During his brief visit on the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin noted with optimism the potential that New Zealand presented for the development of a ‘new England’ in the South Pacific. The pre-eminent naturalist was notable for his discoveries in the taxonomic lineage of the fauna of the South Pacific islands as well as for progressing evolutionary science. And despite this voyage taking place in the fading days of merchant imperialism, he also made the case for greater equilibrium in the anthropologies of the Southern lands having experienced firsthand the dire consequences of slavery in Brazil before the final leg of the journey back to Falmouth. Fast forward to the 21st century and New Zealand finds itself on a progressive footing, with the concept of a New Europe/New England confined to history, as the country builds a strong individual identity. One that respects the bicultural roots of the nation but also embraces the multiculturalism that makes New Zealand an exciting and dynamic place to live or visit.
The revival of Maori heritage in modern New Zealand is celebrated with increasing prominence of dual place naming. From the naming of protected landscapes such as Aoraki Mont Cook National Park to Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage site to the Lonely Planet Guidbook series to New Zealand (Aotearoa) including guides specific to North Island (Te Ika a-Māui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). Maori is a spectacularly illustrative language, fittingly appropriate to the grandeur of the landscape and the sense of intrepid adventure this conjures up. This is no better illustrated than by the Maori name chosen for the New Zealand Railways Interislander Ferries (a most typical description-based name as is common in the English language); Ngā Waka, directly translating as ‘Our Canoes’, a far better metaphor for the grandeur of the sea voyage across Cook Strait and through the Marlborough Sounds from Wellington to Picton.
But in a country built around the Koru, tree fern identity where outdoor recreation, pristine landscape and wilderness take centre-stage in all the tourist literature, what does the developed side of New Zealand have to offer? The main cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch present a modern, global outlook with vibrant centres. By global standards, they are a far-cry from the megacities of Asia and the Americas. Auckland, being the only one with a population exceeding the 1 million mark, occupies a geographical footprint the size of Greater London. This is low-density living at it’s finest, with a vast suburbia-land sprawling around the intricate coastline of the Hauraki Gulf. Also known as the City of Sails, Auckland has some of the highest levels of boat ownership of any city in the world and often ranks high for quality of life. However, this is not suburbia built around the ‘Metroland’ principle of London’s Metropolitan Railway in the early 1900’s (Forrest, 2015). This, as with much of New Zealand’s urban landscape is very much automobile-land. New Zealand’s railways amount to a few short suburban lines around Auckand and Wellington and three long-distance services operating more as executive tourist trains than a mode of transport for getting from A to B.
Turning to Wellington, Aotearoa’s tiny capital city, the Windy City, home to the parliament building and the Westpac stadium or ‘biscuit tin’. Sweeping around the natural harbour of Port Nicholson, Wellington commands a fine waterfront and compact CBD largely built on a re-claimed shelf, jutting out of a landscape of otherwise steep hillsides.
South Island’s population only just exceeds a million and over a quarter of this resides in Christchurch and it’s surrounding Canterbury plains. The vulnerability of the urban environment to the dynamic Earth forces at play in the South Pacific was demonstrated most catastrophically in Christchurch with the two major Earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011, along with hundreds of aftershocks. Christchurch’s skyline has been significantly transformed by these natural forces, and the cleanup and rebuild is an ongoing project that will reach well into the 2020’s.
Outside of the ‘big three’ a splattering of other small cities and large towns define the rest of urban New Zealand. From Art Deco Napier to adrenaline fuelled Queenstown and steaming Rotorua, each has their own unique character.
On the open roads in-between, and away from the celebrated National Parks and protected areas, rural New Zealand is for the most part defined by agricultural land, with arable and pastoral farming being big-business for export. The wines of the Marlborough vineyards, Merino wool and New Zealand dairy products are shipped globally from the ideal fertile lands that have seen farming reach industrial scales. Sheep outnumber humans 10 to 1 and there are more dairy cows than people in these lands.
But for many this farming on an industrial scale is at loggerheads with the 100% pure, green image that the country portrays to the world. The Environment Aotearoa 2015 report by the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment exposed some of the inconvenient truths, particularly those related to intensive dairy farming and pesticide use. Nitrogen is up 12% in rivers from 1989, 192 million tonnes of soil enters waterways each year and 78% of soils under dairy farming are badly affected by compaction (Ministry for the Environment).
The solutions to the environmental issues of commercial farming, like the challenges of transport, energy, resources and biodiversity are as clear as a mountain stream draining sublime native bush in the Kahurangi National Park far from the menaces of landscapes severely modified by humans. New Zealand has the opportunity to take transformative action on sustainable development with a thriving society and economy built around sustainable, community-level agriculture and ecotourism. And this transformation must start now if the clean-green New Zealand image is to amount to anything more than just clever marketing. The pathway to a sustainable future is set out for the Land of the Long White Cloud, and as once said by wise old Gandalf, all that one has to do is ‘decide what to do with the time you are given’.
Aotearoa… Heare ra, Mā Te Wā – New Zealand… goodbye, until next time!
Forrest, A., 2015, ‘Metroland, 100 years on: what’s become of England’s original vision of suburbia?’, The Guardian, accessed 28 February 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/sep/10/metroland-100-years-england-original-vision-suburbia>.
MFE, 2015, ‘New Zealand’s environment at a glance’, Ministry for the Environment Manatū Mo Te Taiao, accessed 28 February 2018, <http://www.mfe.govt.nz/sites/default/files/media/Environmental%20reporting/new-zealands-environment-at-a-glance.pdf>.