The city is inland, located in the eastern Manawatu Plains, near the north bank of the Manawatu River. The city is from the river's mouth and from the end of the Manawatu Gorge. It is also about north of the capital, Wellington.
The city covers an area of . The official limits of the city take in rural areas to the south, north-east, north-west and west of the main urban area, extending to the Tararua Ranges; including the town of Ashhurst at the mouth of the Manawatu Gorge, the village of Bunnythorpe in north and the village of Longburn in the west. Included in the city limits are rich and fertile agricultural areas.
The city's population is expected to exceed 85,000 (2012), it is the country's seventh largest city and eighth largest urban area. The city is the fourth fastest growing in New Zealand, and is set to break the 100,000 population mark in the near future, qualifying to be a metropolitan area. One million people live within a two-hour drive (200 km/120 mile radius).
The location that became the city was little more than a clearing in a forest, occupied by indigenous Māori, who called it Papaioea, believed to mean "How beautiful it is".. In the mid 19th century, it was discovered and settled by Europeans (mostly of British and Scandinavian origin). The settlement was bestowed the name Palmerston, in honour of Viscount Palmerston, a former Prime Minister of Great Britain. The suffix "North" was added in 1871 by the Post Office to distinguish the settlement from Palmerston in the South Island. The Māori transliteration of Palmerston North, is Pamutana (Nota). However, Te Papaioea is the preferred Māori name.
Ngāti Rangitāne were the local Māori iwi (tangata whenua) living in the area known as Te Ahu-ā-Tūranga, when a trader, Jack Duff, became the earliest known European to explore the area c.1830. He came on a whaling ship, and explored possibly as far inland as the site of Woodville. He reported his discovery on arrival back to Porirua. Colonel Wakefield heard of the potential that the Manawatu had for development and visited in 1840. In 1846 Stephen Charles Hartley, another trader, heard from tangata whenua of a clearing in the Papaioea forest and he proceeded through the dense bush and forest and discovered it for Europeans.
In 1858, the Government began negotiations with local iwi to purchase land in Manawatu. There is dispute at the time between rival iwi Ngāti Rangitāne and Ngāti Raukawa as to who has the right to sell. The dispute is resolved in favour of Rangitāne.
On a visit in 1859, John Tiffen Stewart, an employee of the Wellington Provincial Council, was shown the Papaioea clearing by Rangitāne chief, Te Hirawanu, and noted its suitability for a "good site for a township".
In 1864, Te Ahu-a-Turanga Block was sold by Rangitāne to the Government for £12,000, in an effort to open the Manawatu to settlement.
Stewart returned in 1866 on behalf of the Wellington Provincial Council (under whose jurisdiction the new purchase fell) and made the original survey and subdivision in the Papaioea forest clearing. The settlement, named Palmerston to commemorate the recently deceased Prime Minister of Great Britain, was laid out according to Stewart's plan consisting of a series of wide and straight streets in a rectangular pattern. The focal point was an open space of subsequently known as The Square. On 3 October 1866, Palmerston was formally endorsed after Isaac Earl Featherston (Wellington Provincial Superintendent) signed a proclamation defining the boundaries of the settlement. The first sections were sold after.
Among the first settlers included Scandinavians, who arrived in 1871. They established settlements at Awapuni and Whakarongo/Stoney Creek.
Later the same year, the suffix 'North' was added to distinguish the settlement of the same name in the South Island. In 1872 a petition was launched to change the name of the settlement. A public meeting in 1873 ends with no clear decision on the name.
The railway line was laid through the Square in 1875.
In 1876, Palmerston North became a Local Board District, within the Wellington Provincial Council. This existed until the abolition of the Provinces later the same year.
Also in the same year, the council set aside land north of the Manawatu River for the purposes of a reserve. In 1890, this land was again set aside and would become in 1897, the Victoria Esplanade.
