The Kiwi Riviera

How New Zealand pursued a Mediterranean form of colonisation

Chris Harris, PhD
6 min readMay 29, 2021

(Chapter 14 of The Utopia Thieves)

THAT settler colonialism has gone hand in hand with urbanisation is just as true of far-flung New Zealand, Anglophone settler-dom’s final frontier, as it is of the United States.

Indeed, a good case could be made for the argument that settler colonialism was more fundamentally urban in New Zealand, where most settlers did not budge far from what the geographer Geoff Park was to dub their “beachheads of first arrival,” than in the United States, where the possibility of a more dispersed and bucolic way of life in the West was a reality even if too much is often made of it.

By contrast, the colonisation of New Zealand took place at the feet of mountains and resulted almost immediately in the creation of an urbanised Riviera.

An urbanised Riviera that not only recalled the ancient forms of Mediterranean colonisation as pursued by the Greeks and other influential peoples of the time, but also the later Mediterranean colonisation that led to the creation of the state of Israel.

Here’s a photograph of Oriental Bay in late-1950s Wellington, a city lately written up, at the time, in a publication called Great Cities of the World.

Oriental Bay, Wellington, New Zealand, 22 December 1959. Negatives of the Evening Post collection, EP 19594347-F, National Library of New Zealand. Slightly retouched to improve image quality in the sky area.
The front and rear covers of an original edition of W. A. Robson (ed.), ‘Great Cities of the World: Their Government, Politics and Planning’, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1954, lately reissued as a facsimile edition by Routledge. Covers reproduced for critical purposes.

This form of settlement recapitulated the settlement-patterns of the Māori, who were also a predominantly coastal people at the time they first encountered the European (more on that, below).

That it was fundamentally different to America’s inward-focused frontierism was a point made by Park and, before him, by the Australian classicist Thomas J. Dunbabin, who also spotted Greek or Mediterranean parallels in the settlement of his own country.

A country whose indigenous aboriginal inhabitants and more recent settlers had also preferred to cling to the island continent’s coastal rind, as far as possible.

In spite of stereotypes and cliches to the contrary, nothing could be more misleading than to suppose that today’s New Zealanders and Australians are nations of farmers. Or, that they dwell far from bustling ports.

The Origins of the Kiwi Riviera

In the case of Australia, the aridity of the interior accounts for this pattern. But in the case of New Zealand, we are closer to the usual cause of Mediterranean coastal-ness in the sense that behind New Zealand’s coastal plains loom formidable hills and mountains in most places, just as they do in many places on the Mediterranean shore.‍

Blaketown beach, Greymouth, New Zealand, looking toward the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. Photo by Stewart Nimmo of, 8 August 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

New Zealand looks small on the map of the Pacific. But then again, the Pacific is truly vast. Up close, the country becomes larger.

Location of New Zealand, including outlying islands, its territorial claim in the Antarctic, and Tokelau. The associated states of the Cook Islands and Niue, further east, are not identified here, Orthographic projection by Gringer, 31 August 2010, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons. North at or near the top.

Were they to be superimposed on a map of the United States, New Zealand’s main islands would stretch from Chicago to New Orleans.

On a map of Australia, the same islands would extend from Brisbane to Melbourne. The busy internal airline route from Auckland to Queenstown takes nearly two hours by jet.

So, you would think that there would be plenty of room for the New Zealanders — who currently number a bit over five million onshore, with another million overseas — to rattle around in.

Well — there would be if it were not for the fact that New Zealand’s resident population really is confined, for the most part, to a surprisingly small pale of settlement.

A pale set out in green in the following map, which comes from a 1958 government publication called Town Planning Bulletin No 1.

From Town Planning Bulletin №1, New Zealand Ministry of Works, 1958. The upland lakeside-resort towns of Rotorua, Queenstown and Taupo are not shown in this map.

The word pale, in this context, comes from an old word for barrier; elated words are paling and palisade. In a looser sense, it has come to denote a narrow strip of settlement behind some barrier, generally along a coast or on the edges of an empire where a certain population of settlers, or a certain minority, is permitted to live, or from which others are excluded. In the old-time Russian Empire there was the Jewish pale of settlement; and in Ireland there was also a British pale of settlement which ran roughly from Derry and Belfast to Dublin. Whence, also, the expression ‘beyond the pale’, denoting the outsiders.

Initially prized for its fertility, New Zealand’s pale of settlement, as I have called it, soon became comprehensively urbanised: indeed to the point that some of the very best soils were threatened with erasure by spreading suburbs.

The existence of New Zealand’s pale is partly explained by conflicts between settlers and Maori, which I will discuss further below. But, still more fundamentally, it is also explained by the fact that New Zealand’s landscape is very rugged and unwelcoming in most places, whether to a would-be farmer or to the founder of a town who is concerned with the ease of getting in and out.

Topographical map of the main islands of New Zealand with the four main historic port cities added. Background map from the Gingko Maps Project, CC BY 3.0 (this graphic created mid-2010s).

The beachheads of first arrival soon became urbanised as the settlers continued to pour in and pile up on the shore. Here is another example of what came about as a result, in the form of Dunedin’s Octagon precinct. An example that by no means exhausts the list of sites of civic excellence in New Zealand.

The Octagon in 1949, showing Moray Place around the outside. This image is clickable and zoomable at very high resolution. Source: Dunedin. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-23421-G. The triangular tree-lined park at top centre, with a prominent white cenotaph, is called Queen’s Gardens, and it is next to the First Church of Otago, which has a single spire. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
The Octagon from inside. Author’s photograph

Even provincial Palmerston North, long regarded as a ‘cow town’ of a much sleepier and less cultured nature than Dunedin or Wellington, was grandly laid out with four avenues converging at right angles on a central square the size of Paris’s Place de la Concorde. The plan remains a source of local pride, though the Square is inclined to expose the surrounding shopping streets to strong winds in bad weather.

The Square and Fitzherbert Avenue, Palmerston North. This view looks south-south east, toward the Manawatū River and the foothills of the Tararua Ranges. Image reproduced from the media gallery of CEDA,
From the cover of a book of caricatures by local amateur cartoonist J. S. Monro, published in Palmerston North in December 1929. A digitised version of the whole book can be read, or viewed, here. The symbol 2/6 refers to its price, two shillings and sixpence.

In the words of David Hamer (whom I also quoted in the last chapter), the representative New Zealand colonist was thus not a farmer, but an “urban pioneer.” Even the majority of the farmers of New Zealand, confined as they also were to the fertile part of the lowlands, effectively inhabited “attenuated suburbs”: thus wrote the Auckland journalist and pundit Gordon MacLauchlan in his book The Passionless People: New Zealanders in the 1970s, New Zealand’s answer to Australian journalist Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties.

In both books the local cowboy myth comes in for a drubbing, as does the related idea that an abundant nature has enabled an easy colonial life in which the locals don’t have to think too hard about anything. Ironically, that’s what most Australians think the phrase ‘the lucky country’ means. Horne came to regret choosing that title: The Passionless People was less likely to be misunderstood.

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Chris Harris, PhD

I am an urban historian from Aotearoa New Zealand. With an engineering background, I also have a PhD in planning and economics.