Story: City history and people

Page 7. Suburban life

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For most of the 20th century suburbia was equated with nuclear-family life: mum, dad and the kids living in a villa or bungalow on a spacious section. Life was shaped by gender, work and home. During the week the breadwinner father went off to work and the suburb was the world of mothers and children. Streets reverberated with the noise of children’s play. At day’s end husbands returned home – sometimes via a city pub – to wives and children. After dinner, families typically retired to living rooms to read, talk, listen to the radio, and (from the 1960s) watch television. On some nights, a few hours might be spent at meetings of local groups, like Scouts and Jaycees.

Bottle drives


Until the 1980s bottling plants gave refunds for recycled bottles. This made bottle drives popular fundraisers with Scouting groups. Groups of Cubs and Scouts (and a parent with a car and trailer) would visit local households seeking bottles for recycling. Some places would have just a few bottles, but others had hundreds – usually in dank basements or cobweb-filled sheds. At the end of the drive the thirsty collectors were rewarded with cups of orange cordial.



Weekends were characterised by children’s sport, home maintenance, and (until its decline in the 1970s) attending church. A trip to a race meeting or an inter-provincial rugby or cricket match might also be on the cards. Community fundraisers, such as bottle drives, were common. Shops were closed over the weekends, so leisure activities included Sunday drives to picnic spots or to visit family and friends.


Suburbia after 1945 was closely aligned to the growth of consumerism. The modern household was furnished with an array of domestic appliances: fridges, washing machines, motor mowers, gramophones and televisions. The biggest prize was a new car. During the 1960s and 1970s the suburban car of choice was the station wagon. Cinemas, milk bars and, later, video-game parlours provided spaces for teenagers to socialise and hang out.

Nappy valley


A chronic housing shortage after 1945 meant housing in new suburbs was built quickly, ahead of shops, public transport, schools and telephones. Young families dominated these fledgling communities, which came to be labelled ‘nappy valleys’. Critics condemned them as boring, monotonous and sterile, but many suburbanites were too busy cultivating gardens, meeting neighbours and raising kids to notice.


Cracks in the façade

Suburban life was not all a bed of roses. In new areas like Porirua, infrastructure and services often lagged far behind houses, making it harder to build community spirit. Some women rebelled against the limitations of their role as mothers and housewives, leading 1970s feminists to lobby for greater job opportunities for mothers. Some mothers jumped at the chance to return to work. Others went back only because a single household income no longer met rising living costs.

New patterns

The rise of the double-income household in the 1980s changed suburban life. With more time spent at work, there was less time for other things. Whereas it had been common to socialise with neighbours, weeks could now go by without seeing them at all. The networking and support provided by voluntary work in communities declined as many families struggled with the demands of childcare, work and home. This led to a rise in franchised services, such as lawn mowing, cleaning and childcare. As streets filled with more cars, parents discouraged informal street play. Children retreated inside or were driven to organised activities. Meanwhile, glitzy suburban shopping malls became the new place to shop and for teenagers to meet.

Greater diversity

Suburbs became more diverse. An increase in sole-parent, blended and childless families meant the nuclear family was no longer dominant. As divorce became more common, some children had more than one home.

Māori had been trickling into cities since the 1920s, mostly settling in older suburbs like Auckland’s Ponsonby or Wellington’s Newtown. In the 1960s many Māori relocated to new state (public) housing suburbs in South Auckland and Porirua. New Pacific Island migrants took their place – then, from the 1980s, inner-city gentrification saw this group also move to outer suburbs. Asian immigration from the 1990s further increased the ethnic diversity of suburbs.

This growing diversity was reflected in the 21st-century growth of suburban fairs and festivals. These were forums for communities to come together, socialise, and celebrate a shared sense of place or identity.

How to cite this page:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people - Suburban life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

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