Story: City history and people

Page 5. The shape of cities

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The grid

Towns and cities were shaped by both landscape and human factors. Wellington’s colonists made their homes along narrow harbour terraces before moving up encircling hills and valleys; Christchurch grew concentrically over a plain. Common to almost all towns was a grid plan for streets. The grid was applied regardless of topography, often resulting in steep streets and sudden endings.

Grid is good


Towns were almost universally laid out in a grid pattern. The grid has since been criticised for creating streets that ignored the lay of the land – Wellington, with its hilly topography, is a good example. But the grid had the huge advantage of being easily subdivisible. A rectangular plot could be cut exactly in two by drawing a line down the middle. Speculators could minimise survey fees.


The grid also shaped a town’s functions. Commercial hubs were located at a grid’s centre or stretched along a main street to attract passing trade. Housing, industry, sports grounds and green spaces filled in the rest.

Progress and individuality

At first towns appeared more like villages. Most had simple wooden or cob cottages and shops scattered around a harbour or within a forest clearing. Gradually they took on more shape: streets were formed, waterfronts reclaimed, and empty plots filled. Rather than creating streetscapes of a single design and scale, main streets were a hotchpotch of different building styles and heights, reflecting a cultural inclination for individuality. The same was true for housing. Even houses of a common type or style – such as the cottage or villa – had different architectural treatments or decorations.

The desire for individual space – and an ample supply of land – also quickly set the suburban pattern of towns. Early suburbs like Wellington’s Thorndon and Auckland’s Parnell were characterised by single houses on individual (if sometimes small) allotments. Tenement and terrace housing was practically unknown. Housing designs and styles were to come and go, but the suburban pattern remained unchanged.

Social class

Before trams and buses, most city dwellers lived within walking distance of work. Social classes lived in close proximity to one another – the rich in roomy villas on prominent sites, the poor in cramped cottages on lesser streets nearby. As cities grew and better public transport encouraged suburban growth, social differentiation increased. In Christchurch, the southern suburbs of Sydenham and Addington became strongly working-class, while the northern suburbs of Merivale and Fendalton became more middle- to upper-class. Even so, no suburb consisted of a single social class.


Colonial cities were functionally mixed. Dwellings could be next to noisy and smelly slaughterhouses or workshops. A desire to prevent such arrangements led to the functional zoning of cities from the 1950s. Industries were banned from residential areas and it became unlawful to work from home. The rigidity of zoning led to a 1990s backlash, after which regulations were eased.

Zoning hide-and-seek


During the 1980s Wellington architect Ian Athfield unlawfully turned part of his suburban home into a workplace. The city council regularly sent out inspectors to try and catch him out. But Athfield had a council mole who rang ahead to warn of impending visits, allowing him to clear out his staff before the official arrived.


Car-driven growth

The largest influence on the shape of later 20th-century cities was the car. After 1945 new car-based suburbs mushroomed on the edges of cities, interconnected by an ever-expanding system of highways and motorways. Cars provided a sense of freedom. They made it easier to get to work, pursue leisure activities, and foster cross-town social networks. Cars were also important status symbols. By the 1970s many households had two or more.

Car-driven growth had shortcomings. Vehicle emissions damaged the environment and affected people’s health. Some new suburbs lacked public transport, restricting those without a car – usually the poor. With ever more cars on the roads, traffic congestion in Auckland became endemic. The cost of providing streets, energy, water and other services to a widening band of suburbs became burdensome. For many, this pattern of growth had become unsustainable.

Future shape

From the early 2000s city authorities tried to reduce people’s reliance on cars by boosting public transport and encouraging greater-density housing along major bus and train routes. In the future the suburban shape of cities will be punctuated with zones of high- and medium-rise apartments and town houses.

How to cite this page:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people - The shape of cities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by David Thorns and Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010