News | 14 December 2021

Street Smart: A brief history of our streets

From pre-European ara (paths) all the way to Let’s Get Wellington Moving and everything in between. The story of Wellington streets and their use is very much a story of the city itself.

A black and white photo of Donald Street with visible tram tracks on the road and old wooden houses.

When we think of Wellington’s streets a few things may come to mind. It could be the grid-like layout of our central city, the winding roads that meander out to the suburbs, or the steep and narrow streets that crawl their way up our hills. 

All are accurate, and tell us a lot about our general perceptions around what streets look like and how they’re used today. But of course it hasn’t always been this way.
 
To get a better sense of how our streets and their use have changed over time, we need to start further back in our city’s history – a lot further back. 

“For starters, Māori had been in the area we now know as Wellington for hundreds of years before Europeans,” says Wellington historian Gábor Tóth. 

“A lot of the pathways would have already been defined even before Te Atiawa, our current mana whenua, had arrived in the region by the early 1820s.” 

These ara tended to follow natural river valleys as the country was heavily forested at the time.
  
Examples include at Ngaio Gorge, where a path snaked up the gorge and continued onto what is now Crofton Downs in one direction, and Johnsonville, Tawa and Porirua in the other. 

There was also a pre-European ‘saddle crossing’ that led to Makara, as well as trails to Karori and up Aro Valley. 

“The beach would have also provided a very natural pathway around the harbour,” says Gabor, noting that you can still follow that path through the CBD by means of the tideline plaques in places like Lambton Quay.  

A plaque on a tiled footpath that reads
Plaques along Lambton Quay mark the original shoreline of Wellington's harbour.

While not strictly ‘streets’, Māori also used the harbour to travel in waka about Te Whanganui a Tara. 
There are still marked sites of tauranga waka – places where waka were pulled when not in use – at Chaffer’s and near the Beehive. 

From 1839, with the arrival of the “advanced guard” of New Zealand Company employees in Wellington Harbour, things start to change rapidly.  

Originally the company had envisaged a Victorian-style settlement called ‘Britannia’ at Petone, and had even sold a large number of plots for it, but they soon discovered the area was flood-prone so switched their sights to what is now Wellington city. 

While their wide boulevards and grid-based street layout made sense in Petone, it certainly didn’t in Wellington, where the steep and varied topography made a mockery of their sense of order. But the New Zealand Company ploughed on with much of its vision all the same, after a quick and “very dodgy” land purchase from Te Atiawa, says Gábor. 

"They had sold a large number of land titles so they had to fit in enough land plots, so they opted for these narrow streets instead of the wide boulevards they had planned, basically so they could squeeze all the sections in. 

“You also ended up with streets running straight up steep hillsides, as they tried to force the grid onto Wellington’s topography.” 

A black and white photo of Courtenay Place in 1910 with horse and carts riding beside early motorcars.
Courtenay Place in 1910. Wellington City Council Archives, 00157-4

So what would the first streets have looked like? 

Well, they were often dangerous dirt tracks that were muddy in winter, and dusty in summer. They were slippery, with bad drainage and no curbs. With horses a main form of transport, there was urine and manure everywhere. 

“The manure often didn’t get cleaned up so it would get ground down and could end up as dust,” says Gábor. 

“If that got into a cut or into an eye it could cause infections that could lead to septicaemia. In the 1860s and 1870s that could easily be a death sentence.” 

From the 1870s onwards, roads started to be gravelled, a process that went hand in hand with the formation of the Wellington Town Board in the 1860s and the Wellington City Council in the 1870s. 

Over the following decades, Wellington saw the introduction of steamrollers to compress the gravel (1880s), electric streetlights (1880s), and the introduction of electrified tram lines (early 1900s). 

All changed the nature of how our streets were used. 

The 1890s also saw the introduction of the safety bicycle which used a chain rather than having pedals connected directly to the front wheel as they had with the penny farthing

When combined with the pneumatic tire which was developed at about the same time, bicycles soon become popular as a cheap means of personal transport around WellingtonNot only did air-filled tires absorb the worst of the vibrations from the bumpy roads, they didn’t incur the costs that came with owning a horse

Bicycles had a particularly significant impact on the lives of women who could now ride a bike while wearing a dress and could travel independently or in groups without male chaperones.   

