by James Beattie

Keywords: urban conservation, Aotearoa conservation, urban environmental history, Dunedin/ Ōtepoti, class tensions, 1850s-1860s


Seen from the air, Dunedin’s Town Belt appears as a green swathe circling the central and northern parts of the city, a fragment of a once great forest that thrived in Ōtepoti/Dunedin. The Town Belt is one of the oldest in the world. Purchased from Kāi Tahu in 1844, its origins date back to the earliest years of the Otago Settlement and originally comprised some 120 hectares.[1]

Now encompassing 202 hectares, this public land, while highly modified, is today a haven for many birds and invertebrates, including kererū, tūī, bellbird, tomtit, rifleman, ruru, shining cuckoo, and kōtare. Dominant vegetation types today include broadleaf, exotic deciduous and coniferous forest, grassland, kānuka forest, and even swamp forest. Though highly browsed, it has several rare and endangered plants.

Its serenity and reputation as a refuge from the bustle of the city, however, belie its troubled settler history. From 1848, Otago’s European authorities faced ongoing challenges in trying to balance short- and long-term development, as well as safeguarding the needs of the many against the needs of the few, in the management of Dunedin’s Town Belt.

Figure 1: Note the grid layout of Kettle’s plan for Dunedin, typical of New Zealand Company settlements. ‘Index Map of the Otakou Settlement Middle Island New Zealand – Surveyed in the years 1846 and 1847 – C H Kettle [189 x 65 cm inside border, 1 mile to 1 inch]’, Source: National Archives of New Zealand, R698465.

Town Belt Origins

In line with the New Zealand Company precepts of planned settlement, surveyor Charles Kettle’s plans for Dunedin included a Town Belt, as well as other public reserves (Figure 1).

The origins of the Town Belt and other reserves in New Zealand lie in the nascent development of town planning in Victorian Britain, which was only developing at the time of Aotearoa’s colonisation.[2] The need to create places to promote health and recreation during the Industrial Age motivated the establishment of parks in European and colonial cities in this period. This was underpinned by prevailing belief in the environmental basis of diseases. Vegetation, medicos and lay people believed, removed poisonous air from cities and through their respiration purified the unhealthy city air.[3]

The clearest earliest statement of the vision and purpose of the Town Belt comes from the Dunedin Public Lands Ordinance (1854). This ordinance set up a Board of Commissioners to manage Dunedin lands ‘reserved for public purposes’. Public reserves—from those set aside for everything from education to cemeteries—included ‘a Park, and other places for health and recreation in and about the Town of Dunedin.’ Clause 16 specifically addressed management of the Town Belt. This enabled authorities to lease portions of the Town Belt to private citizens (presumably for grazing, as later occurred), but stipulated that provisions had to be

… made for preserving the trees and shrubs thereon, or such part of them as it may be desirable to preserve, with a view to the ornament and amenity of the ground, and also for draining and improving it, and ultimately laying it down in grass, with walks and carriage drives, as a public park or place of recreation. [4]

Finally, the clause permitted only the erection of fences on the Town Belt.  Development of the Town Belt as a fully grassed recreation area was never completely realised, possibly because Dunedin Botanic Garden (established in 1863) came to fulfil this recreational role.[5]

Competing visions of the Town Belt

While Otago’s leader William Cargill had envisioned at least part of the Town Belt as a grassed recreation park, others viewed and used the reserve very differently. Almost at the outset of European colonisation, issues arose with illegal timber getting—invoking his powers as Resident Agent, Cargill had had two men charged in 1849. These concerns continued into the 1850s and later, as well as calls for other uses for portions of the Town Belt.

In 1854 the Provincial Government received a petition for parts of the Town Belt to be released to provide extra pasturage for cattle, a request it declined.[6] The area of the Town Belt diminished in the 1850s through the development of cemeteries, such as Arthur Street Cemetery and the Northern and Southern cemeteries. In 1857, for example, 31 acres (c. 5 hectares) was removed from the Town Belt to create the Northern Cemetery and 28 acres for the Southern Cemetery.[7]

In 1857, a survey of Otago Province described the manner in which settlers were using the Town Belt. An area ‘reserved for the use of the inhabitants as pleasure grounds’, it observed, the Town Belt ‘…is mostly covered with timber, and supplies a large portion of the firewood, consumed in the town (figures 2 and 3).[8] Clearly, most settlers regarded the Town Belt as a common resource.[9] In the next decade, an influx of goldminers placed even greater pressure on the Town Belt, as squatting and timber-getting increased.[10]

Figure 2: A picnic in Woodhaugh Valley in 1863. Note the size and maturity of the trees. ‘Picnic at Woodhaugh Valley’, oil on canvas, 965 x 1,635 mm, 1919/134/1355. Source: Permission from Toitū Otago Settlers’ Museum.
Figure 3: Photograph of the Dunedin Town Belt with a boy and man resting on a felled tree. As records show, felled tree trunks were common. Photographer: unknown Date: unknown, CS/12318. Source: Permission from Toitū Otago Settlers’ Museum.

