Story: City history and people

Page 6. Suburban growth

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Promoting suburban development

Colonial New Zealand had been promoted as a place where families could own a farm, build a home, and get ahead by sheer hard work. But as people continued to move to the city, the ideal of a property-owning democracy was enacted in the suburbs rather than in rural areas.

William Massey’s Reform government vigorously pushed the revised ideal in the early 1920s. It believed home ownership would create stable communities and good citizens. With ample space for gardens and safe outdoor play, suburbs were considered the best place to raise children. The state gave generous loans to new families to construct suburban homes, leading to building booms on city edges.

Except for a period in the 1930s and 1940s, when the first Labour government’s extensive state (public) housing scheme gave new life to renting, governments continued to support Massey’s approach. State mortgages became the ‘normal’ route into home ownership until they were wound back in the late 1980s.

Building suburbs


In colonial cities builders either built homes for individual clients or bought land and erected houses to sell – so-called ‘spec’ (speculation) houses. In this way suburbs grew streets at a time. From the mid-20th century new technologies and methods enabled whole suburbs to be constructed at once.


Suburbs and city

Suburban growth changed residents’ relationship with the inner city. In colonial times downtown areas had been the social heart of cities: places where people could meet, shop, or drink in a pub until late at night. From the 1910s shorter shopping hours and early-evening closing for pubs reduced the reasons to go to town. Instead people went back to, or stayed in, their suburb to socialise.

The inner city came to be seen as distinct from the suburb. It became a place where people went with a purpose in mind, rather than to casually spend time. City workplaces were a daily destination for most workers. City department stores and shops were a weekly destination for many housewives. City cinemas, theatres, pubs and sports grounds were regular or occasional weekend destinations for many friends and families. At the end of each trip or event people returned to their suburban homes to relax – their lives were increasingly suburb-based rather than city-based.

Suburban gardens vs city culture


In 1939 an official explained the government’s decision to build blocks of inner-city flats: ‘[H]owever regrettable it may seem, it must not be forgotten that there are many people who have interests other than gardens and babies. These are single people, families composed only of adults, and families with only one child. To these the multi-unit type of dwelling affords more freedom for the pursuit of their particular interests: concerts, museums, the library, the university and the like.’1


City living

There was still a minority who lived downtown, including transients, the poor, and those who preferred city life. In the 1910s New Zealand’s first European-style apartment block – Courtville – was built in central Auckland. During the 1940s and 1950s the state built several high-rise blocks of flats in Auckland and Wellington for childless couples and single people.

From the 1960s urban renewal schemes encouraged the erection of town houses and blocks of flats in inner-city suburbs. A revival of central-city living in the early 1990s initiated a new spurt of apartment building. These mainly arose in downtown Auckland and Wellington, but some also went up in smaller cities like Tauranga.

Rent or buy?

In the early 20th century, renting was the most popular form of tenure in city and suburbs. In 1916, 54% of dwellings in the main cities were rented, compared with a national rate of 46%. The successful promotion of suburban home ownership saw the national home ownership rate surpass 70% in the 1970s. But after peaking at 73% in 1986, rising housing costs led to it falling back to 63% by 2006. In the four main cities the rate was closer to 60%. The ideal of a property-owning democracy was in retreat.

  1. Arthur Tyndall, ‘Department of Housing Construction, Wellington, NZ: details of the scheme.’ Building Progress, March 1939, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people - Suburban growth', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

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