Opinion: Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa New Zealand Geographic Board (Pou Taunaha) has made decisions that were confirmed by the Minister for Land Information on seven names for new central and south Auckland railway stations. Notably Pou Taunaha officially altered Britomart Station to Waitematā Railway Station. Unsurprisingly, there have been mixed reactions.

People don’t typically like change, but good things, including change, take time. This was the case in 1986 when Mount Egmont was also given its original name Mount Taranaki. The alternative naming was to acknowledge the wishes of local iwi and the questionable relevance of the name Egmont, which was given by James Cook to honour one of his benefactors, an English earl who never visited New Zealand.  

Although an alternative name was granted, use of the colonial name is fast fading. It’s Taranaki to most people now. This will be endorsed shortly to simply Taranaki Maunga in a Treaty of Waitangi settlement.

The same is likely to happen in the case of Auckland’s train stations. New names are initially resisted by some but are ultimately accepted and become part of everyday language. Signage and use in the media help, but it will take time.

For now, we talk about ‘going to Britomart’ and don’t need to specify we are referring to the train station even though there are other uses of the name, such as a street called Britomart Place and the Council’s reference to Britomart Precinct. But is this the right name for a central transport hub in the 21st Century?

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The Britomart was a British Royal Navy gun ship, the earliest to survey the Waitematā Harbour in 1841. So, yes, it has historical significance, but for whom? Britomart Point (originally Rerenga Ora Iti) was historically named on the pre-reclamation harbour shores and where, on September 18, 1840, Crown representatives landed at Rerenga Ora Iti. The British flag was raised, and a gun salute fired, marking the founding of Auckland, after negotiating with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei.

Waitematā Railway Station is a more authentic name for what was given the name Britomart only two decades ago. There are three reasons. First, it’s a name requested by Mana Whenua. Listening to, and honouring, the voices of first peoples is a duty for our times.

Second, the station stands on land ‘reclaimed’ from the shallows of the Waitematā Harbour. This means the new name honours the original landscape. Third, the name offers a spatial orientation to travellers: going to Waitematā is also, by association, going towards the harbour. It is engaging with a story: Waitematā is known to refer to the harbour’s flat, glassy waters resembling matā (obsidian). Another tradition is that the harbour’s name reflects a visit from a Te Arawa ancestor who placed an obsidian stone in the northern part of the harbour as a talisman.

A more subtle change will occur at the edge of downtown Auckland: Mount Eden Station will become Maungawhau Railway Station. This is a logical change. The station is some distance from the Mount Eden ’village’ and Maungawhau is already used for nearby facilities including a school and tennis courts. This renaming will signal a clear relationship with the prominent topographic feature it relates to, in this case the volcanic maunga, Maungawhau, the highest cone on the Auckland isthmus.

Two new railway stations between Waitematā and Maungawhau have been named Te Waihorotiu and Karanga-a-Hape.

The Māori names for the seven stations were gifted by two Mana Whenua Forums of iwi to KiwiRail, Auckland Transport and City Rail Link who jointly proposed the names to Pou Taunaha. This statutory body was first established by an Act of Parliament in 1946 and is the mandated national authority responsible for official place names in New Zealand, its offshore islands and continental shelf, and the Ross Dependency of Antarctica.

In time, the names become embedded in the local urban landscape, and in the case of both Tūranga and Starship, they signify social infrastructure that sets out to be different

Place names are applied more broadly than those considered by Pou Taunaha. They can range from hospitals to entire nations. It would take an Act of Parliament to change our nation’s name, but requests to rename (or more correctly name) features or sites ranging from railway stations through to towns and mountains are researched and decisions are made by Pou Taunaha or the Minister for Land Information.

Pou Taunaha deliberates and makes recommendations on place names that have been proposed, but when there is public objection that Pou Taunaha does not uphold, a final decision is escalated to the Minister for Land Information. Sometimes the final decisions apply a dual name. Pou Taunaha’s work also includes approving existing place names as official that have been in use for a very long time.

In the case of New Zealand, the long shadow of colonial overlay is evident in the endurance of names with little bearing to the land, its stories or people. Efforts to rename are often resisted because attachment to a name has become part of a sense of belonging to a place. As in names for people, identity and place become intertwined. People get used to place names. They become fundamental to our experience of places themselves.

Names are important because they carry norms or values. As I have argued in my own research, naming can be regarded as a process of ‘norming’. It invariably reflects a history of claiming a place. Unfortunately, perhaps, European explorers thought they were encountering un-named places on their ‘discovery’ of New Zealand, giving names to what they saw as a blank landscape, a terra nullis. Or they consciously sought to overwrite existing names. Many names of European and often military men who never set foot on this land (such as Auckland, Napier and Wellington) have stuck. 

Names are easiest to apply at first encounter. This is witnessed when a baby is named and can be contrasted with the bureaucratic hassles of changing one’s name later in life. Often new names are given to sites of social infrastructure to signal new beginnings. In the Christchurch rebuild, for instance, the new library has been named Tūranga. There is no mention of ‘library’ in the title. Similarly, Auckland’s Starship is commonly understood as the children’s hospital with no reference to its function or patients.

These names were controversial at first for their apparent disconnect from the buildings’ purposes. But in time, the names become embedded in the local urban landscape, and in the case of both Tūranga and Starship, they signify social infrastructure that sets out to be different: a place of community significance and welcome.

So too, railway stations can be symbolic places and part of our sense of belonging. This time of renaming is an opportunity to be embraced with enthusiasm. This is because place names at their best keep stories alive and connect with the land on which they are located. Māori names do this particularly well. In adopting train station names such as Maungawhau and Waitematā we are accepting a gift that can help us all better appreciate the place we call home.

Robin Kearns is a Professor of Geography at the University of Auckland and Head of the School of Environment. He is a member of Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa New Zealand Geographic Board.

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