For a long time negative images of cities held sway in New Zealand. Anti-urbanism was a strong undercurrent from the beginning of colonial settlement. The country was imagined by its European founders as a largely rural society whose economy would be agriculturally based. The main role of towns and cities was to support this function. No one wanted to replicate the city slums of the old world in the new.
During the 19th century the vision matched the reality. Most people lived in rural areas and worked in agriculture, forestry or mining. But by the 1880s it was evident there was a drift of people to towns and cities – in 1881 nearly 40% of the population was urban. The trend alarmed those who believed city growth and rural depopulation would foster old world ills and threaten New Zealand’s economy.
Critics considered city life sapped people’s strength. In 1879 one thought it ‘suicidal vanity’ to bring up ‘children with a view to them wearing broadcloth and idling away their time behind bank counters or at lawyers’ desks …. The Mrs Brown of a New Zealand city ... is very apt to think her Frederick, dressed like a gentleman and sporting a lot of jewellery, is a much finer sight than the same unique being would be at work behind his father’s bench or guiding his father’s plough.’1
The government agreed, and promoted small farm settlement schemes such as dairying to city workers – with limited success. In 1889 it formally entrenched the country quota, which gave greater parliamentary representation (and therefore power) to rural districts. Anti-city rhetoric was also ratcheted up. The Liberal politician Walter Syme noted that the very existence of cities depended on settlement of the land. His colleague Frederick Baume added the (much-repeated) refrain that farmers could live without lawyers and shopkeepers, but no New Zealander could live without farmers. Such was the hostility to city life that William Pember Reeves spoke of an ‘agrarian cult’ in New Zealand, and commented that to be a townsman ‘has almost been to wear a badge of inferiority’.2
There were other reasons that people worried about city growth. Many believed cities were emasculating, turning rugged rural men into wasp-waisted wimps. Sporting stiff shirt collars, not simple neckbands, and holding a pen, rather than an axe, the city clerk was the derided symbol of this metamorphosis. Commentators constantly worried about the abundance of effeminate clerks and the lack of (manly) farm workers.
Associated with this was the anxiety that city life degraded body and mind. In the cities, ‘the hearing flags, the muscles slacken; the nerves grow weak; and the fever of the over-driven brain saps gradually the strength of the body.’3 It was believed that this had dire implications for national defence. The solution suggested was for city parents to encourage their children to up sticks to the country to engage in strength-inducing manual work.
Birth rates were said to be 33% lower in the city – further confirmation that cities sapped vitality. People feared New Zealand faced ‘race suicide’ unless the urbanising tide was turned. In fact in 1905 birth rates in the main cities were higher than the national average. Nonetheless, the belief that cities robbed children of their health and strength remained strong.
But the city did have its defenders. Boosters and publicists used the growth of cities as evidence of New Zealand’s ‘civilization’ and rapid progress. New city buildings and institutions – museums, hospitals and universities – showed the ‘go-ahead’ spirit of the colonist and were favourably compared to those in European cities. One booster even predicted Wellington would become the London of the South Pacific.
Meanwhile, country folk could appear unsophisticated bumpkins to city dwellers, one commentator declaring the colony’s asylums were filled with country people – sometimes shepherds driven mad by loneliness. Others noted that it was ‘townsfolk who rave most about the delights of ruralising’, but ‘very few would exchange their city life for the most beautiful sylvan dwelling.’4 Towns and cities were becoming better places to live and the better they became the ‘stronger the influence of their magnetism on the rural population.’5
Such was the pull that in 1911 New Zealand officially became an urban society – with just over 50% of people living in towns and cities. Fears of catastrophic national decline failed to materialise.
While opening up the land had been labour-intensive, increasing mechanisation had made agriculture much less so. Sending city dwellers to settle on small blocks fulfilled dreams of a rural idyll, but it denied the reality that it was an inefficient way to farm. Many rural workers recognised this and left their country homes for the widening work and leisure opportunities of towns and cities.
Cities had been viewed as parasitic, sucking the life out of the land. The popular adage that New Zealand ‘lives off the farmer’s back’ derived from this view.
