Story: City history and people

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.

Story by David Thorns and Ben Schrader
Main image: Sol Square, Christchurch

Story summary

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New Zealand’s first towns

Māori lived in small, family-based villages (kāinga) rather than larger towns. New Zealand’s first town was Kororāreka (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands, where early whalers came for provisions and recreation.

Some towns were set up by the government, and others by private businesses. The New Zealand Company founded towns at Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Auckland became the capital in 1841.

Types of towns

  • Market towns serviced the surrounding farming area (for example, Masterton, Timaru).
  • Mining and milling towns grew near natural resources such as gold, coal or timber (Alexandra, Dargaville).
  • Port towns were centres for fishing and shipping (Ōamaru).
  • Military towns were founded as bases for soldiers in the New Zealand wars (Pātea).
  • Construction towns housed workers who were building a railway, dam, factory or other project (Twizel, Mangakino).

Becoming cities

Some towns grew into cities because they had ports for shipping goods. Others grew because they were the site of government, business or industry. New Zealand developed four main cities: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

A town was classified as a city when it had 20,000 people. Since 1989, a town has needed 50,000 people to become a city.

Country and city

Early colonisers planned New Zealand as a farming society, but many people preferred to live in cities, where there were more jobs, and more social and cultural life. Over time, the urban population grew.

Transport and suburbs

At first most people lived near their work; later they could catch trams or buses. After cars arrived, new suburbs were built on the edges of cities. Many families chose to live in the suburbs, and central cities became quieter. But from the 1990s apartments were built in inner cities, and new bars, cafés and businesses opened, making cities lively again.

Changing cities

Auckland grew into New Zealand’s biggest city. In 2006 it had almost one-third of the population. Hamilton and Tauranga also grew to become main cities.

Early cities had mostly Pākehā people; now they have a mix of different ethnicities. Many cities hold festivals to celebrate arts, culture and sports.

How to cite this page:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

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