Early Beginnings – New Edinburgh
The history of the Dunedin Town Belt is also an intertwined history of the colonial settlement of Dunedin city which was a joint venture of the New Zealand Company and the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland. While the original settlement of the creation of a “New Edinburgh” began in 1844 with surveyor Frederick Tuckett it was not until 1846 with the arrival of surveyor Charles Kettle that the formation of both the Town Belt and the city really began. The original intention of overlaying the physical layout of Edinburgh onto the forested slope of Dunedin was fraught with difficulty due to the terrain. Yet the geography of the city influenced the shape and scale of the Town Belt we see today.
Like many of the settlements of the New Zealand Company the influence of Edward Gibbon Wakefield on open space, landscape and recreation can be observed today in the Town Belt. Wakefield believed that open space and the provision of natural areas would alleviate slums, disease and crime. In some respects they were practical solutions to the rapidly changing conditions in urban and rural areas of Great Britain and Europe due to the industrial revolution. Other 19th century Wakefield settlements in Adelaide and Wellington also have town belts running through them as Dunedin has today.
One aspect of the development of Dunedin that both Wakefield and William Cargill had in common was they both believed that a higher moral order could be achieved amongst new settlers in the isolation of a pristine wilderness. The reality was that the Dunedin Town Belt was the border between the urban townscape and the rural pastoralism of the new settlement.
The Legal Protection of the Town Belt
By March 1848 the first colonial settlers lead by William Cargill and Reverend Burns arrived in Dunedin. By 1850 the NZ Company was in financial trouble and surrendered its charter to the Crown. This meant that all unsold land in the new settlement would revert to the Crown, including the fledgling Town Belt.
1852 saw the creation of provincial government with Otago being one of six provinces and by 1854 with William Cargill as Provincial superintendent a Public Lands Ordinance was passed recognising the Town Belt as an are to preserve. In 1855 the Otago Provincial government passed the Town Board Ordinance which created early local government in Dunedin and the subsequent management of the Town Belt.
In 1865 The Otago Municipal Corporation Ordinance created the Corporation of Dunedin with a Mayor and 8 councillors. In the same year a Crown grant for the Town Belt was granted vesting the Town Belt in the Dunedin Corporation. With the abolition of the Provincial Governments all legislative powers including the management of the Town Belt was returned to the Crown. In 1877 The Public Reserves Act transferred the management and control back the Corporation of Dunedin.
Today the Dunedin Town Belt is managed under the provisions of the Reserves Act 1977 and the provisions of the Town Belt Management Plan.
Protection, Abuse and Protest 1848 – 1900
The financial failure of the New Zealand Company and the return to Crown ownership of the Town Belt coupled with changes to Provincial Government and City Incorporation probably helped retain the Town Belt. However between 1848-1900 there was considerable pressure on the reserve from quarrying, timber removal, squatting and road development. Like today political will and finances played a major part in the protection of the reserve. The gold rush of 1861 saw a huge influx of people into Dunedin on their way to the Central Otago goldfields and this population influx placed considerable pressure on the resources of the Town Belt and its values.
In 1866 the need for Municipal finances saw the development of 42 leases for the Town Belt and this saw a wave of protest and public outcry from the citizens of Dunedin. The leases were eventually withdrawn in 1872 but not before the establishment of the Town Belt Preservation Committee. Other public protests included the occupation of the Town Belt for the proposed Northern Cemetery in 1872. The public outcry over the condition and management of the Town Belt was reported in the Otago Daily Times 1887; “It is high time to arrest the process of denudation that is going on in the Town Belt and to make it more available as a place of recreation for the people than it is at present.” The formation of the Dunedin Amenities Society in 1888 added further public pressure on local and Crown authorities for the Town Belt’s protection. One notable action was the successful petitioning of Parliament by the Society to stop occupation of the reserve by the City Council in 1890.
The provincial and local authorities tasked with managing the Town Belt dealt with many requests for the commercial and private use of the Town Belt into the early 20th century. Most of those requests sought to exploit the Town Belt for resources or land use and the authorities generally denied them in an effort to preserve the area. What became clear was that the colonial Dunedin public and local government valued the intrinsic landscape and recreational opportunities that were provided by the Town Belt. It had become a part of the landscape fabric and environmental consciousness of the developing city. While it came under immense pressure the public aided by a parochial and powerful local media saw the Town Belt retained as an integral part of the Dunedin city landscape.