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City history and people

by David Thorns and Ben Schrader

Colonial New Zealand developed four main cities of similar size – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Later Auckland grew to become the country’s primary city, with almost a third of the population – and Hamilton and Tauranga joined the ranks of the main centres.

The first towns

Among the traditions Europeans brought to New Zealand was the practice of city life. Māori had never developed cities, living mostly in villages centred on hapū (extended family groups). Larger settlements existed, such as that encircling Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill in Auckland) in the 18th century, but none approached city size. In European terms, Māori were a rural rather than urban people.

Cities originated at least 5,000 years ago as places of trade, religion and government. One or more of these functions have been the lifeblood of cities ever since. In New Zealand trade emerged as the most important element. This was reflected in the coastal location of the first towns: ports were essential for trade.


New Zealand’s first town, Kororāreka (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands, arose in the 1830s, becoming an important meeting point between Māori and Europeans. It served as a recreation and provisioning centre for trading and whaling ships, and developed a reputation for lawlessness. Sporadic efforts to impose order contributed to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Possibly in an attempt to live down its notoriety, the town changed its name to Russell in 1844.

Hobson’s choice


In 1839 Captain William Hobson advocated East India Company-style ‘factories’ as the best way to settle New Zealand. These were port towns that would become crossroads of trade between Māori and Europeans. Europeans would control the town, but not colonise the hinterland. In this way Hobson believed the interests of Māori could be protected from greedy Europeans. But his suggestion found no takers.


New Zealand Company towns

As the ink on the Treaty of Waitangi was drying, new towns were being founded. Wellington was the first settlement of the London-based New Zealand Company, set up by Englishman Edward Gibbon Wakefield to colonise parts of New Zealand. Other company towns followed: Whanganui (1840), New Plymouth (1841), Nelson (1842), Dunedin (settled by the Otago Association, 1848) and Christchurch (Canterbury Association, 1850).

Wakefield’s vision was of a closely settled rural society, based on cropping. Ironically, the goal of country life was reliant on towns. Each settlement was to be funded through buying Māori land cheaply and selling it at inflated prices. Land was to be sold as a package: settlers received 100 rural acres (40.5 hectares) for each town acre (0.4 hectares) they bought. The bait for investors was the town acre. Land values increased as towns became cities, increasing the potential for windfall profits. Consequently, early sales were brisk.


Speculation also drove Auckland’s early growth. Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson chose Auckland (Tāmaki) as the colony’s capital in 1840, and the British instructed him to fund his government from land sales. Such was the speculative bubble created by the town’s founding that the first urban land sales reaped an average of £555 an acre – a very high price.

Company’s dreams shattered

While government spending protected Auckland during the 1840s, things were turning sour in the New Zealand Company settlements. The rush to buy land led to disputes with Māori over what had been sold and by whom. Too much land went to absentee owners, who did nothing to improve its value. Some plots proved difficult to access and farm. Jobs were sporadic and food sometimes fell short. In the mid-1840s pastoralism finally provided a viable economic base (wool), but shattered Wakefield’s hopes of closer settlement on small farms. Debt-ridden and maligned, the company folded after the Canterbury settlement.

The New Zealand Company has been rightly criticised for some of its practices, particularly its treatment of Māori. But in an age when many new towns failed, a number of settlements formed by the company and its offshoots became important cities. By the 1870s Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin (all New Zealand Company-related settlements) were three of the country’s four main cities – Auckland was the fourth.

Types of towns

The difficulties of New Zealand’s first towns did not deter the founding of others. As before, new towns were a mix of private and government initiatives. Most were on the coast, but in 1854 New Zealand’s first inland town, Greytown, was founded. As the Crown continued to buy (or confiscate) Māori land, more inland towns were built.

New towns were generally market, mining, milling, port, military or construction towns. Some started life in one or more categories and grew into others. Other settlements initially boomed, but then faded away.