The 20th-century influx of rural people to urban areas did little to reshape entrenched views of city and country. This was underlined when the interests of each side were threatened, as they were during the 1913 waterfront strike.
Trouble arose after Wellington wharfies (wharf workers) were suspended from work. The wharfies went on strike, stormed the wharves and stopped ships being loaded. The conservative government enlisted ‘special constables’, mainly farmers, to reopen the wharves. Following a series of bloody street clashes, a large troop of mounted specials and police charged the strikers and retook the wharves.
Antagonism between city strikers and country specials ran deep. After boarding the ship Maheno at Auckland, the unionist Charles Reeve was pulled from his cabin, and ‘cast off’ in Queen Street by a group of specials. They had taken exception to his public call for strikers to ‘march into the country, and wreak their vengeance for the capture from them of the port by “cockies” upon the farmers’ wives.’1
The strike highlighted a geo-political split between a liberal, city-based constituency and a conservative, country-based one. Although some city dwellers were hostile, support for the wharfies was strongest in the cities. The division became more entrenched with the founding of the Labour Party in 1916, which received most of its backing from city voters. Conversely, the conservative Reform party and later the National party attracted more country support, with farmers dominating conservative governments until the 1960s.
Perhaps the most divisive city–country rift occurred during the 1981 South African rugby tour of New Zealand, opposed by anti-apartheid protesters. Support for the tour was strongest in country districts, and opposition to it centred in cities. Long-standing prejudices re-surfaced. Pro-tour supporters called anti-tour supporters ‘poofters’; anti-tour activists retaliated with taunts of ‘country bumpkin’, and ‘sheep-shaggers’.
But some people recognised that city and country were interdependent. In an economy reliant on international trade, New Zealand lived not only off the farmers’ backs, but also the backs of urban-based freezing workers, shipping agents and wharfies, among others.
Writing in 1897, 12-year-old Jessie Wilson declared it was ‘so pleasant to leave the dusty, crowded streets and the din and bustle of the town to go into the quiet, peaceful country.’ Equally, she thought there were many country children who wished to live in cities because ‘there a plenty of wonderful sights to see and plenty of shop windows, decorated with beautiful things’.2 On balance, however, this townie thought country life superior.
For the most part there have been strong ties between city and country. In the 19th century many cities had saleyards, and the sight of stock being driven through streets was common. Annual A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows were a feature of most large towns and cities – in Canterbury the first day of the Christchurch show is a public holiday. Until the 1970s many city children had farm holidays and had seen a cow milked or sheep mustered. Country children often went to boarding school in town and were familiar with city ways. Country people labelled any large town or city the ‘big smoke’, and called urban dwellers ‘townies’; townies adopted the country term ‘cocky’ for farmers.
After the 1980s the growth of lifestyle blocks – small rural properties owned by current or former townies – blurred old city–country distinctions, but created new tensions. Lifestylers’ complaints about country noises and smells – including bird-scaring devices and silage – both bemused and incensed local farmers, curbing traditional country hospitality to newcomers. While most areas have not seen the scale of conflict experienced in the Auckland area – where one lifestyler moved a herd of cows from the next-door farm because he was having a barbecue and the smell of cows ruined the ambience – there has been opposition to what some call ‘rural sprawl’. On the other hand, lifestylers have re-energised flagging rural economies by starting wineries and orchards, running home-based businesses, and creating demand for café culture and non-farm employment.
In 2008 the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry commissioned research on the rural–urban divide. It found most urban dwellers appreciated the importance of the rural and primary sectors to New Zealand, but there was a lack of understanding among rural people about the role and importance of urban New Zealand.
In the early 2000s points of friction between city and country remained. In 2006 urban-based environmentalists criticised farmers for continuing to pollute rural streams and rivers. Farmers lambasted their critics for not recognising New Zealand lived off their exports. Talk of a widening rural–urban divide increased with the scuttling of plans to permit free public passage over farmland. In the end most agreed more was to be gained by building bridges between city and country than tearing them down.
