One Question Quiz
Image: Archi Banal.
Image: Archi Banal.

SocietyFebruary 8, 2023

Auckland’s ferocious floods took the city back in time

Image: Archi Banal.
Image: Archi Banal.

Paved-over rivers, covered-up shorelines and filled-in wetlands reemerged during Auckland’s devastating deluge – taking the city 200 years back into the past.

Tāmaki Makaurau’s recent flooding has stirred up plenty of kōrero about our biggest city. Architecture and urban planning professor Timothy Welch reminded us that we built Auckland in a way that exacerbates major weather events. Many commentators explored the role of the mayor during a crisis. A kaupapa less discussed is how the floods have been a physical reminder of Auckland’s past. During the flooding, Tāmaki’s pre-colonial landscape partly reclaimed itself in the form of historic waterways. 

Across the region, former rivers, beaches and wetlands that were paved over, covered up and filled in by urban development reemerged. Streets became rivers, parks became swamps, and reclaimed land returned to being underwater. In a way, the recent flooding has forced Aucklanders to step back in time. Although Auckland didn’t board the rainy time machine willingly, having history reveal itself in such a tangible way provides a great moment to reflect on what once was and what the future holds. 

Children boogie boarding at the flooded Auckland Domain.
The flooded Auckland Domain became a site for boogie boarding, as seen here, as well as paddle boarding, kite surfing, kayaking, aquatic biking and dog bathing (none of these activities are recommended in floodwaters) (Image: Supplied)

One Auckland landscape that dramatically returned to its historical form was Pukekawa, the Auckland Domain. The southwest corner of Pukekawa, adjacent to Carlton Gore and Park roads, typically consists of playing fields underneath the grandstand. But Auckland’s record rainfall made the playing fields resemble a lake several feet deep, and that’s exactly what that corner of Pukekawa was historically – a lake. The lake formed in a volcanic crater (yes, Auckland’s Domain and museum are built on a volcanic field) and eventually became a swampy wetland. Tangata Māori used the swamp to collect water and eels, but settlers drained it in the 1860s to provide space for the current playing fields. Another wetland turned playing field, Eden Park, flooded badly during the devastating deluge.

Normally, Queen Street is the centre of New Zealand’s commercial capital, but it looked more like a river while Auckland was pelted by record rainfall. That’s because the Queen Street valley used to be a natural water outlet into the Waitematā Harbour, with the Waihorotiu awa historically running down much of its course. From its source in what is now Myers Park, the Waihorotiu awa carved out the valley that Queen Street now inhabits, draining into the sea at the old foreshore on modern Fort Street. Kāinga were dotted around the banks of the awa, with their inhabitants sustained by its abundant fresh water supply and thriving fish stock.

However, as colonial Auckland grew, settlers desecrated the awa by turning it into an open sewer. In the 1860s, it was covered up, becoming an underground sewer. The Waihorotiu awa is only one of many covered-up rivers and streams in Auckland that dangerously roared back to life during the recent floods.

Another example was found nearby at Ponsonby’s badly flooded Western Park, where the now-covered Tunamau awa used to be. The CBD’s historic waterways ran into the sea at the old shoreline, which was filled in to reclaim extra land for Auckland city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

A historic photo of Auckland’s Queen Street, with the once thriving Waihorotiu Awa, turned settler open sewer precariously sitting below the street. (Image: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection 4-400)

Much of the old foreshore flooded badly during Auckland’s devastating deluge. From Freemans Bay in the west, across to lower Queen Street in the centre and east to the bottom of Parnell, the historic shoreline was once again submerged underwater. 

Although this story has focused on central Auckland, the tale of nature reclaiming itself during flooding has been seen across New Zealand. Unfortunately, nature deciding to reclaim its historic waterways will only increase in the future. The ever-worsening climate crisis will make extreme weather events, like ferocious floods, more common. That makes adaptation crucial to avoid more lives being stolen. Landscape engineer Mark Lewis believes one potential adaptation could be returning covered-up urban waterways to their natural open-air state. “A stream by its nature has a higher and more variable capacity than a pipe,” commented Lewis. He also stated that “Nature-based solutions will be key to our success in responding to climate change.”

A collage of flooding in Freemans, compared to the old shoreline and the flooding sites when dry.
Freemans Bay, once an actual bay along the shoreline, now reclaimed land, seen in its dry and flooded forms next to an image of the old shoreline. (Images: Getty Images and Wikimedia)

Auckland’s devastating deluge has forced the city to look forward to the future in search of solutions. But the flooding has also been a reminder of the past, with historic wetlands, rivers and shorelines reclaiming their watery forms. 

Keep going!