New green sea.
Napier Landscape.


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.

Below Napier city squeezed onto the shingle spit in the shelter of Bluff Hill.

Below right Marine Parade Gardens; Napier, the art deco city; New Napier Arch, ‘courage is the thing: all goes if courage goes’.

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.

Above Hawkes Bay – limestone bluffs and greywacke spits.

Right The southern shingle spit.

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.

“It is about trying to discover those things: the things that will upset people if a landscape were to be lost. It’s about giving them a voice for those instances when people can’t explain why they would feel that way about losing something: about why they’d be furious.”
— Gavin Lister, Isthmus

First set The map to the left illustrates place names of the former lagoon. On the right is a map detailing the post-earthquake uplift of the lagoon.

Second set River corridors and alluvial plains are highlighted to the left. The city’s western backdrop of hills are shown on the right.

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.

Below A vestige of the former lagoon at Ahuriri.

Above The former lagoon floor viewed from Roro-o-kuri.

Left The beacons: historical navigation aids into Napier port.

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.

Team Members
Gavin Lister,
Past Team Members

Kent Lundberg, Sarah Finlayson

Kings Consultants


Napier City Council