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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



The Location of Urban Areas

The four major cities are evenly distributed throughout the country, Auckland and Wellington in the north and south of the North Island, and Christchurch and Dunedin widely separated in the South Island. These locations were most carefully selected, all are served by good harbours for overseas trade, and each is strategically placed to serve rich pastoral or agricultural land. It is not surprising therefore that they have grown into large urban centres. The development of the country spread outwards from these centres: this even distribution and their more or less simultaneous development is frequently commented upon as a most desirable pattern of colonisation, and was due very largely to the mountainous nature of the country and the separation of the two islands by Cook Strait. Interrelationship in a national sense was very difficult in these circumstances; consequently each settlement developed its own character and progressed in close association with the productivity of its own district. Auckland became the centre of the rich Waikato dairy industry. Wellington was the capital city and the natural outlet for the Hutt Valley and the Manawatu. Christchurch flourished on the rich pastoral lands of the Canterbury Plains and Dunedin on the Otago sheep country together with an exciting interlude of rapid expansion during the gold mining period. There were three other early settlements all on the West Coast of New Zealand, New Plymouth and Wanganui in the North Island and Nelson in the South Island. These did not grow so rapidly because access to West Coast harbours was more difficult and the rich lands of the interior were not as accessible, but each of these centres has grown into urban city areas.

Intercommunication between the centres was at first chiefly by a long and dreary sea journey. Rail connection between Dunedin and Christchurch was made in 1878, but Wellington and Auckland were not linked until 1908. Internal communications have steadily improved since that time. There is now a network of modern highways, railways, and airlines connecting the respective centres with rapid transport. As a result the cities' functions are being coordinated. They are in a sense losing their independence and, in some degree, their individuality.

Population density is also involved because the greatest number of people congregate in the established industrial areas. It seems that, when a population of a growing industrial centre reaches a certain point, its very presence acts like a magnet to other industries which are attracted, no doubt, by the labour potential and the local consumer market. It also attracts labour from the rural towns and villages and to some extent from smaller centres. Under these circumstances it is inevitable that the favoured cities will grow rapidly. It is already apparent: the four major urban areas now have a population of over a million, or two-fifths of the total population. Over 500,000, or more than half of this number, live in the Auckland area which for various reasons is at present the most favoured industrial region.

The inland cities are of later development. Hamilton, the largest, had its origin at the close of the Maori Wars. Its prosperity stems from its location on the Waikato River. The business centre of the prosperous dairy industry, it has developed as a service town, but now that its population is approaching metropolitan status it, too, is turning to industry of a somewhat specialised character. Palmerston North, the other large inland city functions similarly for the progressive Manawatu pastoral area. They may be regarded as dormitory cities to Auckland and Wellington respectively: first in a service capacity to rural activities and, later, as industrial offshoots concerned with the manufacture of goods for local consumption.

The South Island population has grown at a much slower rate than the North Island. At the beginning of the present century the total population was evenly divided between the two islands. Today, 70 per cent are in the North and 30 per cent in the South. The lower density of the South Island has slowed its change-over to industrial activity, most of which is concentrated in Christchurch and Dunedin. The inland towns are therefore smaller and can be still classified as service towns to their respective regions. The smaller cities like Nelson, Timaru, and Inver-cargill are centres of development in their own right, processing and exporting their regional produce. There are also comparable urban communities in the North Island; Tauranga, Napier, and Hastings, servicing the prosperous Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay districts.

All these towns and cities are growing as the overall population increases. In time they will establish urban functions of greater diversity but it will be a long time before they challenge the supremacy of the four major urban centres.