Story: Suburbs

New Zealand, despite its small population, is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Its people have dreamt of the suburban life, lived it and reviled it. In 2006, 86% of New Zealanders were living in cities, and most of them were in the suburbs.

Story by Mark Derby
Main image: Railways poster promoting suburban life, 1930s

Story summary

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The suburban pattern

Nineteenth-century settlers established New Zealand’s suburban pattern, building grids of single-storey houses on their own plots of land. They hoped to keep at bay the overcrowding and social ills found in European cities, and reacted against city life. People believed that a family in its own house, with a garden and fences, was protected against the temptations of the city, and that working outdoors in the garden kept people morally and physically healthy.

Flight from the centre

With land and wood plentiful, settlements expanded swiftly and haphazardly. New Zealand cities soon reproduced the overcrowding, squalor and diseases that settlers had fled in Europe. The more wealthy sought better living away from the urban centres. Civic leaders hoped to improve conditions for low-income people by moving them out too. Under the Liberal government in 1906, New Zealand became the first country to provide public housing.

Housing boom

The first state houses were too far from workplaces and too expensive for low-paid workers. When the government made cheap finance available, there was a building boom that created many new suburbs. As public transport developed, and families acquired cars, suburbs could be built ever further from the inner cities. New Zealand never needed to build the dense terraced housing and apartment blocks of older nations.

State remedy

The first Labour government was elected in 1935 on a promise to provide affordable housing, and suburbs were developed with thousands of state houses.

House design

Early houses had been built on the pattern of the colonial villa. After the First World War, the California bungalow style was favoured. Simple three-bedroom houses, each on its quarter-acre plot, became the model for both state and private suburban housing.

Men and women

On weekdays, men left the suburbs to work in the city, while women stayed home with their children. It was a matter of pride to have a sparkling clean house, and tins of baking for visitors. In the weekends men worked in the garden and repaired broken items. Over time, these patterns changed as more women got jobs.

Post-war growth

After the Second World War, living standards improved and people’s expectations grew. Māori were leaving rural areas, and people were immigrating from the Pacific Islands, to work in growing new industries. Faced with a housing shortage, the government built large suburbs far from city centres, with little thought to the facilities they would need. People were expected to have cars, and to drive away from home for entertainment and shopping.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Suburbs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 11 March 2010