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Get to know Birkenhead

By Susan Buxton

Once the land of a mighty kauri forest, then cleared for farming and fruit growing, now Birkenhead has transformed into one of Auckland’s most liveable suburbs.

It’s rare vantage point of Waitematā harbour, stretching from Hellyer’s creek to Little Shoal bay, its bushy cladded headlands and its wetland of fierce fecundity, ensures environmental prosperity. Birkenhead’s urban environment is also flourishing and boasts a number of new businesses, cafes and eateries, sharing class without the flashy furore of downtown Auckland.

The attraction for many residents is the easy access to the city through good public transport, and this has been further enhanced by the regular ferry service. For others, it is the lifestyle, the magnificent sea views, water access, nearby beaches, and the unpretentious community spirit.

The History

In many ways, Birkenhead is the same quaint town it was in the 1960’s. The domestic timber villa is still a strong thread in the housing vernacular; the marriage of bush, mangrove and sea has stood sturdy against the blustery boom of economic development; and the Chelsea Sugar Factory, established back in 1884, still puffs along, producing Aotearoa’s main source of sugar products.

Ferry berthed at Birkenhead wharf, 1910’s. Image source; Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections B0162

Maori settlement of Birkenhead

Pre-European settlement, few Māori settled in Birkenhead. It was home to a dense native kauri forest and thriving podocarp-broadleaf native trees. The Māori who did occupy the area enjoyed the fertile waters of Waitematā harbour and fortified the Awataha Marae on the northern headland at Shoal Bay. The site of ancient papakainga or village – Te Korekore – was settled around one thousand years ago and was occupied until 1923 by the Kawerau a Maki people, according to Awataha, which still stands today.

Clearing of the Birkenhead land

After the war, as colonisation ran rife and economic demands spread the country, Birkenhead’s frontage of the sea made for good distribution of kauri logs, and the land was hastily cleared for crops and livestock. However, remnants of these mighty kauri still stand today – notably at Kauri Park Reserve, Kauri Glen and Le Roys Bush Reserve – providing a window into the suburb’s heritage.

Timber workers preparing kauri logs for rail transportation. Ref: 1/1-006298-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23218351

But, in the vagaries of economic stimulation and population growth, Birkenhead wasn’t cultivated like other suburbs of Auckland. Its geography was hilly, hardy and ‘gave little to its inhabitants’ in the form of urban development. Thus, when Europeans trickled into Birkenhead in the 1960’s, its mantra was a sleepy agrarian town, famous for its strawberry growing – and perhaps closer to rural Northland, than the bright lights of Auckland.

Modern day Birkenhead

Birkenhead retains the stillness of its heritage yet shares the stimulating qualities of a cityscape. Houses back up onto the bush or peer out upon Waitematā harbour, yet people still feel connected to their favourite cafes and restaurants.

Moxie Restaurant is a modern eatery serving fine wines, craft beers & great food.

Its family ideals are close to its chest with strong connections to essential amenities: Birkenhead college, a wonderful public library, sports fields, a trusty selection of shops, various public walks, a functioning ferry to downtown Auckland, along with a historic wharf to jump off and swim.

These are coupled with local events, such as the ever-thriving Birkenhead night market on Sundays, or regular film showings at the authentic arthouse theatre, Bridgeway, located in Te Onewa, Northcote Point.

But, it’s becoming more dynamic. Progressive businesses like design company Inhouse, who converted a 1960’s home into a globally recognised design studio, or Generosity Coffee, who give a whopping 20 percent of each bag of coffee sold back into the community, shows you don’t have to cross the bridge to do business.

Coffee General in Birkenhead

What’s next for Birkenhead

As for the housing market, Birkenhead is the Kapiti vanilla ice cream you know and love – and can reluctantly afford – with a median sales price, teetering above Auckland’s average, at $1.26 million.

A new regeneration plan for Northcote – grappled by Panuku, Auckland Council’s development arm – will likely have cascading effects on Birkenhead.

According to Panuku: new regulations, market conditions and development opportunities, means the time is now for development. The plan promising more people, more housing, with emphasis on higher-density housing, along with more space for businesses to open. Perhaps, finally transforming Birkenhead from its sleepy provincial heritage into a dynamic city space.

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