A black and white photo of people asphalting Victoria Street in the 1930s.
Road sealing work is completed in Victoria Street in 1926. Wellington City Libraries, 50010-121

Things really changed for our streets in the 1920s when motorcars began to replace horses. This led to streets being properly sealed with asphalt for the first time.  

The next three decades would see our city transformed into similar to what we know now – sealed streets buzzing with cars, buses and trucks.

However, with the rapid rise in motor vehicles came a rise in traffic congestion, which by the 1950s was getting bad. 

Post-war booms in our population and the economy meant there were many more people who could afford cars. Māori and demobilised soldiers were moving to urban centres in large numbers, there was a large increase in our civil service, plus large state housing projects were completed north of the city in the Hutt Valley.  

One upshot from all this was a lot more cars coming into the city during the daily commute, which helped lead to our city’s first parking meters being installed in 1954. 

A major development in Wellington’s streets took place in 1964, with the decommissioning of our famous tramway. Trolley buses continued to be a common sight in the capital until 2017 when the trolley network was removed. 

The 1960s saw a couple of other firsts for Wellington: the first carparking buildings, and the start of our one-way system in the CBD. Construction on the motorway also started, with the final stage completed in 1976. 

In the late 1980s New Zealand saw a flood of cheap imported cars from Japan as government tariffs were first lowered then dropped. Imports rose nationally from less than 3,000 cars in 1985 to 85,000 in 1990, and helped to finish off the domestic automotive industry.

“Cars really became affordable in this period and suddenly they’re just everywhere,” says Gábor.

“You start to see two-car families, which for many people would have been unthinkable until then.”

A group of cars race through Wellington city under a concrete bridge which has signs that read
The Mobil Street Race which took place on Wellington's waterfront in 1996. Wellington City Council Archives, 00749-15-39

While many of the above milestones revolve around transport, other examples of large-scale use include protests, celebrations, funerals, and parades – the latter seeing successful sporting teams regularly cheered from Parliament to Civic Square along Lambton Quay and Willis Street. 

Another example is the Wellington 500 street race, which took place between 1985-1996. The popular event transformed the city’s waterfront – from Jervois Quay to Cable Street – into a racetrack once a year.  

The 1990s saw the rise of the bicycle, for leisure and fitness, and later as a means of getting to and from work. Mountain bikes became hugely popular, better suspension made cycling more comfortable, and the improvement in gearing meant it was easier to tackle some of the city’s notorious hills. 

Increasing knowledge and concern of ecological and climate issues also lead to more people abandoning cars for bikes for ethical reasons. 

The mid-2010s saw laneways projects kicking off across the capital. Formerly dreary or utilitarian spaces, a number of laneways were transformed into bright, attractive pedestrian routes, but also came with features such as gardens or art that were designed to make the spaces more pleasant to stop and rest in. 

In 2019, Let’s Get Wellington Moving was launched. The project aims to transform and improve the city’s transport system while also making the central city more liveable, providing better access, reducing car reliance, and making the city safer and more resilient.  

A core element of the programme will be the construction of a mass rapid transit system connecting the Railway Station with the Hospital, Newtown, Miramar and the Airport.

The system, which is yet to be determined, will provide services about every 10 minutes, be electric, with dedicated lanes. 

Currently, city-wide planning is reshaping the capital to accommodate a growing population that can move about easily and safely in ways that are healthier for people and the environment.  

The Spatial Plan and District Plan review will support housing availability and affordability, Let’s Get Wellington Moving and the Bike Network Plan will transform transport to enhance the way we use our streets, while Te Atakura – First to Zero outlines the city’s plan to take climate action. 

All will have an impact on what our city streets look like, but also how we use them, ensuring the story of our streets – like the story of our city – continues to unfold over the coming years. 

A green background with a white ball on legs walking with

Wellington City Council looks after more than 700km of streets across the capital, and each one has its own unique story. Check out Our Wellington and our social media channels for more Street Smart articles, videos and interesting snippets.