In 1858, Otago Provincial Council Clerk John Logan wrote a frustrated letter to the Deputy Superintendent about misuse of the Town Belt. Logan complained ‘that several parties have of late erected temporary houses and squatted down on a portion of the Town Belt within a few yards of my place’ on Royal Terrace (Figure 4). They

…have already done irreparable damage by cutting down a considerable portion of the Bush on the Belt which served to beautify the place and which hitherto had been carefully preserved by Mr. Chapman and myself respectively. They have no particular interest in sparing any of the trees[,] having only a temporary end to serve and consequently I now find that only certain portions of the trees which are cut down are used[,] the rest being left to rot and obstruct the passage along the ground.[11]

As well as having illegally erected dwellings, Logan rounded on the squatters for having destroyed the trees. These trees, he thundered, ‘served to beautify the place’ and had been ‘carefully preserved’ by him and Chapman. Logan also criticised the settlers for wasting timber, by leaving trees rotting and unused.

Figure 4: A photograph of John Logan’s house, Fern Tree Cottage (Violet Grove, Royal Terrace). Note the house’s proximity to the Town Belt. No date (circa late 1850s/early 1860s), CS/13752. Source: Permission from Toitū Otago Settlers’ Museum.

An official response to Logan’s complaints followed later that month in 1858. Issued by Logan himself, a series of public notices stated ‘that SQUATTING, as also CUTTING DOWN TREES [sic] upon the Town Belt of Dunedin, are strictly prohibited; and any person hereafter guilty of so Cutting the Trees will be prosecuted as the law directs.’[12] Although the relevant magistrate’s file has disappeared, other prosecutions followed, as revealed by contemporary newspaper coverage of the magistrate’s court.

Gold Rush Pressure

Any such regulations were swept aside with the influx of miners to Otago’s Gold Rush. In five short months from mid-1861, Otago’s population swelled from 13,000 to over 30,000. Dunedin was inundated with (mostly) male miners from all over the world. Squatting and timber-getting increased on the Belt.

The Otago Daily Times editorial of 1862 complained that “The beauty of the town belt is being slowly but surely destroyed by the indiscriminate felling of the timber that forms its chief ornament.”[13] It implored Otago authorities to protect its standing trees.

In 1865, for example, the Dunedin Magistrate fined Mary Farquharson £2 and costs, noting that ‘he was very glad to see that the citizens were now coming forward and assisting the police to put a stop to the practice of destroying timber on the Town Belt.’ The complainant, Alfred Talbot, related that ‘[h]e had frequently seen her cutting down trees on the Town Belt’, warning her on several occasions.[14] However, the scale of squatting and timber-getting associated with gold mining appears to have been beyond the scope of authorities to control.

In 1865, control of the Belt was delegated to the newly formed Dunedin Municipal Corporation.[15] The newly appointed Reserve Ranger reported over 75 squatters living in the Belt in 1866, as criticism mounted over perceived Belt mismanagement. In 1866, ‘Citizen’ added her ‘voice to the willful and selfish spoliation attempted by the Mayor and the City Council’.[16] In December 1866 an angry crowd of 300-400 citizens gathered to protest against the Council leasing portions of the Belt for grazing to Council members or friends. The heated meeting accused the Council of ‘self-aggrandisement and self-seeking’ and of ‘depriving them of the free use and occupation of the Town Belt’ through its granting of leases.

The Otago Daily Times added its voice of support to the protestations. Putting aside utilitarian and financial aspects, it declared that the council’s decision flew in the face of the intention of the reserves, as

…unenclosed, unbuilt upon—places free from the contamination of the everyday, busting, active life of man [sic]; that they should be places to which the hard-handed, week-worn workers could resort and breathe a purer and more life sustaining air than is inhaled during their daily toil.[17]

A petition charged that the sale of leases was ‘an infraction of the rights of the public to be full, free, and unrestricted use of the ground for purposes of recreation’. Within 24 hours, the petition had gathered 700 signatures and was duly presented to the Superintendent of Otago.[18] Locals formed a committee to lobby against the actions of the council. Eventually, pressure from the Otago Provincial government and local citizens saw the Council revoke most leases in 1872.

