Boosterism attempts to ‘boost’ the reputation and perceptions of a place. The term, which originated in the US in the 19th century, is not widely used any more, but the practices are still common. Boosters often dealt in myth-making, idealism and overstatement, but they also aimed to make their dreams reality. The boosters of the 2000s are better known as economic development agencies, marketing experts and property developers.
19th-century New Zealand was founded on boosterism. The New Zealand Company described the country in glowing terms in speeches, books and pamphlets – first to attract immigrants, and then to counteract negative publicity after the extravagance of their claims was exposed. Later, particular towns and cities were ‘talked up’ (or boosted), sometimes to the detriment of other settlements. A sense of rivalry continues between some towns.
Boosterism was due to a combination of collective self-interest, civic pride and genuine concern for a town or city’s welfare. The main goals were to attract and keep residents, businesses and industries, and to encourage investment. Economic depressions often led to increased boosterism because towns and cities had to work hard to keep residents and investors.
From the late 1860s the South Island settlements of Kakanui, Moeraki and Ōamaru competed to build the best wharf and port facilities. Kakanui emerged as front-runner, but its harbour later silted up. Meanwhile, in 1869 the Duke of Edinburgh mistakenly visited Moeraki instead of Ōamaru, giving that settlement a public relations victory over its rival. However, when Ōamaru built a harbour breakwater all bets were off. Ōamaru could not relax though, with Timaru and its similar port facilities nearby.
Rivalry between towns and cities was an integral part of boosterism. Auckland and Wellington were early rivals for capital-city status. Auckland became the capital in 1840, but in 1865 the seat of government shifted south to Wellington.
Rivalry was also prompted by competition to secure or develop key infrastructure that could significantly improve a town’s growth prospects, and even ensure its survival. Palmerston North and Foxton vied for major railway lines, as did Hamilton and Cambridge, while New Plymouth and Waitara competed to secure port facilities.
Attracting tourists became a focus for boosters in the later 19th century. Nelson, a New Zealand Company settlement, was unable to establish itself as one of the country’s major cities, but had more luck promoting itself as a tourist town. The catchphrase ‘sunny Nelson’ had been used from the early days, but became much more widespread once adopted by boosters.
Like Nelson, Napier grew slowly, and promoters hoped tourism would succeed where industry had failed. They had some success: one Australian visitor described Napier in 1887 as ‘the Malta of the southern-seas’.1
Not all visitors to New Zealand were convinced by the boosters. When told that Wellington had the largest wooden building in the world, tourist Max Herz wrote: ‘One has to take such assurances guardedly in New Zealand, where the people sometimes suffer from megalomania.’2 Perhaps confirming this view were a New Zealander’s comments on visiting St Peter’s Basilica in Rome: ‘[I]t isn’t bad, but I can’t understand what all the fuss is about. In our country, even if young, we have buildings as equally beautiful, for example, the Printing Office in Wellington.’3
The dominant tools of the trade were the written and spoken word, and anyone able to speak or write could act as a booster. Boosters tended to occupy particular professions or positions within their community. Newspaper editors and owners, such as John Ballance (later prime minister) in Whanganui, were well placed because they had a ready-made audience and means of communication. Politicians were natural boosters, as were mayors and city councillors. Businesspeople had a vested interest in talking up their towns and cities because a settlement, its inhabitants and its businesses depended on one another for survival.
Boosters were concerned with establishing all kinds of ‘facts’: that New Zealand towns and cities were better than those in the old world and just as civilised, that they developed quickly and reliably, and that a great future awaited them and their inhabitants. Too much enthusiasm sometimes led to flights of fancy, such as when Auckland was described as ‘a galaxy of emeralds set in diamonds’ in 1888.4
The job of promoting and encouraging the improvement of towns and cities also fell to citizen-based groups. Many of these were run by volunteers, though some employed paid staff.
Progress leagues, expansion leagues and advancement committees were established throughout the country, and many were active from the 1910s and 1920s. Their purpose was to promote their towns, cities and regions, and to encourage economic and social development. They were typically run by businesspeople and other prominent community members – usually men.
Progress groups were not always made up of influential men. The Foxton Beach Ladies Progress League started in 1946 in the Manawatū town. The league, which operated until the 1970s, concerned itself with local issues, including street and beach lighting, providing seating for the elderly outside the post office, and getting rid of wandering stock from the town.
The scope of these groups was wide. The Hastings Progress League, for example, busied itself with establishing and encouraging industries, beautifying the town and publishing favourable statistics and information about Hastings. They also advocated an underground railway and a cycle track to nearby Havelock North.
A number of these groups lasted into the 1980s and 1990s. Some were superseded by publicly funded promotional organisations. In the 2000s the voluntary groups most similar to the progress leagues of the past are progressive associations, ratepayer groups and civic trusts.
When a settlement reached city status, it celebrated. In 1956 the secretary of internal affairs hinted to the mayor of Hastings that the town had reached the required population of 20,000. Plans for a blossom festival and party were well advanced when the government statistician revealed that Hastings was in fact short by several hundred people. The mayor kicked up a fuss, celebrations proceeded, and it was only afterwards that the published census revealed the true story.
