Anna Holmes Northcroft, known as Nancy, was born in Hamilton on 23 March 1913, the second daughter of Violet Constance Mitchell and her husband, Erima Harvey Northcroft, a barrister. He was later a distinguished Supreme Court judge and served on the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo after the Second World War.
Nancy was educated at Sonning School in Hamilton and the Diocesan High School for Girls after her family moved to Auckland. She was strongly influenced by her father, who encouraged both his daughters to develop a range of academic and sporting pursuits. Her interest in playing cricket developed into a lifelong passion; later she became a life member of the Riccarton cricket club and the official scorer for its senior team.
Discouraged from her first choice of law as a career by her father, who was concerned at the opposition a female lawyer might encounter, Northcroft studied architecture and was awarded a BArch from Auckland University College in 1940. She then moved to Christchurch, where her family now lived, and showed an early interest in town planning. In August 1942 she represented the Canterbury District Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects at a meeting on the Christchurch Metropolitan Planning Scheme.
Despite the Second World War, in 1942 Nancy Northcroft took up a British Council scholarship and went to Britain for a year to study local-body housing. Afterwards she stayed and joined the recently established Association for Planning and Regional Reconstruction, which, in conjunction with the School of Planning and Research for Regional Development, ran correspondence courses in town planning for members of the Allied forces. As a tutor on these courses she was able to undertake the course in town planning which qualified candidates for membership of the Town Planning Institute, London. She was one of only three candidates to pass the diploma with distinction. Her time in Britain exposed her to current ideas which allowed her to relate her architectural training to the broader concerns of planning for pleasant and liveable communities, a concern which influenced much of her later career.
Wearying of post-war Britain, Northcroft returned to New Zealand in 1947. She overcame some early prejudice to become the assistant regional planning officer in Wellington, joining the small number of professional planners in the country. In 1949 she returned to Christchurch to become the town planning officer for the city council, a position she held until 1954. She did much to gain acceptance for the importance of planning to the city and to establish a staff.
In 1954 Northcroft was invited to become chief executive officer and chief planner for the recently established Christchurch Regional Planning Authority. Here she made her most significant contribution and the first effective planning scheme for Christchurch was formulated. Using the preliminary work that had been undertaken for the Christchurch Metropolitan Planning Scheme, she convinced the authority that the ‘urban fence’, intended to restrain Christchurch’s urban sprawl and to preserve open space on the edge of the city, should be legally instituted through a regional plan. This was formalised in 1959 with the adoption of a policy to protect rural areas, which is still largely in place and has effectively guided Christchurch’s growth. In the same year she and her colleagues started work on New Zealand’s first major traffic management study. Using one of the country’s first computers, and marshalling large teams to undertake a comprehensive urban land-use survey, Northcroft and her group produced the Master Transportation Plan in 1962. It was a classic of its time and inspired similar studies in other cities.
In 1962 Northcroft left the regional planning authority to join Davie Lovell-Smith, a multidisciplinary company in Christchurch, as a partner. There she advised private and local authority clients, and appeared before the Town and Country Planning Appeal Board and its successor the Planning Tribunal as an expert witness. Facing increasingly poor health from a lung complaint, she retired in 1977.
Throughout her career Nancy Northcroft took a strong interest in the development and advancement of her profession. Her interest in education led to her becoming external assessor for the diploma in town planning, established at the University of Auckland in 1957. She was the first woman president of the Town and County Planning Institute (NZ) from 1967 to 1969, and is remembered by many for having encouraged them to enter the planning profession or to obtain appropriate qualifications. In 1978 she was awarded the New Zealand Planning Institute’s first Gold Medal. Her contribution to the profession was further recognised in 1994 when the New Zealand Planning Institute established the Nancy Northcroft Planning Practice Award.
Her interests were diverse: she was an active member of the New Zealand Geographical Society, the Soroptimist Club of Christchurch, and the Board of Te Wai Pounamu Maori Girls’ College. She was also a justice of the peace. In the organisations she belonged to she would inevitably take a position of responsibility and apply to it her extensive talents. This contribution was recognised in 1978 when she was appointed an OBE. Northcroft never married. She died in Christchurch on 31 July 1980.
Nancy Northcroft was a pioneer, not just because she was a woman working in what was largely a man’s world, but because she worked in planning when it was in its infancy. Her clear thinking, accuracy, excellent public speaking and willingness to enter public debate on planning issues did much to help establish the legitimacy of the profession in New Zealand. The respect in which she was held by the politicians she served did much to advance both the practice and concepts of planning and planners themselves.