Story: Canterbury region

Page 13. Christchurch

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The city expands

There were no natural barriers to Christchurch’s growth, except for the sea to the east and the Port Hills to the south. Laid out in a grid pattern centred on Cathedral Square, it spread along the main tramlines. Outlying villages like New Brighton, Sumner, Papanui and Upper Riccarton were eventually swallowed up. The downtown area remained the focus until the 1960s, when the first suburban malls appeared.

Christchurch grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, when large tracts of state housing were built. A green belt curbed growth into farmland, but changes in town planning regulations associated with the Resource Management Act 1991 have allowed peripheral expansion to proceed.

More English than England?

Before the 2011 earthquake Christchurch was sometimes described as the most English of New Zealand’s cities. Tourism ventures exploited this, focusing on the central city’s picturesque architecture and promoting such activities as punting on the Avon River. The levelling of much of the central city after the earthquake shattered this illusion, although English references survive in street names and a few remaining heritage buildings, especially the Arts Centre and Canterbury Museum. A planned increase in green space in the city will enhance Christchurch’s reputation as New Zealand’s ‘garden city’.  

Compared to other New Zealand centres, a slightly higher proportion of the overseas residents were from England in the early days. But by the later 19th century the Irish were as numerous as elsewhere and the Scots only slightly fewer.

A class society

Christchurch is also seen by some as having more obvious social distinctions than elsewhere in the country, with a marked ‘upper crust’: the élite living in Fendalton, sending their children to the right schools, shopping at Ballantynes and belonging to the Canterbury Club or Christchurch Club.

The Canterbury Association’s wish to transplant the English class system may have promoted a stronger sense of division. Even today, being able to trace ancestry back to one of the first four ships carries some weight. Yet some commentators insist that social and economic inequalities are no greater in Christchurch than in other New Zealand cities.

Peers and peasants

The son of one of the Canterbury Association founders explained the class differences in Christchurch: ‘[T]he great and obvious distinction between the population of Canterbury and the other provinces of New Zealand is, that Canterbury is populated by representatives of every class and section of English society, from the peer to the peasant, while the population of the other provinces is nothing more nor less than a straggling, struggling mob – an undistinguished herd, made up of mere men and women.’ 1


Like all large cities, Christchurch had its subcultures and nonconformists. The best-known local eccentric was the Wizard (Ian Brackenbury Channell). In the 1970s and 1980s urban communes and alternative lifestylers made a mark: the Avon Loop community (known fondly as ‘Loopies’) promoted environmental awareness and self-sufficiency.

At that time a local punk culture also emerged. A negative side of social change was racial violence, with white-supremacist skinheads periodically attacking ethnic minorities. Despite concerns about such violence, and drugs, the Christchurch crime rate has fallen since 1995. The 2019 terrorist attack in which 51 Muslims were killed was a shocking exception to this long-term trend.


Christchurch has a well-tended and attractive environment. Hagley Park at the centre, with its magnificent trees, is one of many parks and reserves. The high standard of public and private gardens has earned the Christchurch the name Garden City. Notable public gardens include Mona Vale, the grounds of the Ilam Homestead, and the Botanic Gardens.

There are popular walking tracks over the Port Hills, and the beaches at Sumner, New Brighton and Taylors Mistake are popular. Residents and tourists enjoy Christchurch’s proximity to the mountains, lakes and rivers for outdoor pursuits such as skiing, snowboarding, fishing, tramping and mountaineering.

Until the 2011 earthquake the central city had a flourishing café culture and nightlife. An aim of the CBD rebuild was to revive this element. In the meantime new night-life and café culture hubs had emerged along northern Victoria Street on the CBD periphery and in western suburbs like Addington.

City size

Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island. The metropolitan area contains three-quarters of the population of Canterbury and one-third of the population of the South Island.

In 1900 Christchurch had about the same population as Auckland. By 2000, Auckland had three times the population of Christchurch. Christchurch and Wellington, however, kept pace with each other in size and rate of growth. Which city has more people depends on how the figures are compiled. In 2013 Christchurch city had 341,469 people, a reduction of 2% since 2006 because of the earthquakes.


On 4 September 2010 Canterbury was affected by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake, centred about 37 kilometres west of Christchurch, near the town of Darfield. There was no loss of life, but considerable damage to buildings in the city. On 22 February 2011 a magnitude 6.3 earthquake occurred, with its epicentre near Lyttelton. It caused 185 deaths and major damage to Christchurch, with thousands of people made homeless. Around a quarter of the buildings in the central city were demolished as a result of the quake.

  1. Edward Jerningham Wakefield, quoted in Steven Eldred-Grigg, A new history of Canterbury. Dunedin: McIndoe, 1982, p. 20. › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Canterbury region - Christchurch', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 14 Sep 2006, reviewed & revised 6 Jul 2015