Some towns had groups devoted to increasing their populations. Napier established the first 30,000 Club, which aimed for a population of 30,000, in 1912. It was followed by Gisborne (1936), Rotorua (1946) and the Hutt Valley (1951). At the time a town of 20,000 or more was defined as a city, and setting a goal beyond this was seen as a sign of confidence.
To encourage growth, these clubs were involved in projects designed to make their towns more attractive and prosperous. The Napier 30,000 Club held Mardi Gras festivals, ran an annual Shopping Week, and was involved in beautifying Marine Parade.
By the late 19th century towns and cities were well-established, but uncontrolled growth and expanding industrial zones left little room for well-thought-out urban environments. Beautifying societies and similar groups emerged in New Zealand – and throughout the western world – in response to these issues. As the Evening Post reported in 1897, they were concerned with anything ‘that will conduce to adorn the city or add to its attractiveness in any way’.1
Tree, shrub and flower planting, usually on council reserves, was a favoured activity, but these groups soon expanded their brief, particularly once local councils established parks departments to manage reserves. The Christchurch Beautifying Association, formed in 1897 – and still going in the 2000s – also concerned itself with conservation of native bush, town planning, and visual pollution from advertising hoardings and overhead power lines.
Groups like chambers of commerce and publicly funded economic development agencies are found in most centres throughout the country.
Chambers of commerce were the first business-advocate groups in New Zealand – the earliest were set up in Auckland and Wellington in 1856, and Nelson in 1858. They were established because merchants wanted to ensure that central and provincial governments paid proper attention to commerce and economic development, and that the laws they passed were business-friendly.
The first New Zealand Junior Division of the Chamber of Commerce, commonly known as Jaycee, was started in Auckland in 1932. Other chapters opened throughout the country not long after. Jaycee, open to men and women aged 18–40, provided opportunities for business mentoring, networking, public speaking and community service work. The movement peaked in popularity in the 1970s, when it had the highest per capita membership of any Jaycee group in the world.
Based in towns and cities, chambers were interested in a wide range of issues affecting urban areas and their rural hinterlands, including postal services, transport infrastructure, and importing and exporting processes. Modern chambers of commerce have a similar focus, though those in major centres are less concerned with issues affecting the rural economy.
From the mid-1980s deregulation of the economy and removal of protective tariffs led to a decline in the manufacturing industry and increasing unemployment. Regionally focused economic development agencies emerged in response to this. Most were publicly funded, though some received financial support from businesses.
They aimed to promote towns and cities, and boost their economic growth, by providing advice and services to businesses. Similar groups included tourism organisations, such as Positively Wellington Tourism, and business incubators such as Icehouse, run by the University of Auckland’s business school.
One-off and regular public events form an important part of many cities’ income streams, and also contribute to less tangible things like sense of identity and community well-being.
In the past, cities held events such as exhibitions that showcased their assets and industries. The New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, which opened in Dunedin in 1925, attracted 3.2 million visitors over 24 weeks.
In the 2000s many councils had policies encouraging events, and some cities gained a reputation for events that made significant contributions to the local economy.
Economic costs and benefits of events and facilities often provoke community debate. In 2008 a proposed new multi-purpose stadium for Dunedin drew a range of responses. Some believed it was not a good use of public funds and would not attract lucrative events, while others argued it would revitalise the city.
While particular events contribute significant sums of money to local economies, not all are profitable, and sometimes ratepayers are left to pick up the tab. In 2002 the Wellington City Council and Kapiti Coast District Council agreed in secret to underwrite the cost of bringing sports star Tiger Woods to the New Zealand Golf Open, a private business venture. When large crowds failed to materialise, the money was called in and both councils were forced to reveal the details of the deal and the financial loss suffered by ratepayers.
Sometimes, towns and cities compete to secure events. In 2004 Wellington won the lucrative World of Wearable Art Awards, which had been held in Nelson since 1987.
In the 2000s Wellington laid claim to the title of ‘events capital’ of New Zealand, though places like Auckland were snapping at its heels, and centres throughout the country hosted an increasingly diverse range of events.
By the 1990s most New Zealand cities were attempting to develop individual identities. Slogans and logos were common ways of doing this.
Some New Zealand cities have had associated catchphrases for a long time. ‘Sunny Nelson’ was used from the mid-19th century. Nelson and Christchurch were described as ‘garden cities’ in 1901 and 1906 respectively, while other cities such as Palmerston North laid claim to this tag later in the century. Local councils also had coats of arms containing elements which symbolised the city, often including a Māori figure or emblem.
In most cases, ratepayer money was not spent on promotional activities until the latter part of the 20th century. However, some places (usually tourist destinations) opened public relations offices, which acted as marketing agencies, decades earlier, such as Auckland in 1947, and Hastings in 1954.
In the late 1980s a new type of marketing and branding of cities emerged, which included nationwide advertising campaigns, slogans and logos (often developed in conjunction with advertising agencies). This continued in the 2000s.
