 1903. Spurning the grid plan, its streets followed the topography, and varied in width to accommodate different traffic densities. Low-density housing was set in park-like surroundings, and cul-de-sacs were introduced to encourage social interaction. While Letchworth was successful, it did not create a rush for more such cities. The garden-city advocates recast themselves as a wider town-planning movement with the ambition of reforming existing cities from within.

Wellington’s slum

By the early 20th century conditions in inner-city residential districts were reported as slum-like. A 1903 survey of 300 inner-city Wellington houses found over half were in an unsatisfactory state; many were ‘damp, dilapidated … [and] infested with vermin’, and one-fifth were too overcrowded ‘to allow for conditions of decency and health’.1 For reformers, such conditions highlighted the pressing need for urban renewal and town planning.

New Zealand movement

A New Zealand garden-city and town-planning movement arose in the early 1900s. It proclaimed local cities were becoming afflicted with the same problems as their British counterparts and called for similar solutions. In 1911 local journalist Charles Reade toured New Zealand to expose its slums and promote town planning. His lectures drew large crowds and encouraged government minister George Fowlds to introduce a town-planning bill to Parliament. But municipalities thought it would undermine their power and lobbied to block it. Not discouraged, Reade toured again in 1914, this time with British expert William Davidge. They explained that the main purpose of town planning was the creation of healthy towns and this could be realised through practices like land-use zoning, lower housing densities and different street widths. The tour was a great success and led to the creation of local town-planning associations.

  1. ‘Report of the Wellington City Council Committee of Enquiry into the Poorer Classes,’ 1903, Bristow file, Wellington City Archives. Back

Planning between the world wars

Town-planning conference

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.

Garden suburbs

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

‘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.

Safer cities


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.


New Napier

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.

  1. Official volume of the proceedings of the Town Planning Conference held in Wellington. Wellington: New Zealand Government, 1919, p. 35. Back
  2. Official volume of the proceedings of the Town Planning Conference held in Wellington, p. 38. Back
  3. Evan Rogerson, ‘Cosy homes multiply: A study of suburban expansion in western Auckland, 1918–31.’ MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1976, p. 176. Back

Suburbs and satellite cities

State housing

The environmentalist belief that town planning could improve the quality of city life was widely accepted after 1945. This was demonstrated in the construction of new state-housing suburbs in the main cities. The Hutt Valley scheme was the most ambitious and involved the construction of three suburbs – Epuni, Naenae and Taita – along garden-city principles. Streets were curvilinear to follow the topography and reduce monotony, there were ample reserves and houses were mainly single dwellings. The nuclear family was the main social unit and community centres were built to be the hub of social life. These were not as successful as the planners had hoped; people preferred to socialise with neighbours or at home.

Town and Country Planning Act

By the early 1950s only 37 town-planning schemes had been completed under the 1926 Act; Dannevirke Borough Council was the first, in 1936. The slow pace, and growing recognition that rural areas would benefit from planning, led to the Town and Country Planning Act 1953. It required all councils to zone compatible land uses through district schemes so activities could be regulated. Central government would assist in the creation of schemes and oversee them.

Suburban sprawl

A pressing issue confronting planners was suburban sprawl. Councils had encouraged sprawl by rezoning rural land for urban use – providing windfall profits to landowners. But planners argued that the continued loss of productive rural land, and the escalating cost of providing infrastructure to an ever-expanding suburban frontier, made the practice unsustainable.

Cult of the quarter-acre

In 1955 geography professor Kenneth Cumberland condemned suburban sprawl and the ‘cult of the quarter-acre’ for creating slums of different kinds at both the periphery and centre of cities. ‘We take people further from their work and centres of amusement of cultural activities and recreational activities, and wonder at the waste of time and money in travel, at the congestion on roads, and at the mounting cost of public transport,’ he said.1

One solution was to ring-fence cities with a green belt – similar to the New Zealand Company town belts – with development confined to areas within or beyond the belt. The 1949 Auckland Development Plan adopted this measure, although a surging suburban tide soon breached the belt. Christchurch followed a decade later with its own green belt. Another solution was to encourage denser settlement. In 1947 a group of Wellington architectural students suggested razing Te Aro and rebuilding it with high-rise apartments and other functionally arranged buildings. Similarly in 1950 the Auckland City Council proposed replacing the slum-like housing of Freemans Bay with low-rise apartments and town houses. The Wellington plan was deemed too radical, and only a fraction of the Auckland scheme came to pass.

