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Living Laboratory project

Aotearoa New Zealand is facing the globally common problems of rapidly disappearing biodiversity and the need to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.


The solution of planting more trees has come strongly out of central government, through initiatives like One Billion Trees. But how do we know we are spending our money wisely? Are we putting the right trees in the right places to reforest our land most effectively?

The Living Laboratory project, funded by AUT, is a real-world experiment that will address key scientific, political and social knowledge gaps when it comes to bringing native forest back onto kiwi farms.


We want to ensure optimal outcomes for:

(1) Farm kaitiakitanga (environmental guardianship) such as productivity, economic viability, and intergenerational sustainability 

(2) Agroecosystem function, such as tree growth and carbon sequestration, erosion control, and native biodiversity conservation.  



To do this we will set up three, large-scale, long-term experiments. Sites will be home to experimental plots, where we will grow native canopy tree species under a variety of conditions.


By altering different variables like site preparation methods, nursery treatments and planting density, we can determine how to best establish old-growth native forest for biodiversity, ecological, cultural and carbon sequestration values.

We will develop the experiments within a kaupapa Māori framework whereby we seek to co-design the trials and to maximise the mauri (life force) of the experimental systems and the landscapes and communities within which they are embedded.  


These sites will become treasured places for their local communities, as well as being a ‘living legacy’ for AUT that will support undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research activity decades into the future.

Site One:

Pourewa with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei


Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei have lived in Tāmaki since the 17th century, originally under the leadership of their rangatira (chief) Tuperiri. They are one hapū of the wider Ngāti Whātua iwi, whose rohe (region) reaches from Waimamaku in Northland down to the Waitākere Ranges and across to the east coast.

The Pourewa Creek Recreation Reserve is a small part of the original 700 acre Ōrākei Papakāinga (home base), located on the southern edge of Takaparawhā (Bastion Point) in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland).

In recent history the land was farmed, then used as a pony club for thirty years. Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei had the land returned in 2017 and since then they have been developing, and implementing, a master plan to improve the environmental, cultural, economic and recretional values for mana whenua and people of Tāmaki Makaurau.      

The Farming & Nature Conservation team are privileged to be a part of this plan. We are co-designing our first Living Laboratory site with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, to recloak their whenua with native trees.

Read more about the Pourewa plan here:

Site Stats

Area: 2.2 hectares

Old-growth species: taraire, tōtara, puriri, rimu

Nursery treatments:

  1. Kānuka

  2. Mixed (māhoe, ngaio, tarata, karamu)

What we’re monitoring:

  1. Do the old growth species grow better individually or clustered?

  2. Do the old growth species grow better with kānuka or a mix of nursery species?

  3. How far does self-seeding occur from the adjacent Kepa Bush?

  4. Does more self-seeding occur in the kānuka or mixed nursery blocks?

  5. How does the water quality, soil chemistry, earthworm, nematode and bird diversity change over time with increasing tree restoration? What impact do these have on the growth of old growth species?

Click the interactive map below to see more of the Pourewa site . . . 


In August 2019 we had our very first planting day and since then we have gotten around 5,000 plants in the ground!


Over 50 staff members and students from AUT have come out to get their hands dirty and we’ve also hosted over 60 school children as part of the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei holiday programme and planting days for local primary schools. Randwick Park School and St Joseph’s Ōrākei have helped the project release the saplings from weeds.

We’re excited to be able to get the community involved in tree planting, along with earthworm sampling, bird counts, tree measuring and water testing.

In 2020 we aim to plant another 4,500 trees at this site alone, if you’d like to be part of our journey please email us at


Site Two: Te Muri

This site is 4.2ha of Auckland Council owned farmland, on which we aim to plant around 14,000 native trees.


The main goal of this site will be finding out the effect of changing tree spacing/density. Given the huge cost that can be involved in reforesting large areas of land, how few trees can you get away with planting? Further apart means a lower initial cost, but too far apart and the cost of weed maintenance will surpass the savings you initially made.

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