The place of Russell or Kororareka in history is fairly well known because of certain events that occurred there, such as the cutting down of the flagpole by Hone Heke. Perhaps what is less appreciated is how well the Township and its surrounds serve as a reminder of New Zealand past and present.
Kororareka, as it was originally known, was one of the first contact points between Maori and European, first with the whalers, then the missionaries and finally the settlers. Initially it had a reputation as the "hell hole of the Pacific", with grog shops and brothels lining the foreshore, but later it became respectable enough to be the first seat of government at Okiato.
In the process of developing understanding between the two cultures, the area experienced some of the first commerce, gun battles, partnerships, protests, religious rivalries, land deals and bureaucracies. The sacking of Russell threatened to put an end to all of this, but the Township proved to be more resilient than imagined and commerce ultimately triumphed over strife.
The historic buildings such as Pompalier House, Christ Church, the Gables and the Custom House which remain from that era are an important part of our built heritage, made all the more so because of the appropriate setting in which these are found. The original Town Plan for Russell, conceived in London, is still largely intact and this does much to foster an appreciation of the historic events that unfolded there.
However, Russell is more than just a collection of buildings. It is a vibrant community located within a spectacular environment that has a sense of place and character; it is a microcosm of the natural, social, political, cultural and spiritual values that give New Zealand its own unique identity. The Township is our link between yesterday and today. In that sense it is worth protecting.
Visitors from overseas often comment on how precious this resource is because it reminds them of a quality of life that they can only reminisce about. The Russell Township of today has developed along a pedestrian scale and offers easy access to an exciting blend of historic buildings, craft shops, outdoor cafes and historic walks, all within an atmosphere of character and charm. Much of this "character and charm" stems from the small scale of harmoniously designed individual buildings, set within a landscape that is interesting, contained and largely uncompromised.
The tourism attractions of Russell are well known and include a historic precinct along the waterfront and Wellington Street, an interesting mix of residential buildings, shops and eating establishments, a museum and a charming setting of water, pohutukawa and bush clad slopes and headlands. It also offers a distinctive collection of bed-and-breakfast and lodge-type accommodation and a form of access which delivers the visitor by water to a tranquil, island-type atmosphere. Russell is also the gateway to a wide range of intimate, exciting cultural, outdoor and adventure activities that are available nearby or in the outer Bay.
The historic township of Russell and its surrounds continues to evolve in ways that are both encouraging and concerning. The community is supporting a number of 'green' initiatives that include a local kiwi recovery programme, tree planting and environmental education seminars. The local buildings and precincts still remain largely intact, however development pressures appear to be ever increasing. On the other hand, the social structure of the town is changing as more absentee owners purchase houses or build, while local businesses struggle to survive over the quiet winter months and questions are raised about the future of schools and other services in the area. Property values continue to skyrocket, in tandem with other coastal areas, and as a result Russell is now perceived as the preserve of rich, transient holidaymakers rather than as a resident community of young families and retired people. The Far North District Council has made this situation much worse through its ratings and 'user pays' policies, which are forcing lower income people out of the area.
As a handbook on New Zealand landscapes once commented, "people come and go, but the land endures". The same may be true for Russell in the sense that residents, visitors, and businesses, will come and go but the values of the area will endure. This is a heritage that we must actively protect for our grandchildren, if they are to fully understand who they are and where they have come from.