What is 'natural character'?

Natural character is not defined in the RMA. Case law prior to the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010 indicated that natural character has three main components: natural processes, natural elements and natural patterns. Natural processes include the action of rivers, waves, tides, wind and rain as well as the movement of animals and the natural succession of plant species. Natural elements include water, landforms, and vegetation cover. The distribution of these natural elements over an area forms natural patterns. A fourth important component is the human experiences of these natural processes, elements and patterns and values.

Policy 13(2) of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010 now provides further direction on the meaning of the term natural character:

Recognise that natural character is not the same as natural features and landscapes or amenity values and may include matters such as:

a. natural elements, processes and patterns;
b. biophysical, ecological, geological and geomorphological aspects;
c. natural landforms such as headlands, peninsulas, cliffs, dunes, wetlands, reefs, freshwater springs and surf breaks;
d. the natural movement of water and sediment;
e. the natural darkness of the night sky;
f. places or areas that are wild or scenic;
g. a range of natural character from pristine to modified; and
h. experiential attributes, including the sounds and smell of the sea; and their context or setting.

Policy 13(2) makes it clear that natural character includes all natural aspects of the land and sea, including the underlying ecological, hydrological and geomorphological processes that shape landforms (including underwater features) and the natural movements of water and sediment. Natural character also includes aspects of the environment that affect human experience including the natural darkness of the night sky, the sounds and smell of the coast, and the context and setting of natural places.

Policy 13(2) makes it clear that there is a spectrum of natural character from pristine to modified. The absence of certain vegetation, landforms or water features may simply mean that the landscape is less natural rather than non-natural. Natural character exists to some degree in relation to all parts of the coast, even in highly modified environments, because of the continued influence of the wind, waves and tides.

The degree of natural character generally reflects:

  • the absence of buildings and other human influences,
  • the presence of original landforms and vegetation cover (particularly indigenous vegetation) together with other ecological patterns,
  • water bodies and natural movement of water and sediment, and
  • experiential attributes, including smells, noise, views and sense of remoteness.

The Environment Court has held that “natural” does not mean “endemic to New Zealand” or “pristine”. 1525  Natural connotes a range of qualities and features which are created by nature as distinct from human-made constructions. Natural may include things such as pasture and exotic trees and wildlife, both wild and domestic. It does not include human-made structures, roads or machinery. This means that areas where indigenous vegetation has been replaced with pasture may still have high natural character so long as built structures do not dominate the environment.

  1. Harrison v Tasman District Council [1994] NZRMA 193

Last updated at 2:14PM on February 25, 2015