Market towns

Also called country towns, market towns serviced farming hinterlands and were the most common type. They supplied farmers with goods and services – from food and machinery to stock-and-station and banking services – and acted as processing and transportation points for farm products. Market towns both followed and preceded the settlement of hinterlands. For instance, pastoralists were already farming in the area when William and George Rhodes laid out the town of Timaru in 1853. Conversely, Masterton was founded in 1854 to promote farming in Wairarapa.

Public–private partnership


Usually towns were founded by either the government or private enterprise. Timaru was established by both. In 1853 the Rhodes brothers surveyed a town behind Caroline Bay; three years later the government surveyed its own town south of the Rhodes’ settlement. North Street divided the settlements – which eventually merged.


Mining and milling towns

Towns arose near natural resources – gold, coal, timber – that could be profitably extracted. Alexandra mushroomed when gold was discovered nearby in 1862. Brunner developed as a coal town from 1864. Dargaville grew rapidly from 1872 as a base for kauri timber and gum extraction. When resources were exhausted, mining and milling towns declined unless they found a new economic base. Dargaville prospered because its hinterland converted to farming; Alexandra survived as a horticultural town, but Brunner was abandoned.

Port towns

Port towns developed as fishing and shipping centres. The South Island’s first town, Riverton, began as a whaling port in the 1830s. After whaling declined in the 1840s it shipped timber, flax, gold and wool sourced from its hinterland. A port town often grew by developing its infrastructure. During the 1870s Ōamaru (also a market town) built an expensive breakwater port, enabling it to surpass the rival ports of Kakanui and Moeraki.

Some port towns were satellites of larger towns or cities. Dunedin’s shallow harbour prevented a deep-water port beside the settlement, so Port Chalmers – close to the harbour entrance – became the city’s main port.

Peaceful Parihaka


Parihaka was unique in being a Māori town. Founded in the late 1860s by Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, its purpose was to peacefully resist Pākehā colonisation. By the late 1870s it had its own bank and police force, and a permanent population of 1,500. In 1880 it was described by 19-year-old Mary Dobie as an ‘enormous native town of quiet and imposing character … [with] regular streets of houses’.1 However, Parihaka was also the centre of a Māori protest movement over land loss, and in 1881 the government invaded the settlement, arresting some of its inhabitants and driving many away.


Military towns

New Zealand had few military towns. From the 1840s fortifications were erected in towns like Auckland, Whanganui and New Plymouth to resist Māori attack, but trade remained their life blood. The 1860s New Zealand wars led to the founding of small towns like Pātea, where two large Crown redoubts were erected. Hamilton also began as a military post, and became a hub for the Pākehā colonisation of Waikato. Both subsequently developed as market towns.

Construction towns

Some towns developed as bases for major infrastructure projects. In the early 1900s Ohakune became a permanent camp for the completion of the North Island main trunk railway. Between 1940 and 1980 several towns were built to house workers building hydroelectric power stations. These were designed to be dismantled once individual projects were completed. Workers in some towns wanted to stay on, so settlements like Mangakino, Ōtemātātā and Twizel survived.

    • Taranaki Herald, 18 January 1882, p. 2. Back

Towns to cities

The growth of towns was influenced by their ability to dominate their hinterland, build strong transport links, and attract commerce, industry and government.


In an economy based on agriculture and extractive industries, a productive hinterland was essential for growth. Those towns best able to dominate their regions and ship commodities through their ports had the strongest growth prospects. Agriculture supported Auckland in the 1840s, but it was kauri timber from Northland and gold from Coromandel that transformed the town into a city in the 1870s. Auckland also had two ports, one on each side of the North Island. This helped it ward off regional competitors, such as Thames.

On the other hand Nelson never realised its early promise. It was centrally sited, but lacked a deep-water port. Its hinterland was relatively fertile, but not extensive. Attempts to secure further land were unsuccessful. With little gold or other resources to exploit, Nelson’s growth was sluggish. The gold town of Dunedin and grain town of Christchurch became the South Island’s main cities.

