Wellington City Libraries

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Heritage > The Wellington Waterfront

View of the Wellington waterfront.


Few issues have had a higher profile in the minds of many Wellingtonians than the development of the Wellington waterfront. For over a century, much of what we now consider to be open public space was locked away from the average citizen with a line of stern buildings and wrought iron gates. These marked the boundary line between land controlled by the Wellington Harbour Board and Wellington City Council. Inside the gates, cranes shifted mountains of freight and heavy trucks and machinery moved continuously. It was a dirty and dangerous place and for much of it, access was tightly restricted. The Harbour Board's rule was law - even City Council bylaws did not apply on the waterfront.

However from the early 1980s things began to change. Most commercial shipping was now using the container wharf at Aotea Quay, so there was far less activity and heavy machinery operating around the inner harbour wharves. The development of Frank Kitts Park brought a splash of green to the otherwise grey concrete and asphalt wharfs. The excitement of waterfront motor racing began in 1985 and the first dragon boat festival was held in the late 1980s. People began to realise that an important and exciting public space was sitting on the city's doorstep which until then had been largely ignored. Then in 1989 as part of a national process of local body amalgamations, the Wellington Harbour Board merged into the Wellington City Council and for the first time since 1880, the City had direct control over how the Wellington waterfront was going to develop.

The establishment of Lambton Harbour Management (now called Wellington Waterfront Ltd) at around this time saw the creation of a publicly owned organisation which was dedicated to day-to-day management of the waterfront, as well as overseeing future developments and trying to find a balance between commercial and recreational activity. Though often controversial, Lambton Harbour Management have had a huge role in opening up the waterfront to the citizens of Wellington.

As an area still under continual development, the Wellington waterfront offers a fascinating example of urban planning and renewal in progress.

The library has a number of resources which can be found in the Central Library to help you research the past history, the present and future developments of the waterfront in greater detail. Some of the books may also be available in branch libraries. You can check the library's online catalogue for location details of these books and their availability.


Most of these books are available as lending copies, but some are always in high demand so remember that reference copies are always available of the 2nd floor of the Central Library. Most of these books look at the waterfront from a historical perspective, helping to put into perspective the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the last two decades.

  • Wellington Harbour, by David Johnson
    387.1 JOH.
    This is the definitive history of the waterfront from before European settlement to the mid 1990s. Published by the former Maritime Museum (now the Museum of Wellington City and Sea), this book offers enough to keep even the most serious researcher satisfied.
  • Wellington by the Sea : 100 Years of Work and Play, by David Johnson
    993.14 JOH.
    Another of David Johnson's books, Wellington by the Sea offers a pictorial history of the Waterfront and surrounding area. It's a great book to help illustrate the dramatic changes which have occurred around the waterfront in the last century.
  • Wellington Harbour : a heritage of Tara, by D.R. Neilson
    993.141 NEI.
    Published in 1970, this collection of beautifully reproduced charcoal drawings and oil paintings is a wonderfully evocative book. The images help capture the flow and movement of the waterfront which is sometimes absent from historic period photographs of the area.
  • Pat Lawlor's Wellington; Old Wellington Days; More Old Wellington Days
    All by Pat Lawlor.
    993.141 LAW.
    Probably no other author has come close to Pat Lawlor's ability to transport the reader back to the time to when he roamed throughout the inner city and the waterfront as an adventurous child and then as a young man. All these books have sections dedicated to the waterfront area, some with writing so vivid and colourful that you can almost smell the sea.
  • Wellington Harbour : Life on the Edge, by James Goff, published in Dynamic Wellington : a Contemporary Synthesis and Explanation of Wellington, edited by Jack McConchie et. al.
    919.3141 DYN.
    Though the area covered in the essay extends beyond that of the inner waterfront, this work is one of the best introductions to the geographical and geological history of Wellington Harbour. If you are interested in the effects of sedimentation and earthquakes on the harbour area, this is a good place to start.
  • Wellington : a Capital Century, by David McGill
    993.141 MACG.
    As this is one of the most recent books on the history and development of Wellington (2003), David McGill's book is a good introduction to some of the changes and developments that have occurred on the waterfront since the area opened up following the drop-off in commercial shipping activity.
  • Harbourscapes, by David McGill and Grant Tilly
    993.141 MACG.
    Exquisitely illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Grant Tilly, Harbourscapes offers a number of vignettes of various waterfront buildings and features. Sadly some of the buildings illustrated have been demolished since this book was published in 1984, but it helps capture the atmosphere of the waterfront just before the redevelopment of the area began in the mid 1980s.
  • The Cyclopedia of New Zealand - Volume 1: the Wellington Provincial District
    919.31 CYC.
    This rare and valuable work is only available as a reference book on the 2nd floor of the Central library. Published in 1897, it has a detailed chapter on the waterfront area and the workings of the Wellington Harbour Board. Unlike most other books, the Cyclopaedia was written as a (then) contemporary account of the waterfront rather than from a historic perspective.

Non-book & unpublished material

The library has been collecting a number of resources for several years which concentrate on the current development of the waterfront area. Most of these have not been published as books, so they are kept behind the reference desk on the 2nd floor of the Central library.

Many of these non-book resources don't appear on the library's online catalogue, so the best thing to do is to ask a reference librarian on the 2nd floor if you wish to view or copy any of this material - they will be more than happy to help!

Such material includes:

  • The controversial Variation 17 to the WCC District Plan which proposed large scale commercial development of the waterfront. This was followed by the smaller scale Variation 22, which the library also holds.
  • The Lambton Harbour Design guide from 1993 onwards, e.g. Lambton Harbour public spaces : design group master plan, October 1997. These give some idea to how development and design ideas have changed over the past decade.
  • Reports from Lambton Harbour Management and WCC Waterfront Leadership Group.

Newspaper articles:

One of the most useful resources is the collection of newspaper clippings that library staff have been carefully collecting for a number of years. These are placed in large envelopes and form part of the Wellington Vertical File collection which is kept behind the 2nd floor desk.

Online databases & websites

Online databases - mygateway.info:

Check out our collection of online databases at www.mygateway.info. You'll need to log in with your library card number and surname to search these databases, so have your library card handy!

With mygateway.info, you can access databases like Proquest ANZ Newsstand, to help you track down newspaper articles published from the mid-1990s onwards.

The EBSCO suite of databases also features two resources you may find useful: the Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre (which provides online access to New Zealand Herald articles), and MasterFILE Premier - an excellent resource for international magazine and journal articles (you could search these for information on the phenomenon of redeveloping old disused wharfs and docks which has been happening in cities all over the world).

This is just a sample of what our databases have to offer - visit our mygateway.info New Zealand portal for a full selection of databases and resources.

Useful websites:

  • Wellington Waterfront Ltd
    The website of the group formerly known as Lambton Harbour Management, this website has plenty of information about events happening on the waterfront, proposed developments, and how to get in contact with Wellington Waterfront Ltd.
  • Wellington City Council
    The WCC website has a great section dedicated to the waterfront.

Heritage Links (Local History)