Until the 1950s New Zealand’s four main centres – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – were of roughly equal size and influence. But they had distinguishing attributes that defined each city to residents and outsiders alike. Some of these representations had their origins in the way the cities were founded; others emerged as cities were reshaped. Some were repeated so often they became stale stereotypes; others revealed deeper insights into a city’s sense of place or identity.
In 1891 Rudyard Kipling famously called Auckland ‘last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite apart’ – a phrase that filled its residents with pride, but was repeated so often it became hackneyed.1
Auckland’s prize asset has always been its site. Māori were early settlers, some calling it Tāmaki-makau-rau (Tāmaki of a hundred lovers), a reference to the lure of its waterways and lush soils. Arcadian images continued with European settlement, one booster suggesting Auckland’s ‘rich chocolate soil has only to be tickled with a hoe to smile with a harvest of fruit and flowers.’2
Two further images continued to resonate in the early 2000s. The first was that Auckland was driven by the pursuit of (speculative) wealth. During the 1870s observers expressed surprise at the structure of the city’s economy: ‘I can almost count on my fingers the men who confine themselves to steady, commercial work; the rest of the beings … are “spiders” or sharebrokers, who make their living by the feverish rise and fall of the market’.3 The other image of Auckland was that of a collection of villages with no real centre. In the 1890s André Siegfried noted how quiet the city was: life seemed to be lived in the suburbs. This attribute was reflected in Auckland’s local government, with a plethora of suburban-defined boroughs, only reined in by 1989 reforms.
More than other cities, Wellington has been defined by its climate, especially its wind. In the 1860s Charlotte Godley supposed ‘there was never so windy a place as this; it is acknowledged to be the great drawback to the settlement’.4 In the 1940s Oliver Duff declared Wellington ‘gusty and bleak … no other city in the Southern Hemisphere can be quite so dreary’.5 Perversely, Wellingtonians turned the wind into a positive. It was invigorating and cleansing, they claimed. And when it died down and the sun shone, there was no better place: ‘you can’t beat Wellington on a good day’ became the city’s unofficial motto.
Rivalry between Auckland and Wellington goes back to their founding in 1840, when the latter settlement accused the former of stealing its citizens with deceitful promises of wealth. In 2009 Auckland was at it again. In a controversial article in Auckland magazine Metro the city tried to steal Wellington’s coveted cultural-capital mantle by claiming it was culturally richer. This time Wellington was ready and fought off the northern invader with ridicule.
Another representation of Wellington was as a place of transition – people came to the city to work rather than live, before moving on again. The image reflected a period from 1900 to the 1980s when large sectors of the economy were government-controlled and Wellington was New Zealand’s ‘head office’. Many careers necessitated stints in what was widely viewed as a colourless capital, populated by grey civil servants. From the 1980s the city began to shed this lifeless image and forge a more dynamic one as the nation’s cultural capital.
While landscape and climate shaped images of Auckland and Wellington, representations of Christchurch and Dunedin were culturally rooted. The cities were founded by groups of English and Scots colonists respectively, and this framed the way each was represented. Christchurch was quickly declared New Zealand’s most English city, and its neo-Gothic cathedral became its foremost symbol. Visiting in 1895, Mark Twain thought if the city ‘had an established Church and social inequality it would be England all over again with hardly a lack.’6 Dunedin (an old name for Edinburgh) was clearly the colony’s Scottish city, an attribute mirrored in its built environment and the verve of its economy. ‘I have never visited a town with more signs of progress and general comfort,’ wrote Arthur Claydon in 1879.7
New Zealand cities were often compared to their Australian counterparts. In 1871 one observer wrote: ‘Dunedin is a little Melbourne, and has been brought to what it is mainly by Melbourne men, their money and enterprise. Auckland is a lesser Sydney, partaking in every way of the characteristics of that city and the people of it, with whom it has the most frequent communication.’8 The Dunedin–Melbourne image faded away, but the Auckland–Sydney one remains vivid in 2009.