By 1877, when the Borough Council came into existence, Palmerston North was an isolated village in the midst of the native forest that covered inland Manawatu. By 1878, the population was approximately 800 people and sawmilling was the main industry of the district. As the settlement grew, the forest diminished to make way for farms and housing, and today virtually no remnant of it survives.
The arrival of the railway in 1886 saw an increase in the speed of growth and the town was at the centre of a lucrative agricultural district. The opening of the nearby Longburn Freezing Works provided employment, while the Borough Council instigated more infrastructural schemes such as the sewerage system. The Railway through the Manawatu Gorge to Napier was completed in 1891.
In 1893, Rangitāne sold the Hokowhitu block, increasing the area of land available for settlement. In the same year, the Public Hospital opened in a wooden building on Terrace Street (now Ruahine Street). The hospital required significant fundraising. At the end of the decade, the Boer War broke out in South Africa and men from Palmerston North volunteered.
By 1900 the population was 6,000. In 1902, the Manawatu River flooded.
In the 1910s Palmerston North's growth was steady. The population in 1911 about 10,991 (excluding Māori). The city was affected by World War I, with Awapuni Racecourse being used as an army training camp in 1914. During the course of the war, the Borough Council renamed all German-sounding and foreign street names. When the war finished in 1918, celebrations were delayed due to the Influenza epidemic.
In 1930, the population reached the 20,000 threshold and Palmerston North was officially proclaimed a city, the 7th in New Zealand. Development was slow due to the great depression and World War II. An airport was established at Milson in 1936, which is now Palmerston North International Airport.
From 1938, the first Labour government (1935-1949) initiated state housing programmes in West End (Savage Crescent precinct) and Roslyn.
In 1940 the Māori Battalion was formed in Palmerston North and trained at the Showgrounds (now Arena Manawatu).
In 1941, the Manawatu River flooded again. Large parts of Hokowhitu and Awapuni were underwater, with residents evacuating to higher ground (peaked at 5.8m).
In 1942, Linton Army Camp was established. After the war, growth was rapid.
In 1950, the city was enlarged to include Milson and Kelvin Grove. In 1953, the boundaries would extend to include Awapuni, which again, in the same year, was flooded by the Manawatu River, along with Hokowhitu. The largest flood since 1902.
Although work had started in 1926, it was not until 1959 the Milson Deviation of the North Island Main Trunk was opened, meaning future trains will pass to the north of the city, instead of through the Square. Later in 1963, the railway station at Tremaine Avenue opens. The last trains pass through the Square in 1964.
In 1961, the Highbury was added to the council area. In 1963, Massey University College of Manawatu was formed by the amalgamation of the Massey Agricultural College with the Palmerston North University College. In 1964, it becomes Massey University of Manawatu, an autonomous tertiary learning institution with the power to grant its own degrees.
In 1967, city boundaries were again extended to include land in Aokautere, Kelvin Grove, Milson, Amberley (Westbrook) and Awapuni as part of future growth for the next 25 years. In 1970, the Rugby Museum was established and a tribute to the founding father of rugby in New Zealand, Charles Munro, was opened at Massey University.
In 1971, a competition to design a civic building for the vacant railway land at the Square, is won by Wellington architects, Maurice and John Patience. The resulting building was finished in 1979. In 1976, the Manawatu and Oroua rivers flood, 24 hour rainfall records in Feilding and Palmerston North are exceeded and some residents from both locations are evacuated.
In 1977, Palmerston North City Council celebrated its Centenary of Municipal government. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are among visitors to Palmerston North.
On 1 November 1989, New Zealand local government authorities were reorganised. Palmerston North City boundaries were extended to include Ashhurst, Linton and Turitea through amalgamation of parts of the former Kairanga County, Oroua County and Ashhurst Town Council.
On 1 July 2012, Bunnythorpe, Longburn, part of the area around Kairanga and an area around Ashhurst were joined to Palmerston North City Council area.