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Story: City images

Early European settlers were haunted by the dirty city slums they had left behind, and stigmatised city life. Later, rural dwellers accused New Zealand cities of ‘living off the farmer’s back’. In turn, urbanites saw farmers as unsophisticated ‘cockies’. Over time cities evolved unique cultures – even windy Wellington has its own arty vibe.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: 'Motorway/city' by Robert Ellis

Story Summary

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Views of cities

European settlers in New Zealand in the mid-19th century lived in rural areas and mostly worked in agriculture. They did not want to recreate the slums they had left behind, and many saw cities as unhealthy places which sapped men’s strength. But by 1881 nearly 40% of New Zealand’s population lived in towns and cities.

Some people defended cities, saying they showed the country’s progress. Building museums, hospitals and universities meant New Zealand was keeping up with Europe.

New machines made agriculture less labour-intensive. By 1911 over 50% of people lived in towns and cities.

City and country

In 1913 ‘wharfies’ (wharf workers) in cities went on strike and were suspended from work. They stormed the wharves and stopped ships being loaded. The government formed a troop of ‘special constables’, mostly rural workers. ‘Specials’ on horses charged the strikers and retook the wharves.

In politics, Labour party supporters were mostly city dwellers, whereas rural people mainly supported National. This highlighted the political divide between city and country.

In 1981 the South African rugby team toured New Zealand. People opposing apartheid protested against the tour. Most protest was based in the cities, whereas support for the tour was strong in country districts.

But there are also strong ties between town and country. Many country children have attended boarding school in town, and until the 1970s many city children holidayed on farms. After the 1980s city people began living on small lifestyle blocks in rural areas.

Four main centres

Until the 1950s Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin were roughly the same size, but each had a distinctive image and character.

Auckland was popular with early Māori settlers because of its waterways and rich soil. European settlers also liked its gardens and harbours. Auckland has had a reputation as a city for wheelers and dealers.

Wellington is renowned for its wind, and its high proportion of public servants because it is the capital. It used to be seen as a dull place to live, but from the 1980s became a centre for cultural life.

Christchurch was first settled by people from England and is known for its ‘Englishness’, as well as its gardens. Dunedin is thought of as Scottish and serious, with its monumental 19th century architecture.

Literature about cities

Novels about cities often focused on the negative aspects of city life. The godwits fly by Robin Hyde, published in 1937, was about growing up working-class in Wellington. In Living in the Maniatoto, Janet Frame took a poke at suburban life in Auckland.

Witi Ihimaera has written about Māori moving to the city to live, showing the appeal of cities. Katherine Mansfield’s short stories also painted a more positive picture of city life.

Paintings of cities

The first paintings of cities were intended to entice British people to emigrate. Artists altered landscapes to create the most favourable views.

Later artists showed the effects of light on landscapes and used colours to reflect the city’s moods. Evelyn Page’s painting ‘Why go to the Riviera’ uses bright colours to depict a crowd at Wellington’s Oriental Bay in 1950. In 1969 Robert Ellis painted an abstract image of Auckland called ‘Motorway/city’ to show how the city is dominated by roads and traffic.

Films set in cities

In the days before television, the government made films to publicise cities, which focused on local beauty spots or modern buildings. Later, television documentaries showed the good and bad sides of city living.

Once were warriors is a feature film which shows a brutal side of suburban New Zealand. Another movie, Scarfies, is about student life in Dunedin.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'City images', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/city-images (accessed 27 June 2017)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010