During the 20th century Dunedin’s images of progress and energy were replaced by those of tradition and staidness – the city hardly grew. Scottish references continued – not least in the name of its rugby team, the Highlanders – but new images centred increasingly on its illustrious university and sometimes unruly students. Christchurch too tried to move past its tired English iconography, embracing a new set of images that emphasised its status as New Zealand’s garden city. To this end, in 2008, it coaxed the Ellerslie Flower Show from Auckland.
There are no New Zealand city novels that rival works like John Mulgan’s Man alone (1939) and Jane Mander’s The story of a New Zealand river (1920). These have rural settings and reinforce the importance of the rural dimension of New Zealand society. When characters, such as Mulgan’s Johnson, visit the city it is often only to confirm they do not belong:
He meant to stay in Auckland and see city life, but when he got there he didn’t like it. It was too noisy after the country, and the summer was coming in and the air smelt good from the hills west of the city and the sunlight splendid on the blue Coromandel range.1
When novelists have explored city life, they have tended to focus on its darker side, such as social inequality and dysfunction, melancholy and alienation. John A. Lee’s semi-autobiographical Children of the poor (1934) falls into this genre. It follows child protagonist Albany Porcello’s negotiation of the mean streets of 1890s Dunedin and the brutal consequences of his fall into petty crime. Similarly, Robin Hyde’s semi-autobiographical The godwits fly (1937) charts a working-class upbringing, this time in 1910s Wellington. The work is notable for its rich descriptions of family relationships – characterised by dysfunction – and evocative images of city spaces and life.
In Maurice Shadbolt’s Strangers and journeys (1972) idealist Bill Freeman envisages an egalitarian and just city. This vision is lost during the 1932 Queen Street riots, when police violently suppress the protests of Auckland’s hungry unemployed. Bill feels alienated from the complacent suburban majority who recoil from social justice.
Historian Steven Eldred-Grigg’s 1987 novel Oracles and miracles blurred the lines between fiction and fact. It realistically charts the lives of two imaginary twin girls born into working-class Christchurch in 1929. The novel is a damning indictment of the city’s rigid class system – if not the city itself. But it was a hit with readers and also became a popular stage play.
Noel Hilliard’s writing also has themes of isolation and melancholy. His first novel, Maori girl (1960), created controversy because it depicted the racial discrimination encountered by a young Māori woman, Netta, who moves from the countryside to Wellington. In Maori woman (1974) he examines the alienation of city life: Netta ‘had never accustomed herself to the feeling of insignificance in a busy street’.2 In returning to the country, she seeks relief from city loneliness.
In the 1970s suburbia was in writers’ sights. Margaret Sutherland’s The love contract (1976) follows Kate and Rex Goodman’s first decade of marriage in the sparkling new suburb of ‘Comfrey’. Sutherland canvasses a wide range of issues: social conformity, loss of religious faith, materialism, arrival of children, suburban neurosis and adultery. In Living in the Maniototo (1979), Janet Frame satirises the fictional suburb of Blenheim on Auckland’s North Shore, to savage effect: ‘Blenheim. The disinherited suburb-city where the largest, most impressive building is not a cathedral, a community hall, concert hall or theatre, but a shopping mall.’3
Although few novelists have openly celebrated city life, writers such as Maurice Gee show a strong connection to place. Many of his novels are set in West Auckland, where he grew up. His work maps its transformation from wilderness to market garden, to suburbia.
It is perhaps short-story writers who have provided the most sympathetic images of city life. Katherine Mansfield’s stories of life in Edwardian Wellington show empathy for both her sometimes quirky characters and the environments they inhabit.
Like Noel Hilliard’s, Witi Ihimaera’s writing has tackled post-1960 Māori urbanisation, but he focuses less on alienation than on the magnetism and modernity of cities. His 1977 story ‘Follow the yellow brick road’ traces a family’s journey from the rural East Coast to the ‘emerald city’, Wellington. In ‘The escalator’ a new arrival freezes at the foot of an escalator. Coaxed on by family and the crowd she eventually overcomes her fear and takes the required step.
