Story: City history and people

Page 8. New cities

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In 1924 Whanganui became New Zealand’s sixth city, some 50 years after the first five had been proclaimed. Six years later Invercargill and Palmerston North passed the population threshold of 20,000 and became cities. Other large towns also chased the prized designation. Napier formed a ‘Thirty Thousand Club’ (named for its target population) and was proclaimed a city in 1950. Between 1924 and 1989 a further 19 towns were designated cities, including new satellite cities in Auckland and Wellington.

The new cities were called provincial or regional cities: a second class of cities below the four main ones. Their rise reflected the urbanisation of society and a growing preference for city life.

The city that never was


Masterton was expected to achieve city status in 1971. But that year’s census revealed that the town was 1,444 people short of the 20,000 target. Celebrations were put on hold until the 1976 census. This time the town was 605 people short. Unfortunately, the next census showed the town had lost population. In 2006 its population was still just 19,500.


Redefining cities

In 1989 the population threshold for city status was increased to 50,000. Confusingly, some places with populations over 30,000 remained ‘main urban centres’ for official statistical purposes, including Whanganui and Gisborne. Centres that were cities before 1989 were still popularly known as such in 2009.

By 2006 nearly 86% of New Zealand’s population was urban – defined as settlements over 1,000 people – and 71% lived in the main urban centres.

Factors in growth

The factors driving urban growth were largely the same as in the colonial period:

  • Access to a rich hinterland. The rapid development of sheep and dairy farming in Southland after 1890 turned the market town of Invercargill into a city.
  • The development of commerce and industry. Two freezing works and a major canning operation (Wattie’s) were significant factors in Hastings’s growth.
  • Strong regional and national transport links. Palmerston North’s position as the crossroads for lower North Island traffic and trade attracted new industries to it.

Growth of service industries

Another increasingly important factor in city growth was service industries, including administration, finance, education and health. Palmerston North received a substantial boost in the 1950s and 1960s when it, rather than Whanganui, was chosen as the location for a new teachers’ college and university. Whanganui lost out again when central government offices relocated to Palmerston North in the 1980s.

New main cities

A major change to the urban hierarchy was the rise of Hamilton and Tauranga. Hamilton became a city on the back of its farming hinterland in 1945. Continued growth in the agricultural sector and the expansion of the University of Waikato saw it overtake Dunedin as the fourth largest city in 2006.

Tauranga and its port grew strongly after the Kaimai rail tunnel opened in 1978, connecting it to the export forests of the central North Island. Domestic migrants drawn by its warm climate and relaxed lifestyle also boosted its population. In November 2008 Statistics New Zealand figures showed that Tauranga had overtaken Dunedin as New Zealand’s fifth largest city. The rise of these formerly provincial cities meant that by 2006 the four main cities had become six.

The end of cities?


In 1981 geographer Kenneth Cumberland forecast that by the year 2000 most New Zealanders would be teleworking – working from home using computers. This would encourage an exodus of city people to small, leisure-based towns like Twizel, ‘just the place an executive freed from the need to live in a big city might choose to have his home’. 1The scenario was based on people preferring country to city life. While by 2000 teleworking was fairly common, the predicted rush to rural areas had failed to materialise.


Auckland’s ascendancy

The most important change was the ascendancy of Auckland to become New Zealand’s primary city. The metropolis had been New Zealand’s largest city since 1881, but its lead on the other three main cities had been relatively narrow. This changed in the 1950s when it surged ahead.

Auckland’s growth was stimulated by the relocation of factories from outside the region wanting to be closer to workers and markets. Its ports – air and sea – became New Zealand’s largest. As the city grew it drew in even more people, becoming the main destination for overseas migrants. By 2006 it accounted for nearly a third of the country’s population – a higher proportion than almost any other primary city.

  1. Kenneth Cumberland, Landmarks. Surry Hills, NSW: Reader’s Digest, 1981, pp. 287–288. Back
How to cite this page:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people - New cities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

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