News | 22 December 2021

Street Smart: Why are Wellington’s streets so darn narrow?

Ever wondered why Wellington’s streets are so darn narrow? Wellington City Council’s local historian Gábor Tóth recounts the tale.

A photo looking up Ascot Street in Thornon where cars are parked on one side of the narrow road.
Ascot Street in Thorndon, 1991. Wellington City Libraries, 50014-267-113. Photograph by Derek Smith.

It was the site of Petone that was originally destined to be Wellington city – or where the New Zealand Company planned to build their new settlement, Britannia. 

“The first few settler ships arrived at ‘Britannia’ in 1840, but even before they had arrived, advanced guards who came out on two company ships (the Cuba and Tory) to get everything ready realised very quickly that the site they had chosen was not suitable. It was prone to flooding and it would have taken a huge amount of work to clear it of forest.” 

Gábor says the Company rapidly negotiated an underhanded purchase of land from local iwi, taking ownership of the land situated from Thorndon Quay to Berhampore. 

“Having already pre-sold about 1000 sections, with another 100 set aside for mana whenua, they needed to squeeze all of those town acres into the land area that had been purchased. One of the results was very narrow roads, particularly around the CBD. 

“The layout was really confined and dictated by the topography. There was a limited amount of flat land in a bowl-type surrounding of hills that were really steep, so you could only go so far up them before going any further was no longer possible. There’s a definite line where the streets stop – you can see where this is in Mount Victoria.  

“Lambton Quay is very narrow and that was because the eastern side was beach. When they started reclamation of the harbour, they would have had the option of making Lambton Quay much wider. Why they didn’t, who knows.” 

A black and white photo of a building that has been knocked down with piles of wood still lying on the site.
Farish Street (now Victoria Street) in 1928 where buildings were demolished to enable street widening. Wellington City Libraries - 50002-2-46

Gábor says narrow streets are common in many European cities, where the streets were laid out in medieval times.  

“Even with the old City of London, which is now the financial heart of London, it only had to be wide enough to get a bullock and cart down there – no one was thinking about motorised transport at that time.” 

Back to Pōneke, a fair bit of street widening work has taken place in the city over the years.  

“The Council purchased property along Farish Street – now Victoria Street – and demolished all the buildings on it between Wakefield and Manners streets to enable street widening. Most of Victoria Street from the Central Library upwards towards Vivian Street was seriously narrow so what you see now is dramatically different.  

“They started widening in the 1920s and gradually acquired property, and kept on extending the road up until probably the 1980s when Victoria Street was extended up to Webb Street.” 

The first settlers to Wellington arrived in January 1840, only two weeks before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The new settlement was rather spread out, due to the large size of the property blocks.   

Gábor says to call some of Pōneke’s narrow streets a ‘street’ is a bit of a stretch. 

“I used to live on a ‘street’ called Macintyre Avenue (off Hawker Street in Mount Victoria) which doesn’t exist other than being a set of steps. It’s one of several such ‘streets’ in the area which were originally supposed to become proper roads but the steep topography meant this wasn’t practical and they were never fully developed.” 

Some of Wellington's narrowest streets include:

Doctors Common, Mt Victoria 

Kennedy Street, Mt Victoria 

Egmont Street, Te Aro 

Brosnahan Terrace, Aro Valley 

Ascot Street, Thorndon 

Calgary Avenue, Thorndon 

Marquis Street, Wadestown 

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 articles, videos and interesting snippets.