Story: Auckland region

Page 11. Driving the economy: 1980 onwards

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Auckland transformed

Economic deregulation in the mid-1980s caused dramatic changes. As banks and finance companies invested in construction, the city became a developer’s paradise, with landmark Victorian buildings levelled for mirror-glass tower blocks. With less need to lobby Wellington’s politicians for protective tariffs and other advantages, many companies relocated their head offices to Auckland. The region was now the nerve centre of the national economy.

Unemployment rose when the share market crashed in 1987, and the removal of tariffs made some local industries unable to compete. Manufacturers folded or moved overseas. Crown Lynn Potteries (the largest in the southern hemisphere) closed in 1989 along with South Auckland freezing works (abattoirs), car assembly firms, and footwear and clothing manufacturers.

Primate city

Geographers call a city with a large chunk of a country’s population and economy a primate city – Paris and Auckland are examples. These centres dominate the country and are the focus of national life. In most cases, they are also the capital. Such is the influence of a primate city that it attracts more people, becoming even larger.

New industries

Some manufacturers survived by focusing on high-tech production. Among these was the firm of Fisher and Paykel. Its innovative whiteware and health-care equipment found receptive markets in New Zealand and overseas.

Bio-tech and creative industries became the new face of manufacturing in Auckland. Leading innovators included Professor Garth Cooper – whose research led to major advances in treating diabetes – and Bruce Farr, who developed light displacement keels for sailing boats.

A service economy

Financial and other services came to dominate Auckland’s economy. Private language schools made education the biggest export earner in the central city. Auckland also benefited from a surge in tourism, with 70% of New Zealand’s international visitors arriving at its airport. In 2015 Auckland’s port handled 31% of the country’s container trade. By 2013 the region was home to a third of New Zealand’s population.

A multi-cultural hub

The face of urban Auckland changed when the government’s immigration policy widened the door to people from Asia in 1986. By 2013 Asian people were 23.1% of Auckland’s population, and more than half of all residents of the central city.

New arrivals from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea gave a distinctive character to the areas where they clustered. A range of other immigrants introduced mosques, temples, halal butchers and ethnic restaurants to the suburbs. The assertiveness of Pacific Island street culture and the increasing political clout of ethnic groups contributed to the city’s multicultural vitality.

Changing landscapes

From the 1990s some Aucklanders adopted apartment living. Apartment blocks sprang up in the central city and as far north as Ōrewa. Deregulation of the liquor laws and the explosion of cafés and nightclubs enlivened the inner city. New restaurants were built around the Viaduct Basin – the hub of the America’s Cup challenges in 1999, 2003 and 2021. The 328-metre Sky Tower opened in 1997 and became an instant city icon.

Car love

Outsiders often jeer at Aucklanders’ obsession with their cars. Yet in 2013 there were fewer cars per capita in Auckland (653 for every 1,000 people) than in New Zealand as a whole (696). A major reason was the availability of public transport.

Dairying pastureland from Kaipara in the north to Pukekawa in the south was subdivided for vineyards, deer farms and lifestyle blocks. Rural communities became commuter satellite towns. The extension of the motorway north encouraged urban sprawl along the eastern coastline, while to the south, a development for 40,000 residents on farmland at Flat Bush was being built in stages. Housing stretched continuously to the Bombay Hills.


Auckland’s rapid expansion has exacerbated traffic congestion and housing problems. Its motorways are often clogged, and high housing costs have led to overcrowding and third-world diseases in South Auckland. There is a jarring disparity between the poverty of blue-collar, low-lying areas and the conspicuous wealth of clifftop mansions.

Challenges for the city’s growth include supplying faster and more reliable public transport to relieve road congestion, and providing affordable and good-quality housing for poorer communities.

How to cite this page:

Margaret McClure, 'Auckland region - Driving the economy: 1980 onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

Story by Margaret McClure, published 6 Dec 2007, updated 1 Aug 2016