The first paintings of New Zealand towns were topographical depictions of settlements made by surveyors and amateur artists who accompanied colonising companies. Most were made for viewing back home in Britain, and their prime purpose was to attract new migrants. Artists had little compunction about rounding off hills and clearing vegetation to make views more English-looking and enticing. In Charles Heaphy’s 1841 depiction of Wellington the multitude of ships suggests (somewhat prematurely) a bustling port, and the encircling hills owe more to the rolling downs of Kent than the rugged crags of Wellington.
The booster imperative carried through to later works, although these tended to be closer to reality. In George O’Brien’s ‘Dunedin 1888’ individual buildings are meticulously detailed in a composition that stresses the widening expanse of New Zealand’s ‘metropolis’. Jacques Carabain’s ‘Queen Street, Auckland’ (1889) not only faithfully reproduces the thoroughfare’s grand buildings (symbolic of civilisation and modernity) but also its litter and roaming dogs – there are few richer images of colonial street life.
George Nairn introduced to New Zealand the plein-air technique of painting, where an artist painted scenes outside rather than in a studio from sketches. But his habit of painting in all seasons and all weathers did nothing for his health. While painting near Motueka in 1904 he caught a severe cold which exacerbated an existing illness and he died aged 44.
The rise of photography reduced the need for realist representations. Painters increasingly adopted new styles that explored the movement of light on a scene (impressionism), or an artist’s emotional response to it (expressionism). George Nairn’s ‘Wellington harbour’ (1894) typifies the impressionist style, his brush strokes capturing the sparkle of afternoon sun on quivering water. The light in Girolamo Nerli’s ‘Dunedin street scene’ (1894) is more muted, but the composition has the caught-in-the-moment quality that characterised impressionist works.
What is striking about these images is their vibrancy. Whereas painters of natural landscapes generally stuck to brooding blues, browns and greens, painters of cities embraced a more brilliant palette. This was especially true of the expressionists. Toss Woollaston’s ‘Wellington’ (1937) is a lively mix of rhythms and forms. It was, he said, an expression of the chaos of Wellington’s built environment. Evelyn Page was also enthralled by Wellington’s dynamism. She could not understand why so many of her peers painted gloomy landscapes devoid of people. ‘Why go to the Riviera’ (1950) depicts a bustling weekend crowd at Oriental Bay. The strong light and vivid tones – not to mention the title itself – clearly celebrate the city.
During the 1960s the artist Rita Angus lived in a cottage in Wellington’s Thorndon, opposite the historic Bolton Street cemetery. Her images of the destruction of the cemetery for a city motorway remain poignant and powerful testaments to the price of progress. Her cottage survives as a short-stay residence for artists.
Other artists also explored city life. Louise Henderson’s 1930 scene of Christchurch’s Addington railway workshops sits within a social realist art tradition and pictures heroic workers forging heavy machinery. Roland Hipkins’ ‘Renaissance’ (1932) shows Napier after the 1931 earthquake. The foreground is dominated by the ruined cathedral, with the new city rising from the rubble in the middle distance. Russell Clark’s ‘Saturday night’ (1940) conveys the bright lights of a nocturnal street. The image is sexually charged; are the women in the window prostitutes? And Garth Tapper’s ‘Five o’clock’ (1968) shows the male camaraderie of the public bar before women were admitted. These are affirmative images, a stark contrast to the anti-urbanism of contemporary literature.
This is not to say artists were uncritical. The emergence of abstraction in the mid-20th century saw painters represent cities in sometimes confronting ways. Robert Ellis’s ‘Motorway/city’ (1969) places the viewer high above a generic city to show how motorways randomly divide cities.
The realist Peter Siddell also encouraged viewers to see cities differently. Images like ‘House and Cloud’ (2003) are highly evocative of place (in this case Auckland) but do not depict an actual scene. The absence of people in Siddell’s work is suggestive of alienation, but also provides a surreal quality and sense of timelessness.
New Zealand’s first filmmakers soon focused their lenses on cities. A common device was to pan cityscapes to show their extent. In 1918 William Hopkins filmed the Auckland isthmus from a hilltop, highlighting the suburban advance into encircling farmland. Another film device was to place the camera at the front of a tram or bus, enabling a virtual tour of streets. Public events such as Labour Day parades and royal visits were also captured, usually from a fixed point above the action. Film provided a new, dynamic perspective on city life. The motionless forms in paintings and photographs of cities ‘came alive’ on film: people moved, flags fluttered and traffic trundled along streets.