Road and rail

Strong transport links also drove growth. Politicians lobbied for new railways and roads which would channel trade through their electorate’s ports. Wellington was given a boost in 1878 when a railway reached its Wairarapa hinterland. A further line to Manawatū in 1886 enabled it to dominate trade in the lower North Island. As trade was centralised, there were inevitable losers. Riverton declined after Bluff, much closer to Invercargill and the most productive part of Southland, became the region’s main port.

The Shacklock range

Dissatisfaction with his domestic coal range led Dunedin ironmonger and entrepreneur Henry Shacklock to design and build his own cast-iron model. After some modifications it proved successful, and he began manufacturing it at his South End Foundry. It found a ready market and by 1894 Shacklock employed over 40 men. The Shacklock brand survived company changes, dominating the coal and electric range market until the late 20th century, when owners Fisher and Paykel withdrew it.


Towns that had an entrepreneurial business culture were well placed to get ahead. Dunedin’s entrepreneurs used the capital generated by the 1860s Otago gold rushes to begin businesses. People like James Mills (who founded the Union Steam Ship Company) and Bendix Hallenstein (who founded the Hallensteins clothing chain) energised Dunedin commerce. By the late 1870s the city was New Zealand’s financial capital.


Industry was another path to growth. Christchurch’s agricultural hinterland encouraged rural processing industries; by the 1890s the city supported five freezing works and two woollen mills. Other industries included clothing, shoe, bicycle and even locomotive manufacture. It did not always work out. Foxton’s reliance on a single industry – flax milling – meant its growth stalled when the industry declined.

Government and administration

Becoming the seat of government or administration could be a boon. Wellington gained a new lease of life when it became the colony’s capital in 1865. As the government expanded, so did the city. Townships were eager to become boroughs because it attracted government business, giving them a competitive advantage over neighbouring settlements. Waimate in South Canterbury saw off all rivals in the 1870s when it became the seat for both the local borough and county councils.

Towns to cities

Towns that successfully worked these factors to their advantage grew to become cities. By the early 1870s New Zealand had five cities. Christchurch was the first, becoming a city in 1856 by letters patent – a practice under British law whereby the monarch could designate a town a city if it became the seat of a bishop. Two years later Nelson also became a city this way.

Patently a city

In 1858 Queen Victoria constituted Nelson a bishop’s seat and city by letters patent, even though its population was barely 3,000. However, it was not until 1874 that a city council came into being.

Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin each had city status conferred by their provincial governments in the 1860s, a status ratified by the Municipal Corporations Act 1886. Dunedin was the first to form a city council, in 1865. Christchurch followed in 1868, Wellington in 1870, and Auckland in 1871. In 1886 a population threshold of 20,000 was introduced for a town to become a city.

The four main centres

By 1901 Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin had far outgrown their potential rivals and were known as the four main centres. Nelson was the only other city. With 67,000 residents, Auckland was the largest city, but the other main centres were not far behind. Between them they accounted for nearly two-thirds of the urban population (defined as residents of boroughs). While each city dominated its immediate hinterland, and had a sphere of influence beyond it (Christchurch over Timaru, for example), none was powerful enough to dominate the others.

The appeal of city life

In 19th-century Europe, cities were often represented as the pinnacle of Western civilisation. So although colonising companies imagined New Zealand as a society of small farms and villages, they also knew the importance of towns and cities as providers of civilisation. Town founders and leaders encouraged the growth of clubs and societies based on those in urban Britain. Publicists used these to reassure immigrants that New Zealand was not a barbaric backwater.

What is a borough?


The government could proclaim a township a borough if the settlement covered a continuous area and most residents (at least 100) wanted the change, sometimes resulting in small boroughs. From 1926 the definition of an urban area for census purposes was changed to settlements with populations over 1,000.


