Story: City history and people

Page 9. Growth of urban culture, 1980s–2000s

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New urban culture

The economic and social reforms of the 1980s transformed cities. The deregulation of financial markets led to a central-city building boom that redefined city skylines. Weekend shop trading hours and liquor-sale and gambling laws were liberalised, encouraging street cafés, nightclubs and casinos. In port cities old wharf areas were redeveloped into bustling café, museum and leisure precincts. City centres that had formerly emptied over weekends now filled with people and street life. An urban culture, distinct from the prevailing suburban culture, was being shaped.

Life in a shoebox


The poor design and tiny size of many new Auckland apartments – some were only 12 square metres – led critics to claim developers were erecting future slums. In 2007 the Auckland City Council introduced new design rules, banning windowless apartments, and prescribing a minimum size of 35 square metres.


Inner-city living

The new vitality attracted students and other people back to inner-city living. Old warehouses and offices were converted into apartments. Developers recognised the new trend and erected purpose-built apartment blocks. These were targeted at people without children; family life was still seen as being best pursued in the suburbs.

Industrial decline and rise

Economic reforms also reshaped city industries. When the government removed tariffs, many local manufacturers were unable to compete with cheaper imports. New knowledge-based industries – such as biotechnology, and design and digital industries – arose to fill their place.

Growing diversity

The ethnicity of New Zealand city residents (mostly Pākehā) had long reflected the cities’ British origins. Still, ethnic enclaves had existed in cities since colonial times, such as Dunedin’s Lebanese and Wellington’s Chinese communities. These communities were often targets of mainstream bigotry, leading some to assimilate and others to keep low profiles.

Reforms to New Zealand’s Eurocentric immigration laws challenged this intolerance. In the 1960s Pacific Island workers were invited in to fill manufacturing jobs. In the next decade refugees arrived from war-torn South-East Asia. A change from a country-based to a skills-based immigration policy in 1986 produced a strong flow of migrants from South Korea and China, and by 2006 Asians were 24.4% of Auckland city’s population. These new arrivals were assertive in expressing their culture: starting newspapers, opening ethnic restaurants and organising cultural festivals. Many earlier residents have embraced this new diversity, believing it has enriched city life.

Festivals and events

In 1986 homosexuality was decriminalised. This led to a flowering of gay pride, publicly expressed in festivals and street parades in Auckland and Wellington.

Garden city blooms


The first Christchurch staging of the Ellerslie flower show in 2009 was called ‘absolutely sensational’ by celebrity gardener Maggie Barry. She said, ‘I think that Christchurch did a wonderful job of the flower show because the whole city took responsibility and ownership for it. That was never going to happen in … a big sprawling metropolis like Auckland.’1


City festivals came to play a major part in boosting city economies and creating urban identities. The biennial International Festival of the Arts began in Wellington in 1986, its ongoing success buttressing the city’s claim to be the nation’s cultural capital. Wellington also built a new stadium to attract sporting and large cultural events like rock concerts. Increased competition for such events saw Christchurch outbid Auckland for the right to stage the Ellerslie International Flower Show in 2007. Christchurch wanted the event to enhance its garden city image.

Sustainable cities

Environmentalists have condemned the sprawling nature of New Zealand cities for being wasteful of energy and land. Since the early 2000s there has been a new emphasis on creating sustainable cities, by erecting energy-efficient buildings and encouraging new growth around public transport hubs. The quest to create sustainable environments will reshape cities in the future.

  1. Press, 11 March 2009. Back
How to cite this page:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people - Growth of urban culture, 1980s–2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

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