Story: Culture and recreation in the city

Page 1. Cities and culture

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Cities are often the birthplaces of culture, sites where cultural institutions and recreational facilities first spring up and then flourish. This is due to a number of reasons.


Cities by definition have more inhabitants than villages or rural areas, so there are large numbers of people who can pay for entertainment. A larger population allows specialised groups to emerge, including people interested in playing chess, aspiring singers, and alternative cultures of like-minded intellectuals.

By international standards New Zealand cities have always been small – in 1950 only Auckland had more than a quarter of a million people, and Wellington and Christchurch’s populations were less than 175,000. People who wanted a really rich cultural life often moved to Sydney or even to London. However, because larger metropolitan centres were so far away, New Zealand’s cities had more cultural and sporting facilities than similar-sized centres overseas. By virtue of being the capital, Wellington had many cultural and recreational institutions, such as a national museum, a national library and a national orchestra.


Although New Zealand’s city-dwellers have not always been wealthier than those on farms and in small towns, the economic activity in the city means there is more disposable capital. It is easier to raise funds to build concert chambers or sports stadiums.

Local authorities in cities have a larger tax take, and have been important in promoting culture and recreation. Christchurch built its first town hall in 1857. In the early 20th century Wellington City Council constructed four band rotundas and subsidised six bands to play in them at the weekends. In the later 20th century, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch city councils each built major auditoriums for concerts. Local bodies in Wellington and Dunedin have put money into new sports stadiums since the 1990s. On occasion local councils took over existing cultural ventures. In 1915 Invercargill took responsibility for the Athenaeum Library and a private museum.


More people and wealth meant cities quickly acquired facilities for culture and recreation. By the time of the First World War Wellington had a zoo, a public library, a cricket ground with a grandstand, a skating rink, an opera house, public gardens, several swimming pools, a library and a museum (even if, as author Pat Lawlor remembered, it was ‘as cheerless as the cave of Trophonius’)1. City streets were also places for entertainments whether in the form of jugglers or street musicians.

Rock ’n’ roll

In Wellington, before the town hall was completed in 1905, the great public gathering place was the skating rink in Ingestre Street. It hosted dances, concerts, stalls, maypole dances, and Gilbert and Sullivan light operas. It was also the site for election meetings where aspiring politicians shook the rafters with their rhetoric.

Transport hubs

New Zealand’s first cities were all ports, and became the centre of road, rail and air networks. The cities were the arrival points for overseas artists, and for about a century travelling international artists and sportspeople provided high points of city recreational life. From 1870 to 1930 there was a constant parade of overseas singers, actors, lecturers and circuses coming to the port cities.

As transport links improved, people in surrounding rural areas and small towns could travel into the city for special occasions – whether rugby matches or concerts. It also became easier for people to travel within the city to rehearse plays or play games against other sports clubs.

Educated people

Jobs in cities often require a high level of formal education, and educational institutions like universities are located in cities. An educated population provides ready audiences and support for cultural institutions like theatres, museums and galleries.

  1. Pat Lawlor, Old Wellington days: an intimate diary. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1959, p. 85. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Culture and recreation in the city - Cities and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 11 Mar 2010