Biodiversity loss

Over time, the composition of the Town Belt changed markedly. As William Martin observed, while extensive, ‘[i]t was not then realized that the removal of the surrounding forest to make room for settlement would create such a new set of conditions that changes would inevitably occur in the composition of the Town Belt forest.’ Such pressures included changes wrought by wandering cattle and, later, possums, as well as garden escapees, deliberately introduced exotic trees, and deforestation (figures 5 and 6).[19]

Figure 5: This view of the Town Belt, with William Street School on the right and Ōpoho in the distance, illustrates clearly the impact of urban development on the Town Belt. ‘Town Belt, with William Street School, Dunedin, 1881’, attrib. to John Crawford, watercolour on card, 255 x 177 mm, 1919/134/247. Source: Permission from Toitū Otago Settlers’ Museum.
Figure 6: This photograph from 1862 looking towards the present suburb of Roslyn from the Octagon, shows the extent of forest in Dunedin’s Town Belt. Note the tall trees visible on the skyline. Source: Permission from Toitū Otago Settlers’ Museum.

Ongoing environmental changes in the Town Belt, coupled a growing valuing of native nature by European New Zealanders, contributed to the establishment of the Dunedin Amenities Society in 1888. As the oldest and longest-running environmental organisation in New Zealand, the Society has since its founding played a major role in protecting the Town Belt, through planting and fundraising, and raising awareness of its value.[20] (Dunedin City Council has responsibility for maintaining the Town Belt.)


Conflict over the Dunedin Town Belt in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s illustrates underlying tensions between classes, between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, but also underlines efforts to conserve aspects of native nature for reasons of beauty, health and enjoyment. These early tensions over public parks and their usage, as well as their importance to the general well-being of an urban population, appear remarkably modern to present-day readers who have, under lockdown restrictions, so recently experienced parks and the benefits they bring to mental and physical health.


I thank Jenny Chen, Pete Read, Seán Brosnahan, and Claire Orbell from Toitū Otago Settlers’ Museum for their help.


Some of the material from this blog comes from ‘J. Beattie, ‘Fashioning a Future Part II: Settlement, Improvement and Conservation in the European colonization of Otago, 1840-1860’, International Review of Environmental History, 7, 2 (2021); ‘Battle for the Belt’, Forest & Bird Magazine, No. 378(2020), pp.60-61.


James Beattie is an award-winning environmental historian who teaches at the Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington, but resides in Ōtepoti/ Dunedin


[1] 11 July 1857, Otago Witness, 2.

[2] Tom Brooking, ‘“Green Scots and golden Irish”: The environmental impact of Scottish and Irish settlers in New Zealand: Some preliminary ruminations’, Journal of Irish & Scottish Studies 3, No. 1 (2009): 41-60.

[3] James Beattie, ‘Colonial Geographies of Settlement: Vegetation, Towns, Disease and Well-Being in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1830s-1930s’, Environment and History, 14, 4 (November, 2008): 583-610.

[4] Dunedin Public Lands Ordinance, 1854’, Otago Gazette Issue 11 March 1854, vol1, no 5A, 2-4.

[5] The aims of the Ordinance, however, represented something of a dead letter, as government deemed its provisions illegal. Passage of the Public Reserves Act (1854), however, confirmed Crown ownership of reserves, but vested the power to manage and proclaim such reserves in the person of the provincial superintendent.

[6] 12 August 1854, Otago Witness, 3.

[7] 20 June 1857, Otago Witness, 2.

[8] 11 July 1857, Otago Witness, 2.

[9] Many Scottish and English settlers who had experienced land eviction and the reduction of commonage perpetrated the same acts on Kāi Tahu.

[10] Clayton, ENNZ.

[11] John Logan to Deputy Superintendent, Royal Terrace [Dunedin], 10 August, 1858, Otago Province Series 6, 245, Micro 414/8, no. 244 Hocken Library.

[12] 28 August 1858, Otago Witness, p.3. This notice was repeated on 4 September 1858, Otago Witness, p.8.

[13] Otago Daily Times, 15 September 1862, p.4.

[14] Otago Daily Times, 13 October 1865, 5. I thank Austin Gee for finding this material.

[15] Neil Clayton, ‘Settlers, Politicians and Scientists: Environmental Anxiety in A New Zealand Colony’, ENNZ 9, No. 1 (2014): (accessed 23 July 2021).

[16] Otago Witness, 18 December 1866, p.5.

[17] Otago Daily Times, 19 December 1866, p.4.

[18] Otago Witness, 19 December 1866, p.4.

[19] William Martin, ‘The Dunedin Town Belt’, handwritten, Dunedin Town Belt, DC 2134, Toitū Otago Settlers’ Museum.

[20] ‘About the Society’, (accessed 23 February 2022).

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