The regeneration of Oamaru

With a population of around 14,000 and climbing, the regeneration of Oamaru continues to be a New Zealand success story for the revitalisation of second-tier settlements. The town provides a primer for how to reboot a region and prevent the development of “zombie” settlements.

The Oamaru case study by Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities National Science Challenge, led by Dr Mike Mackay, Lincoln University, and involving Drs Nick Taylor and Karen Johnston, and Emeritus Professor of Planning Harvey Perkins, provides an analysis of Oamaru’s past, present, and future initiatives for regeneration. How did Oamaru become an attractive place to live, visit, work, and do business?

“Our findings are focused on three ongoing and interrelated sets of initiatives evident since the town and district experienced a period of marked economic decline and population loss in the 1980s,” says Mike.

“The first set of initiatives is local in nature and proved fundamental to providing the initial momentum of regeneration. These initiatives are associated with planning and implementing regeneration of the Victorian heritage precinct of Oamaru stone buildings in the harbour area and along the main street, the eco-tourist attraction of the blue-penguin colony and visitor centre, and rejuvenation of the waterfront.”

Mike says property development, such as rehabilitating former industrial spaces or public facilities for reuse; constructing new facilities and spaces for interaction such as cycleways, farmers’ markets, offices, business parks, factories and conference centres; and providing new technologies and infrastructure to advance connectivity, innovation and entrepreneurship, is a crucial step in regeneration; as is cultural and environmental heritage conservation, leveraging both natural and built amenities.

The second set of initiatives in Oamaru is based around the Alps to Ocean (A2O) cycle trail, part of the New Zealand Cycle Trail, initiated and organised by local groups, councils, the Department of Conservation, Meridian Energy and local businesses.

The third set of initiatives is broadly involved with the current Geopark proposal led by the Waitaki District Council in conjunction with partners including Ngāi Tahu, University of Otago, Vanished World and others. The Geopark began as a local and then district initiative, then upscaled over the last year as the New Zealand proposal put forward for formal recognition by UNESCO.”

Nick notes that, “Oamaru has managed to build on underexploited local resources and skill sets; supporting business incubators; place branding and marketing; tourism events; and developing regional Māori economic development strategies.

“A strategic push over the last decade has significantly increased the size of the visitor economy. Oamaru is fortunate in that it is located at the end of the relatively new Alps to Ocean national cycle trail and home to the little blue penguin. It is also the site of many attractive warehouses built and carved from locally quarried Oamaru limestone. And now it has also found a unique niche, becoming the Steampunk Capital of the World, attracting thousands of visitors with its annual steampunk festival.”

The Oamaru case study utilises the combined approaches of realist evaluation and social assessment. The research team argues that an essential element to success in regional regeneration is the ability to mobilise local resources and external inputs in an integrated strategic approach that can include a mix of planning instruments.

Harvey emphasises the importance of planning: “Plans provide strategy and guidance, especially when there is a strong underpinning of community input. We also observe that it is important to build local capacity in regeneration by encouraging multiple leaders and organisations. An important finding is the need for integration across strategies, plans and initiatives, especially when dealing with multiple sites and a large number of heritage buildings and projects.”

For further information please contact Dr Mike Mackay, Email:

Taylor, N., Mackay, M., Johnston, K. & Perkins, H. (2019). Regeneration in the town of Oamaru. Special session at the Regional Studies Association Conference, Christchurch, February 2019.
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Date posted: 4 March 2019