Nelson is the largest urban area in the upper South Island, and also the name of the region to its south and west. The Nelson region includes the area administered by the Tasman District Council. To the east is Marlborough, and to the south and west is the West Coast.
Nelson’s largely sheltered coast is dominated by two huge, shallow bays – Golden and Tasman. Much of the coast, including Motueka, Golden Bay and Abel Tasman National Park, lie further north than the southernmost parts of the North Island. Nelson city is at roughly the same latitude as Wellington.
Inland areas are hilly or mountainous, with much of the hinterland forming the headwaters of the Buller River. The Nelson region lies west of the Alpine Fault, and shares mountain ranges with Marlborough and the West Coast. As on the West Coast, the coastal lowlands are very small, but Nelson’s indented coastline is far more sheltered with a better climate. The main populated areas are the alluvial lowlands between the eastern and western ranges, and – to a much lesser degree – the Tākaka and Aorere river valleys.
Second English settlement
Nelson was New Zealand’s second planned European settlement (Wellington was the first, in 1840). In 1841 the New Zealand Company sold Nelson’s arable (cultivable) land in London. The plan was that English settlers with capital would develop the land, employing tradesmen and labourers. However, many who bought land were speculators who had no intention of settling in New Zealand. And there was insufficient land suitable for farming – when the company explored the area they found forested hills and mountains.
Nelson struggled in the 1840s, but gradually developed in the 1850s after it became a province. Gold discoveries in the late 1850s and 1860s generated trade and attracted diggers.
The mountains that give Nelson a favourable climate also isolate it from the rest of the South Island, and transport was a major issue in developing the region. A railway was built within the region from the 1870s, but never linked to any other line. It took many decades to construct good roads through the mountainous country. The city also lacked a deep-water port, and major development of the shallow natural harbour was needed to accommodate larger vessels.
Sunny but remote
Nelson is seen by many people as a summer holiday playground, with its high sunshine hours, beaches and national parks. Until the 1950s Nelson was a small provincial city and residents often felt overlooked by central government as large investments in infrastructure occurred elsewhere. The Nelson region was distant from both State Highway 1 and the main trunk railway line. For decades small farmers and orchardists developed the land and lived a quiet agrarian life in the sun.
Industry and population
Horticulture and forestry became important industries in the early 20th century – as did tourism, fishing and aquaculture in the late 20th century.
Since the 1970s an influx of alternative lifestylers (‘hippies’) and artisans has brought a different subculture and created a thriving arts and crafts scene, adding colour to Nelson’s established culture of farming, business and landed families. The region’s population grew further in the 1990s and 2000s, largely driven by migration from other parts of New Zealand. Almost all new residential developments have been near the coast.