Councils more often used planning tools to effect piecemeal change. Rezoning inner-city residential districts for commercial or industrial use encouraged city residents to relocate to suburbs. The widening of streets became opportunities to demolish decayed buildings and houses.

Satellite cities

Another response to suburban sprawl was satellite cities. These aimed to decentralise urban growth by building new settlements beyond the parent city, linked to it by road and rail networks. Porirua, north of Wellington, was the only planned satellite city. Designed for a population of 70,000, Porirua was based on garden-city principles and included new suburbs, a town centre, an industrial zone and expanses of parkland. It was meant to contain a balance of state and private housing, but demand for state housing meant resources were directed to meet that need first, delaying private housing. A satellite city for Christchurch at Rolleston fell by the wayside.

Manukau city

Auckland’s new cities were formed when urban settlements reached city size – at least 20,000 people. While these were not planned as satellite cities, they performed a similar function in decentralising population and business. Manukau city was formed by the 1965 amalgamation of Manukau borough and Manukau county. In 1976 a new Manukau city centre opened near the industrial district at Wiri. Manukau city was initially physically distinct from Auckland, but suburban sprawl soon linked the two cities.

The focus on housing provision also meant the social infrastructure – churches, sporting facilities, public transport, kindergartens and community centres – lagged behind. This led critics to slam government planners for creating dysfunctional communities. Even so, a 1966 social survey found most Porirua East residents were happy with their homes and communities.

Hydro towns

The hydro construction towns of the mid-1940s to the late 1970s were also based on garden-city planning. They were typically laid out around a central shopping centre, with curvilinear streets, single-unit housing and expansive parklands.

  1. Kenneth Cumberland, ‘Living in New Zealand cities.’ Journal of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (June 1955), p. 96. Back

From motorways to the Resource Management Act


By the early 1950s continued urban growth and the rising number of private cars had created chronic congestion in city centres and along arterial streets. In Auckland planners first suggested building suburban railways – as existed in Wellington – to relieve the problem. But in 1955 they decided Auckland’s low population density required a road-based solution. Construction soon began on a master plan of motorways across the city. The linchpin of the system was the harbour bridge, which from 1959 linked the isthmus with the North Shore.

By then all the main cities wanted motorways. Christchurch’s 1962 Master Transportation Plan included provision for northern and southern motorways, and another through Hagley Park – later stopped by protest. Wellington’s motorway was to gracefully wend its way across the city to the airport. It required cutting a path through the city’s oldest suburb and cemetery. As colonial cottages were bulldozed and early citizens disinterred, the popular idea that motorways were progressive rang hollow to many. In the end the motorway proceeded only as far as Te Aro.

Residential E

Public outrage over the destruction of parts of Thorndon for the motorway led the Wellington City Council to introduce a District Scheme change, giving greater protection to what was left. Called the Residential E Zone, and adopted in 1976, it was New Zealand’s first conservation area. Other councils followed Wellington’s lead.

Protest over motorway construction marked a turning point in public perceptions of planning. Critics claimed that in their quest to make cities more rational and efficient, planners had left people out of their plans and deadened city life.

Urban renewal

But inner-city life was not snuffed out altogether. The destruction of old neighbourhoods by motorways drew attention to that which remained. From the 1970s young, middle-class couples began buying the former slum houses and flats and refurbishing them as homes. Encouraging the process was the 1973 oil shock, which raised petrol prices and suburban commuting costs. The government also helped through housing improvement loans. While urban renewal (or gentrification) certainly gave new life to these historic areas it also displaced the poor who had formerly resided there. Many found new homes in outer suburbs.

Stupid planners

Among planners’ fiercest critics was architect Ian Athfield. In 1987 he proclaimed: ‘Planners and local authorities are stupid. Absolutely stupid! They have these rules and they’re not worth a tin of s---. They’re rules for rules’ sake. They don’t have any validity. They’re changed all the time. So the clever and competent in the [architectural] profession are the ones that know the rules instead of being clever and competent architectural designers.’1

New Act

In 1977 a new Town and Country Planning Act removed the overseeing role of central government in the preparation and management of district schemes. Henceforth councils were responsible for their own schemes, with a Planning Tribunal settling disputes. The change signaled a retreat from the interventionist approach that had characterised city planning since the 1930s Labour government.


