Napier city has a relatively confined territory: mostly coastal plain, gravel spits and backdrop hills. The natural features are not particularly outstanding in a conventional sense, however the Napier City Landscape Assessment commissioned by the local Council, highlights that landscapes can’t always be taken at face value and that their value depends on history and context.
James K. Baxter once wrote: “At Napier sprawled on the earthquake beach, watch your children stumble in to bathe on pebbles black as flint.” His evocative description is vernacular (a visit to the beach, children bathing, a classic summer scene) and geomorphological (stony, dark, dramatic and not a little uncomfortable). As a description, it gives insight into how the ‘value’ or appreciation of landscape can be experiential as well as visual, and cultural as well as geological.
In New Zealand, landscape values are interpreted according to assessment under the Resource Management Act (RMA). The Napier City Landscape Assessment fulfilled a Council requirement to identify ‘outstanding natural features and landscapes’ under the RMA and to provide a baseline inventory of landscape for policy purposes.
Studies like this are important – they are about the meaning of landscape and the relationship between people and place. They articulate the characteristics and features that people value but may not be able to articulate themselves. Typically, studies like this dismantle a region piece by piece, scoring them against fixed criteria – a process that can defy the complexity of landscape. What differentiates this study is that it was an exercise in reduction followed by one of reconstruction – ‘consilience’ the convergence of evidence from different perspectives, particularly the sciences and humanities. At Napier, convergent evidence was synthesised from science and art and a combination of cultural, historical and geographical research – and by ‘paying attention’. The work draws on maps and geophysical documents, cultural artefacts, posters, literature, histories and art. The approach is also characterised by interpreting the parts in the context of the whole landscape.
Napier city covers a relatively small territory and its landscapes are not particularly natural or outstanding in a conventional sense. As Baxter infers, the beach will not win any beauty pageant. Rather, the significance of the landscape derives from context and history. The landscape assessment describes how Napier developed as a provincial settler town and port for a broad sheep-farming hinterland, expressed in particular by the historic ‘wool store precinct’ at Ahuriri. It examines the geomorphology of Bluff Hill (a “blip in the otherwise smooth sweep of Hawke Bay”) and the deep greywacke shingle banks that accumulated on either side of the hill and looks at the street patterns of the town. It discusses the 1931 earthquake, a touchstone in Napier’s psyche and identity, and examines the importance of Roro-o-kuri, one of nine islands stranded when the former lagoon was raised from the sea by the earthquake and how it comes to life when history and context are understood.
What makes the Napier City Landscape Assessment intriguing is that although no outstanding natural landscapes were identified under the RMA, it highlights the distinctive and often subtle characteristics of the district’s landscapes and the associated meanings. Napier’s potential lies in celebrating the ‘simple, strong ideas’ behind its landscapes, and enhancing the ways people understand and interact with them.