Park Planning in New Zealand: A Colonial History

New Zealand has a long colonial history, from the arrival of James Cook in 1769 to the nation finally gaining full independence from Britain in 1947. The origins of parks and green space in New Zealand are centered around colonial practices in the country during the 19th century (New Zealand was annexed by the British Empire in 1840). While the indigenous Māori had their own belief system, which was largely centered around man’s relationship with nature, British colonists built towns and cities according to values that they translated from their home context. For instance, the British tradition of gardening became central to colonial homes in New Zealand, not only as a way to reassert British culture but to offer an ecological buffer between settlers' homes and what many regarded as a forbidding natural landscape. In Jake Arthur’s analysis of Mary Bethell’s From a Garden in the Antipodes, the author suggests that gardening was taken up for aesthetic as well as political values. Arthur frames gardening as an expression of power and order, as settlers expressed dominion over the colonized land by manipulating and controlling what it produced. Despite its role as an expression of British hegemony, the garden also offered “an escape in its enclosure,” as settlers sought something familiar to insulate them from an otherwise unknown and possibly threatening environment (Arthur 29).
Beyond gardening, which remains an important tradition in New Zealand today, British settlers also imposed principles of urban planning which prioritized parks and other green space. This was, in large part, a response to the condition of London and other British cities during the mid-19th century. The settlers in New Zealand had witnessed the social and physical ramifications of industrialization run amuck in dense cities like their own, so city plans were designed to ensure green spaces that could prevent the kind of externalities which their home country was facing. Demand for parks increased as the New Zealand colonies developed and British transplants acquired more leisure time. This resulted in the accelerated development and diversification of green spaces, as planners introduced more active sources of recreation like sports fields
Auckland, N.Z. by George Treacy Stevens (1886). Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZ Map 374.

Despite settlers’ early trepidation regarding New Zealand’s landscape, the country was and still is incredibly biodiverse, and quickly became famous for its natural beauty. British settlers learned to capitalize on this, hailing the colony as the “Pacific’s Wonderland” (Duggins 102). Along with more traditional exports like cattle, New Zealand began supplying native species to gardens around the world, with a special emphasis on ferns, due in part to their “association with a fast-disappearing wilderness” (Duggins 102). The fern, along with other indigenous species, “became a symbol of pride” in New Zealand (Duggins 104). Furthermore, the production of fern albums- books of pressed and bound leaves, pods, and blooms- allowed these species to serve as a “tactile medium through which [outsiders could] intimately connect with the New Zealand landscape” (Duggins 105).
The long history in New Zealand of planned green spaces as well as the psychological and economic value of its many native species have created practices today that are centered both around recreation and preservation. However, the role of green space and parks in New Zealand’s cities is ultimately a colonial legacy, formed by European perceptions and motives.
As one might expect in a colonized nation, the indigenous perspective has been excluded from planning of green space in New Zealand. Importantly, and perhaps also expectedly, the Māori understanding of nature veers widely from the European approach. One example, which cannot begin to unpack the complexities of this issue but at least offers a concrete instance, is that of swamps. For the Māori, swamps “teemed with life and resources, providing sources of food and materials, besides serving as centres of communal activity” (Beattie 595). In contrast, British settlers imported Victorian ideas of health and cleanliness and viewed swamps as unpleasant landscapes which produced noxious smells that were, at the time, believed to cause sickness (Beattie 588). As colonization proceeded, swamps were drained and planted, “transformed” into parks with “open spaces, woodlands and recreational facilities."
It is important to note here one of the many instances of colonist hypocrisy, in specific reference to the use of and profit from the indigenous species which settlers so distrusted. While swamps were being drained and Māori tribes subjugated, local species were collected and developed into treatments of varying medical validity, which were “derived from this country’s native plants, often by drawing extensively on Maori knowledge systems” (Beattie 586).

An image of a team enjoying a practical assignment - nursery layout.
Te Whanagi Trust is a charity that focuses on educational and employment opportunities in ecological restoration. They have multiple locations across New Zealand.

Today, around eighty percent of New Zealand’s Māori population lives in cities, and yet many are living in urban areas that are disproportionately poor and lack access to nature. This has made it challenging for such communities to adapt to urban life while preserving their culture, since much of the Māori belief system is centered on connecting with nature. One specific concept, kaitiakatanga, describes “a way in which Māori manage the natural environment based on Māori worldviews” (Walker 2). Denied the opportunity to manage the environment in such a way, due to the Euro-centric planning approaches that have defined New Zealand cities and the removal of Māori tribes from their indigenous lands, urban Māori populations experience more difficulty maintaining “traditional relationships to the environment” (Walker 2). In their paper on the role of kaitiakatanga in contemporary Māori experiences in cities, Erana T. Walker, Priscilla M. Wehi, Nicola J. Nelson, Jaqueline R. Beggs and Hēmi Whaanga recommend the adoption of more Maōri principles in ecological restoration projects in New Zealand cities. The authors argue that this shift might allow urban space to act as a tool in promoting “the retention of cultural knowledge” as well as provide educational and practical resources to underserved Māori communities (Walker 2-3). With this more intercultural approach to improving the quality of and access to nature in New Zealand cities, green spaces may evolve to serve more communities more effectively. Despite the colonial legacy of New Zealand’s city parks, this approach signals one way that such spaces might adapt to a more equitable vision of nature in cities.

Works Cited

“A History of New Zealand 1769-1914.” RSS, nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/history-of-new-zealand-1769-1914#:~:text=By%20the%20time%20the%20first,New%20Zealand%2C%20in%20December%201642.

Arthur, Jake. “‘Fond human enclosures’: Gardening and belonging in Bethell’s From a Garden in the Antipodes,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (No. 35:1) 2017. Pages 28-49. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/90015304.

Beattie, James. “Colonial Geographies of Settlement: Vegetation, Towns, Disease and Well-Being in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1830s-1930s,” Environment and History (Vol. 14, No. 4) November 2008. Pages 583-610. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20723698.

“British colonists reach New Zealand,” HISTORY. Ed. history.com editors. Accessed 11 May 2019. Last updated January 21, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/british-colonists-reach-new-zealand.

Duggins, Molly. “‘The world’s fernery’: New Zealand, fern albums, and nineteenth-century fern fever,” from New Zealand’s empire (2016). Pages 102-123. Manchester University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1b349tv.13.

New Zealand Sovereignty: 1857, 1907, 1947, or 1987? - New Zealand Parliament, www.parliament.nz/en/pb/research-papers/document/00PLLawRP07041/new-zealand-sovereignty-1857-1907-1947-or-1987.

Pollock, Kerryn. “City parks and green spaces,” Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/city-parks-and-green-spaces. Accessed 12 May 2020.


Walker, Erana T.; Wehi, Pricilla M.; Nelson, Nicola J.; Beggs, Jacqueline R.; Whaanga, Hemi. “Kaitiakatanga, place and the urban restoration agenda,” New Zealand Journal of Ecology (Vol. 43, No. 3) 2019. Pages 1-8. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26841824


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