Investigate the study of geography in New Zealand

With its breathtaking and varied landscape, New Zealand offers a vibrant setting for any aspiring geographer, as Mary Flaws explains.

Aotearoa/New Zealand is a country of contrasts with a wide variety of natural and cultural landscapes. It straddles a plate boundary and has active volcanoes, volcanic fields and geothermal resources. The Southern Alps, the backbone of the South Island, is dissected by many rivers which on the east have formed the Canterbury Plains. It has an extensive coastline. Resources being developed at present include gold and petrochemicals, as well as grasslands for dairy farming and their associated industries. Alongside this, a large amount of land is in the conservation estate.

Investigate the study of geography in New Zealand

“Geography is an integrative discipline aiming to establish knowledge of interrelationships between and among human and natural systems”

The population of New Zealand is over four million people. Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, who are actively involved in education at all levels including health, fisheries and economic enterprises.

Auckland, with its increasingly multicultural population, is the country’s largest city. Sited on an isthmus by the Hauraki Gulf in the North Island, it is currently changing its local governance model into a ‘supercity’. In contrast to the mainly coastal cities, there are many rural communities throughout the country.

It is this variety which makes it especially suitable for the study of geography at secondary and tertiary levels. Geography is an integrative discipline aiming to establish knowledge of interrelationships between and among human and natural systems. It encourages students to take a holistic view of the world. It has a focus on issues facing New Zealand and the world such as environmental conservation and degradation, social and economic structures, development regions, demographic influences on society, the spatial characteristics and problems of cities and rural areas which involve the management of water, soil, air and biological resources. Physical geography includes a raft of ‘…ologies’: geomorphology, climatology and glaciology to name a few. Geography helps foster international understanding by studying different contexts and places with its mix of knowledge and skills.

Geography is taught as a secondary school discipline from years eleven through to thirteen, or levels six through to eight, as a social sciences option in the New Zealand curriculum. It is both internally and externally assessed for a national qualification and may be assessed in the Cambridge Examinations in many schools. There are six universities in New Zealand offering undergraduate and postgraduate geography courses. There is detailed and interesting information on the universities’ websites for all levels of study. For students for whom the study of geography is new, there are videos and descriptions of geography on the University of Canterbury website. On the other hand, for students seeking PhD study opportunities, there is information on research and research partnerships at the different universities, for example, the University of Otago’s and University of Auckland’s geography website. The School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria, University of Wellington is associated with the Antarctic Research Centre. Different universities have various strengths or foci, such as the University of Waikato, which offers papers in Maori and Indigenous Geographies.

Geography has high relevance to careers as the skills involved are greatly sought after. These include information gathering, data analysis and critical assessment. Environmental planning skills are included in many of the university courses. GIS and remote sensing are very important spatial tools used in geography, using computers.

Students go places with geography in other ways too. Fieldwork has always been strong in geography, in both schools and universities. Many skills are learned by undertaking fieldwork in a wide variety of places and environments and the purpose and type of fieldwork is also diverse, from testing hypotheses framed by students to understanding society in a place and the meaning of place, to the exploration of difference in society.

The New Zealand Geographical Society links geographers in schools, universities, government and the private sector. Its aim is to promote and stimulate the study of geography within New Zealand. There are branches aligned with the different universities throughout New Zealand. It publishes an academic, peer reviewed journal three times a year which has as a focus New Zealand, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. It organises conferences and works closely with the Institute of Australian Geographers and is a member of the International Geographical Union. The New Zealand Board of Geography Teachers is an affiliate where ideas and knowledge are shared between geographers in schools and universities. In New Zealand, geography is vibrant and relevant.

Written by Mary Flaws (2010)
Executive Committee Member
New Zealand Geographical Society