The government quickly recognised the publicity potential of film. The genre was established with films like Glimpses of New Zealand: Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city (1931). Opening with a panorama across the harbour, the viewer is taken on a fleeting tour of the main institutions, streets and scenic spots. With ample shots of new buildings and facilities, the film stresses Wellington’s modernity and progress. It ends with the picturesque: evening shadows enveloping ‘Wellington’s seagirt shores’.
Television advertisements also provided fresh images of cities. Among the first to do this was a 1971 Greggs’ coffee advert. A downtown office worker steps onto a balcony and looks down on the city crowd. It comprises people of different ages and ethnicities, some glamorous and others plain. An accompanying jingle includes the line: ‘Different places, many races, living in the sun’ – reflecting a belief in the growing cultural diversity of New Zealand city life. The man returns inside to drink his (then urbane) instant coffee.
Until the arrival of television in the 1960s, publicity films (including newsreels) dominated film images of cities. While the settings and cinematography became more slick and alluring, the scenery-based content and progressive themes remained the same. Long-held stereotypes of particular cities – the ‘Englishness’ of Christchurch, or wind-blown Wellington – were supported rather than examined.
Early television current-affairs programmes like Compass ditched puffery for a social documentary perspective. Reports on Auckland’s Pacific Island community, alcoholics, and Jehovah’s Witnesses highlighted the diversity and complexity of city life.
The approach was taken up by others. The National Film Unit’s To live in the city (1967) sensitively followed several Māori from rural Northland to new lives in Wellington. Paul Maunder broke new ground with Notes on a New Zealand city (1972). It cuttingly critiques issues like suburban neurosis, bored youth, rising traffic congestion and inner-city decline.
In the early 2000s documentaries like Sandor Lam’s Squeegee bandit (2007) continued to provide provocative images. It charts the struggles of Starfish, a Māori man who hustled a living washing car windows at Auckland intersections.
Images of cities in feature films have generally been critical, reflecting literary themes of urban alienation and rural redemption. The first film to tackle these issues was Broken barrier (1952). Tom (a Pākehā) forms a relationship with a Māori girl, Rawi, on an East Coast farm. He follows her to the city, where prejudice and cultural clashes fracture the relationship. Tom runs away to become a forestry worker, but returns to the East Coast to chase Rawi.
Suburbia is another motif. Middle age spread (1979) satirically examines the dysfunctional relationships of attendees at a suburban dinner party. The punk cult classic Angel mine (1984) parodies the quarter-acre suburban dream, following the erotic fantasies of a young couple constricted by suburban life. The most harrowing depiction of suburbia is Once were warriors (1994). It focuses on an alienated suburban Māori family terrorised by a brutal husband and father.
Since then more quirky and demonstrative images have emerged. In Scarfies (1999) a group of Dunedin university students (scarfies) move into an abandoned flat only to discover a basement marijuana plot. They sell it but things get tricky when the grower returns. Sione’s wedding (2006) is a comedy about four immature Samoan men in suburban Auckland who have to find ‘real’ girlfriends to attend a relative’s wedding. It proves a challenging task. The film celebrates the whimsical humour and multi-culturalism of modern city life.
Separation city (2009) is a comedy-drama about a group of married couples who seek new lives outside their stale relationships. Set in the homes, workplaces, cafés and coastline of Wellington, the film positively captures the city in ways few have before.
Churchman, Geoffrey, ed. Celluloid dreams: a century of film in New Zealand. Wellington: IPL Books, 1997.
Cumberland, Kenneth. Landmarks. Surry Hills, NSW: Reader’s Digest, 1981.
Hamer, David. New towns in the new world: images and perceptions of the nineteenth-century urban frontier. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Ireland, Kevin. The New Zealand collection: a celebration of the New Zealand novel. Auckland: Random House, 1989.
Keith, Hamish. The big picture: a history of New Zealand art from 1642. Auckland: Godwit, 2007.