Hamilton has struggled to find a slogan resistant to mockery. For a while it was known as ‘Fountain City’ – wishful thinking rather than reality, as the city had few fountains. Next came ‘Hamilton – where it’s happening’, followed by ‘Hamilton – more than you expect’, which implied low expectations and damned with faint praise. Neither was embraced by the community, and the city council decided in 2004 to not have a slogan at all. However, ‘Hamiltron – city of the future’, an informal (and perhaps ironic) slogan devised by the youth of Hamilton, lives on.
When deregulation of the economy led to changing economic fortunes in the 1980s and 1990s, cities had to come up with new ways to survive and grow. Slogans and logos were created, not only to give these places a unique identity and to promote them (particularly to tourists), but also to help locals feel good about their home town.
The capital city’s ‘Absolutely Positively Wellington’ slogan was launched by booster mayor Fran Wilde in 1992. Other cities and towns followed suit, though no other slogans were as successful and enduring. In fact, branding is a risky activity for councils. Slogans and logos are more often the subject of community ridicule than support.
Buildings are a way of communicating a place’s identity, and the image it wants to project, both to inhabitants and outsiders. Towns and cities changed as buildings were constructed or demolished. However, from the 1980s a growing interest in historic preservation meant that constant rebuilding was no longer accepted as inevitable.
Buildings – their height, materials and architectural qualities – are a visual representation of the hopes and ambitions of boosters and promoters. The simple presence of buildings where once there were none was a sign of civilisation in early days of colonisation. Later, the use of more permanent materials like stone, brick and concrete for bigger, ornate buildings showed the progress and permanence of a town or city. Impressive buildings were one of the best advertisements a booster could hope for.
The opening of a new town hall has always been a significant moment in the life of a town or city. New events centres and sports arenas can boost civic pride and the local economy.
Earthquakes have played an important role in the country’s built environment, particularly in shake-prone places like Wellington. A quake in 1848 badly damaged brick, stone and earth buildings, but left wooden structures relatively unharmed – so timber became the building material of choice for the next few decades. Ironically, fear of earthquakes has proven far more destructive than actual shakes. Most of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the Wellington central business district were demolished in the 1970s and 1980s when new building codes assessed them as earthquake risks – and their owners did not want to spend money on fixing them.
Before the 1980s corporate firms, retailers, manufacturers and governments were often responsible for the buildings in town and city centres. Institutions such as banks and insurance companies were known for impressive buildings that became local landmarks, while the government constructed its own buildings to house ministries and departments.
After financial markets were deregulated in the 1980s, investment companies had more freedom to invest in sectors of their choice, such as commercial real estate. Property developers used this new money to demolish existing buildings and construct skyscrapers clad in reflective glass, radically changing the appearance of city centres. The government and corporate firms increasingly leased buildings from developers, rather than being owner-occupiers.
Property developers want to make an impression on cities through their buildings. Wellington developer Terry Serepisos has stated his desire to ‘leave my landmark in Wellington and to be remembered for that,’1 while Dave Henderson set out to make part of inner-city Christchurch ‘the coolest urban quarter in the country’.2
Some buildings or objects come to symbolise the place in which they are located, and are described as ‘iconic’. Some, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, have even been credited with reviving the economic fortunes of the cities in which they are located. Cities throughout the world, including those in New Zealand, have hoped that constructing iconic buildings will prompt similar success stories.
The original meaning of the word ‘icon’ is a devotional image of Jesus Christ or other religious figures such as saints. Because of the connotations of worship and deep respect, it is also applied to people or things who evoke a similar reaction, or who symbolise something greater than themselves. Today, however, the word is used indiscriminately – for example, by real estate agents describing office buildings – and has lost some of its value.
New Zealand city buildings recognised as iconic are locally or nationally significant at best. While they are not big economic contributors, some do put their cities ‘on the map’. The Beehive, Parliament’s executive wing, is probably New Zealand’s most instantly recognisable building, and represents Wellington as much as it does the government. Auckland’s Sky Tower is a close second, and while the architectural merits of Te Papa (The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) are still debated, it has put Wellington on the country’s tourist trail.
In the past, an unchanging town or city was a booster’s nightmare. Lack of development due to a depressed economy equalled failure. Recently though, places such as Ōamaru and Napier have capitalised on the large number of buildings from a past era, and marketed themselves as heritage destinations.
Alessio, Dominic. ‘Promoting paradise: utopianism and national identity in New Zealand, 1870–1930.’ New Zealand Journal of History 42, no. 1 (2008): 22–41.
Boyd, M. B. City of the plains: a history of Hastings. Wellington: Victoria University Press for the Hastings District Council, 1984.
Gibbons, Peter. Connections: a century of commerce and industry in the Waikato, 1906–2006. Hamilton: Waikato Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2006.
Hamer, D. A. New towns in the New World: images and perceptions of the nineteenth-century urban frontier. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Hamer, David. ‘Towns in nineteenth century New Zealand.’ New Zealand Journal of History 13, no. 1 (1979): 5–24.
Strongman, Thelma. City beautiful: the first 100 years of the Christchurch Beautifying Association. Christchurch: Clerestory, 1999.