Further change came with another Labour government in 1984. It believed planning’s matrix of rules and regulations – designed to protect the public interest – had weakened private property rights and hindered economic growth. By this time planning controlled nearly every aspect of city life, including:

  • where people could live and work
  • the height and shape of new buildings
  • building densities
  • the types of activities permitted on properties
  • the degree to which owners could modify properties.

Critics now argued planning was too bureaucratic. Architects complained that rules governing the bulk and height of buildings were so prescriptive that the nature of a building was predetermined before pencil was put to paper. Others stated that regulations preventing people working from home or opening street cafés were stifling city life. The government agreed and moved to deregulate planning and bolster private property rights.

Resource Management Act

In 1991 the Town and Country Planning Act was superseded by the Resource Management Act (RMA). It required councils to prepare new district plans to manage land use in an environmentally sustainable way. The ethos of the act was more free-market than regulatory. As long as there was no environmental harm, people should be largely free to build as they like. An Environment Court replaced the Planning Tribunal.

  1. Brett Riley, ‘Bucking the bureaucrats,’ Listener, 24 October 1987, p. 63. Back

Planning renaissance

Unplanned growth

By the late 20th century the effects of a less regulated planning regime were evident. Liberalisation of liquor licensing laws and zoning regulations had encouraged the growth of a vibrant urban café culture and a return to inner-city living – a trend apartment developers encouraged.

But other reforms were more detrimental. Economic deregulation in the mid-1980s had created a commercial building boom in city centres. Ornate and much-loved historic buildings were razed and replaced with austere skyscrapers that won few friends. In Christchurch the old green belt had been breached by a stampede of 4-hectare lifestyle blocks which formed a new belt around the city. The city core was ringed by large malls and business parks, starving the centre of people and workers. In Auckland continued suburban sprawl and low investment in public transport had created even more congestion on streets and motorways. The need for a more coordinated approach to city planning and growth was apparent.

Urban design

One response was the emergence of urban design. It looked past land-use zoning and the erection of single buildings to consider the physical arrangement, appearance and functioning of cities: how a place worked, looked and felt. This meant building public places that people used, valued and felt good in. Urban designers wanted to create cities that were:

  • environmentally sustainable
  • economically and culturally innovative
  • accessible and inclusive
  • sensitive to their heritage and sense of place.

Underpinning the approach was the environmentalist assumption that good urban design could improve the experience and quality of city life.

Urban Design Protocol

The Urban Design Protocol was launched in 2005 by the Ministry for the Environment. Signatories included central and local government as well as private-sector organisations involved in city building. Its objective was to make towns and cities more economically and culturally successful through quality urban design.

Wellington led the way in urban design. In 1993 the city council established an urban design unit to oversee and manage city development. Successes like the revitalisation of the waterfront and the remaking of Courtenay Place as an entertainment district proved the value of the new approach. Other cities followed Wellington’s lead.

Urban growth strategies

The more coordinated approach also saw the creation of new regional or master plans. Auckland’s Regional Growth Strategy was adopted by all its councils in 1999 and set out a 50-year vision for managing growth. The population was projected to reach 2 million by 2036. The strategy adopted ideas the city’s planners had rejected half a century before. These included a stronger suburban train network and a more compact settlement pattern (urban consolidation) to inhibit sprawl. Corridors of medium- and high-density housing and apartments were proposed beside major transport routes.

Christchurch’s Urban Development Strategy released in 2007 also argued for more urban consolidation, especially in the central city and inner suburbs.

Greater community consultation

Disquiet about the lack public input into city planning led councils to introduce more open consultation processes where citizens could express their views – usually through submissions and committee meetings. Greater consultation with local Māori was also encouraged, although some iwi complained their voices were not sought early enough to be effectively heard. In 2009 there were signs that this was beginning to change as councils increasingly recognised city planning needed to reflect the growing cultural diversity of city life.

Sustainable towns

The renaissance of planning was also evident in new town developments. In 2009 this included a new town for 40,000 people at Flat Bush, South Auckland. While its plan showcased urban design principles, the legacy of garden-city planning was also evident. The town was set in a 45-square-kilometre network of parkland, bush and waterways, providing recreational space, encouraging wildlife and aiding storm-water management. Neighbourhood shops and facilities were to be built within walking distance of homes to reduce car reliance. A central aim was to create a healthy community where ‘people feel a sense of place and well-being’.1

Similar ideas informed another new town development, Pegasus, near Christchurch.

  1. Manukau City Council, ‘Flat Bush: an overview’ (last accessed 3 November 2009). Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'City planning', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010, updated 26 o Māehe 2015