Environmental naturalness

Environmental naturalness/ Natural character

Natural character and ecological assessment Ruataniwha Spit and saltmarsh, Golden Bay, New Zealand

Natural character and ecological assessment Ruataniwha Spit


In 2011 Victoria Froude completed a PhD thesis that developed quantitative methodology for measuring the natural character  of New Zealand’s coastal environments.  As part of this work she developed a comprehensive definition for the New Zealand context using carefully developed criteria and after analysing a wide range of literature from a variety of disciplines as follows

“Natural character occurs along a continuum. The natural character of a “site” at any scale is the degree to which it:

  • is part of nature, particularly indigenous nature
  • exhibits fidelity to the geomorphology, hydrology and biological structure, composition and pattern of the “reference conditions” chosen.
  • exhibits ecological and physical processes comparable with reference conditions

Human perceptions and experiences of a “site’s” natural character are a product of the “site’s” biophysical attributes, each individual’s sensory acuity and a wide variety of personal and cultural filters.”

This definition applies across terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments. More information about the development of this definition is in a paper published in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology. The reference condition recommended for New Zealand is “present-potential natural state”.  This is the state that would occur today if humans, their tools and technology and the introduced species they brought with them had not arrived in New Zealand.  This can be applied to hydrology, geomorphology, vegetation cover, benthic cover and fauna.  It differs from a fixed historical time in that it incorporates the effects of geological and climatic disturbances and other natural changes that have occurred since human arrival.  In the context of vegetation or benthic cover this means that the present-potential natural cover for a site with high levels of natural disturbance (e.g. a river mouth or a foredune) is unlikely to be the so-called “climax” cover for that site.

While this definition was developed specifically for New Zealand it can be used elsewhere. For areas where humans have resided for a long time it may be extremely difficult to determine the present-potential natural state in some or most locations.  This is because it may be too difficult to distinguish between the impacts of early humans and some natural events (e.g. fires ignited by lightning).  In these cases alternative reference conditions may be helpful.

Project examples

Measuring natural character for the Northland Region coastal environment

Volcanic landscape, Dukes Nose in Whangaroa Harbour, New Zealand

Volcanic landscape Whangaroa Harbour


In 2012 Pacific Eco-Logic measured natural character in relatively homogeneous units within the terrestrial and aquatic coastal environments associated with the 3200km of Northland coastline. In mapping the boundaries of areas of high and outstanding natural character we used agreed threshold index scores to distinguish these from areas of “less than high” natural character, which were not further distinguished or described.

The mapped areas went through informal and formal public consultation processes (including a Council appointed Commissioner hearings process and appeals to the Environment Court) before final inclusion (after modification) in the Northland Regional Policy Statement.

Measuring natural character in Tasman Region coastal environment

Coastal natural character assessment of a Farewell Spit dune swale, wetland and dunes

Coastal natural character assessment , Farewell Spit

In 2011 Pacific Eco-Logic measured natural character for terrestrial and aquatic coastal environments of the Tasman Region. In mapping the areas of high and outstanding natural character we focused on those areas which were potentially of at least high natural character.  These findings have not been incorporated into any policy or plan review.


Please see the “environmental naturalness” heading in the Publications page.