The roots of the parks and tree-lined streets we are enjoying during the Covid-19 lockdown lie in 19th  century colonialists’ belief in the restorative power of nature

During this worrying time, many of us are rediscovering our local nature and the joy and support it can give us. This might be in our own backyard while gardening or searching for bugs with our children, or while walking through parks or along tree-lined streets.

The legacy of finding in nature something restorative, something soothing, especially during a period of terrifying change, is a constant in many of the cultures that make up Aotearoa New Zealand – Pacific, Māori, European, Chinese and many others besides.

This article reflects on the green-tinged heritage of the colonial period of New Zealand: a period in which parks, tree-lined streets, walkways and public gardens were laid out, very often over a rich and important Māori past.

In a world without antibiotics, in a society in which anaesthetics were only just coming into use, people in the 19th century felt very vulnerable to a host of unseen diseases. Perhaps what we are experiencing now was something like that which people in the past felt when facing uncertain dangers.

Medicine, environment and plants

In a society lacking effective medical intervention, environment – everything from trees and flowers to weather and geology – assumed a power we can today only imagine. Environment affected life and death, sickness and health. The rhythms of daily life moved in time with the patterns of seasonal disease. Agues, remittent fevers, malarias and other diseases came and went at certain times of year. Travellers received doctors’ advice not to move to climates that differed from their own, lest their constitutions suffer.

To remedy ill health, Tohunga, doctors (both Chinese and European), charlatans, quacks and chemists plied a wide variety of plant-derived remedies on the general public. The ubiquitous eucalypt, for instance, found its way into many tinctures, potions and remedies. Some also were derived from native plants, often by drawing extensively on Māori knowledge systems. 

The French-born nursing nun Mother Mary Aubert enthusiastically explored and exploited something of the medical potential of New Zealand’s plants by preparing and selling herbal remedies commercially and using them for the care of many Māori she ministered. 

These examples show the plurality of medical thought and breadth of healing available in the early years of colonisation, but also testify to the strength of what we today call alternative medicines, as well as a relative lack of confidence in the efficacy of the medical profession.

A key 19th-century New Zealand medical concept people used to express the negative connection between health and environment was ‘miasma’. The term was frequently used as a shorthand for poisoned or impure air, with people believing decaying animal and vegetable matter poisoned the air, leading to a variety of diseases. But just as bad environments could cause illness, so good ones could be healthy.

The health-giving tree

Eucalypts were widely acknowledged not only to filter miasma from the air but also to produce lots of ozone, as well as sanitise the air. Popularised by the Australian scientist Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-96) – ‘Baron Blue Gum’ to his supporters – word of its beneficial properties rapidly spread throughout the world, peaking in the 1870s. 

According to the Baron, eucalypts could successfully combat malaria in southern Europe, render uninhabitable areas in California habitable, even redeem vast wastes of malaria-poisoned land in North Africa. In his hands, there seemed no end to its usefulness. Various distillations and concoctions of it could be rubbed on the body, taken internally, even sniffed. 

Eucalypts proved especially popular in New Zealand from the 1860s, where they were favoured for their quick growth, utility for firewood, and health-giving properties.

In his 1880 article ‘Planting in Towns’, botanist JB Armstrong demanded that, for health reasons, carbon-absorbing plants be introduced into New Zealand’s towns. He highlighted the qualities of ‘the Blue Gum’ as “the most active absorber of carbon known”, but also listed a number of other Australian and European species and two from New Zealand. 

City parks

Tree-planting in cities, it was thought, purified stale, sickly city air. Parks enabled “the lover of flowers”, as one contemporary put it, to “enjoy himself, and also [provided a space] where the invalid can breathe a little fresh air, mingled with the perfume of the surrounding flowers”.

Provision of city parks, trees and open spaces together with sanitation, town planning and other public works furnished important weapons in the 19th century fight against disease. Establishing parks and planting trees further appealed to the spirit of the age – Romanticism – whose followers worshipped the spiritually and physically regenerative qualities of nature and fervently believed bringing trees and parks into cities would counter their artificiality and the poor health of inhabitants. 

Driven by fears of replicating many of Europe’s urban problems, even before organised European colonisation began in the late 1830s, the private settlement organisation, the New Zealand Company, had laid out public parks and spaces in its town plans, green havens in its blueprints for a better world for settlers. 

Dunedin’s town belt is one such example. Indeed, most newly established towns in New Zealand soon had land reserved for either a public park or domain, while urban gardens, aside from their value as food producers, also grew ozone-producing plants.

Park-making and the health-giving properties of those spaces enshrined the ideals of a progressive (white) New Zealand society intent on maximising its resources and improving both its nature and people. 

“Folks sought these shores to better themselves,” explained a journalist in 1884, not “merely [through] the acquisition of wealth; [but also through] the happiness of freedom and health for themselves and their children.”

The writer declared that an “adequate open space or lung for the well-being of future inhabitants should be dedicated for public use” and should form an important part “of rational and social progress” in the country. 

Protecting trees and city parks

While recognising the need to remove trees to make way for cultivation in rural areas, settlers objected when parks and trees in urban areas were threatened with destruction. In 1866, Dunedin lawyer Francis Dillon Bell reacted angrily to council plans to lease out portions of the city’s town belt, originally gazetted in the 1840s before formal settlement commenced. 

As he explained in a letter to the local newspaper in 1866, its “scenery … is unsurpassed for beauty; the ground offers rare facilities for laying out with taste; and the health of the City would be immensely improved by proper use being made of these great natural advantages, and by rigidly preserving the land for the single object it was set apart for”.  

Bell maintained that the leasing of the town belt should be prohibited on grounds of aesthetics, health and the principles of democracy wherein a minority should not unfairly control the resources of a majority.

Now we have time to contemplate the nature on our doorstep, as well as that of our neighbourhood, it’s time for us to consider the origins of some of the parks we are walking in, or some of the trees and flowers we admire: for some of these are sure to have been planted in the 19th century, while the parks we walk in express the idea and concept of the 19th century that believed in the restorative power of nature.

This article is adapted from a blog post for the Garden History Research Foundation.

Associate Professor James Beattie is an award-winning environmental historian who edits the International Review of Environmental History. He works at The Centre for Science in Society at Te Herenga Waka...

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