An urbanising tide

The policy proved a double-edged sword for colonisers. While most immigrants continued to settle in the countryside, an increasing number were attracted to life in towns. By 1878 nearly 40% of the population lived in boroughs (urban areas) and the proportion was rising.

The trend worried those who believed New Zealand’s agricultural economy was reliant on maintaining a strong rural workforce. But getting townsfolk to move to the country could be a thankless task. As early as the 1840s, the fresh-faced gentlemen of Wellington were castigated for spending more time in Lambton Quay bars than developing their country acres. In 1908 a government official conceded that even men used to British farm work ‘seem to have a dislike to country life as soon as they arrive in New Zealand’.1 The government tried to coax townsfolk out to the country with generous closer settlement schemes, but with mixed success. The pull of urban life seemed to grow stronger, not weaker.

No clerks please


By the 1870s there was a strong sense New Zealand was attracting the wrong type of immigrant. In 1878 the Otago Witness complained: ‘Most of our late arrivals are more suited for city life than country: this is a mistake.’2 For a farming nation there were too many clerks and not enough ploughmen.


Work opportunities

Work was one reason for the trend. Many workers preferred urban factory work to agricultural work, with its long hours and seasonal routine. Wages and conditions were often better in cities, and shorter work hours provided more time for leisure activities. The unskilled also had a greater chance to learn a trade. Between 1881 and 1891 the number of factories increased by 38%, from 1,642 to 2,268. Professionals – bankers, lawyers and doctors – were drawn to cities because they offered wider business and specialisation opportunities.

Social life

Just as important were social factors. Urban life encouraged social interaction, the meeting of like minds, and the formation of groups and societies. As one Dunedin writer recognised: ‘Man is a social being. Nature has its charms, but man craves fellowship with man … and the city supplies this in the largest degree.’3 Such engagement prevented the sense of isolation that country dwellers sometimes felt. And while it was possible to feel lost in the city crowd, for some this was an advantage, allowing them to forge new identities and evade social surveillance.

Something for everyone


Towns and cities could support a more diverse range of clubs and societies than country districts. In 1900 Auckland boasted a flying club with homing pigeons, a cycling club, 56 friendly societies and orders, a camera club, a choral society, numerous arts societies, a Caledonian Society – whose objectives included ‘perpetuation of Caledonian games … and the relief of distressed Scotsmen’4 – a hunt club, and more.


Cultural hubs

Towns and cities were also cultural hubs: places to debate politics and ideas, attend concerts, or watch the theatre of the street. Whereas country life provided food for the table, city life provided food for thought. New Zealand’s first four university colleges were all in cities.

The social and cultural diversity of cities is a large part of their appeal. As one city promoter explained: ‘Even when there is no work to be had in a city, a workman will not leave it if he can help it. There is a fascination about the city that the country cannot offer.’5

Because large towns and cities offered a greater range of jobs and social and cultural attractions, they benefited most from the urbanising tide. In 1911 the four main cities – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – accounted for 63% of the urban population. In that year New Zealand officially moved from being a rural to an urban society, with just over 50% of the population living in boroughs and cities.

    • Otago Witness, 8 January 1908, p. 52. Back
    • Otago Witness, 20 July 1878, p. 11. Back
    • Hawera and Normanby Star, 16 September 1907, p. 5. Back
    • The Cyclopedia of New Zealand: industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations. Volume 2, Auckland provincial district. Wellington: Cyclopedia Co., 1902, p. 246. Back
    • Hawera and Normanby Star, 16 September 1907, p. 5. Back

The shape of cities

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.

Suburban growth

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.

    • Arthur Tyndall, ‘Department of Housing Construction, Wellington, NZ: details of the scheme.’ Building Progress, March 1939, p. 4. Back

Suburban life


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.

New cities

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.

    • Kenneth Cumberland, Landmarks. Surry Hills, NSW: Reader’s Digest, 1981, pp. 287–288. Back

Growth of urban culture, 1980s–2000s

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.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

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