History of the Town Belt

In 1853, the city set up a Board of Commissioners to manage the city’s reserves. The philosophy behind the preservation of our largest green space was set out in the Reserves Act:

“…stipulations shall 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 public recreation. Provided that no buildings or other erections, other than the necessary fencing, shall be erected on said lands.”

When Dunedin’s population suddenly grew after gold was discovered in Otago, most of the act was repealed. The population rose from 890 in 1857 to 15,970 in less than seven years and as a result, the Belt housed squatters and became a source of firewood and timber. Just ten years after it’s recognition, the Otago Daily Times reported the belt was being destroyed.

In 1865, management of the Belt was vested in the newly established City Council in trust for recreational purposes. Concern was raised again about squatters and the council offering to lease land for grazing. Citizens formed a Belt Preservation Committee which opposed grazing and the grazing leases were eventually discontinued. A portion of the land was turned over to the Northern Cemetery, and the Dunedin Botanical Gardens were established nearby in 1869.

In 1875, a fever hospital was erected in the Belt during an epidemic of scarlet fever prompting the formation of a new Belt Defence Committee. Queen’s Drive was completed in 1876, and work began at Woodhaugh Gardens and the Oval sports ground. Jubilee Park was established during the Queen’s Jubilee in 1887.

The ‘Dunedin and Suburban Reserves Conservation Society’ (later The Amenities Society) was formed as a watchdog of the City’s reserves and their development. The Amenities Society planted many of the non-native trees in the southern areas of the town belt.

During the late 1800’s after another round of grazing ceased, Town Belt rangers, school children, Benevolent Institution inmates and unemployment relief workers worked hard to control aggressive invaders: gorse, broom and elderberry. However, in 1888 the Chief Gardener recommended the planting of sycamore, another non-native. At the time, it was probably not known that Sycamores form such a dense canopy and spread so quickly that native trees cannot grow underneath it. They are now being removed from the belt in some areas.

In 1901 the naturalist George Thomson noted in the ODT:

“Since I first became acquainted with our Town Belt, 30 years ago, great changes have taken place and are still in active progress. In that circumscribed area there are still growing about 208 species of indigenous plants, 45 species which formerly grew in the Belt have either disappeared or become so rare that I do not know where to lay my hands on a specimen. Of the 53 species of ferns which formerly grew within the Belt, only about 14 now survive.”

The essential contribution of the Belt to Dunedin’s scenery and character was recognised in a 1969 report to the Dunedin Metropolitan Regional Planning Authority, which pointed especially to the dangers posed to the Belt’s beauty by weed growth, unplanned recreational developments and mediocre design. The Belt is also recognised as one of Dunedin’s main landscape features in the District Plan.

The 1980s and 1990s have seen few major changes to the Town Belt. Work has continued on the development of sportsfields, but this has been limited to improving existing fields. The major issue has been community concern about noxious plants and problems with the presence of private driveways has continued. On a more positive note, the City Council has purchased several areas to add to the Town Belt and has started to manage adjacent reserves as they realise their importance to the ecology of the belt within their borders.

This ‘History of the Town Belt’ was summarised from the DRAFT DUNEDIN TOWN BELT MANAGEMENT PLAN August 2006, Community and Recreation Services, Dunedin City Council.

If you would like to see the full text of this plan, click here:



2 responses

29 07 2008
Mark McLeod

I regularly visit, photograph and enjoy all aspects of the Town Belt. Jubilee Park and the area beIow Roslyn are particularly inspirational for me. The wild, naturalistic mix of evergreen bush, giant conifers and mature, colourful deciduous trees is a comforting and spectacular retreat from the surrounding urban clutter. I’d like to think a policy of minimal interference would be in place for such areas, allowing them to continue their unique evolution. I dread the prospect of such spaces ever being “tidied up” by zealous gardeners keen to expand their territory or biologically cleansed by environmentally conscious subscribers to the “native=good, exotic=bad” myth. A broad minded appreciation of life is what the Town Belt needs from both surrounding residents and visitors.

29 07 2008

Thanks so much for your feedback on our blog. Mandy and I have checked out your website and loved the photos, especially the one of the studio on the water.

I know what you mean about people prettying nature up too much. I have always been attracted to gardens that were a little messy. (Mine is chaotic…weeding is done every three months whether it needs it or not!) And there are so many imported/non-native varieties of plants, I think it would be impossible to get rid of them all here. But I did plant my own kowhai tree a month ago for the tuis I listen to every morning.

Exotic only means “bad” when it negatively affects plants that we would like around to feed the native birds. The eucalyptus tree is loved by the tuis in my yard. The sycamores, however, create too much shade and discourage the kind of native undergrowth that we would like to see.

For more information on the ecological impact of sycamores in New Zealand:


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