In 2006, 86% of New Zealanders were city dwellers, making New Zealand one of the most urbanised countries in the world. The great majority had chosen to live in suburbs around the major cities. The growth of suburbs has been one of the most significant developments in shaping New Zealand society.
New Zealanders’ preference for suburban life – a settlement pattern characterised by low-density housing, typically a single house on its own section – began in the early days of Pākehā settlement. Emigrants to New Zealand hoped to escape conditions common in the great industrial cities of Europe, where most people were crowded together, often working and living under the same roof. Those conditions led to a widespread middle-class reaction against city life. People believed that a family living in their own house, with a section to separate them from neighbours, were protected from the evil temptations of the city. The husband could leave for work each day while his wife took care of the home, and he could spend time with his family when he returned. Working in the suburban garden could provide some of the moral and physical advantages of outdoor and rural life.
It was easy to establish a suburban pattern of housing in early colonial New Zealand. Land was relatively cheap, and houses were usually built of wood rather than more expensive and substantial stone. So single-storey homes on their own sections were the rule, even in the heart of the main cities. Wellington, the first immigrant settlement, was laid out in this pattern.
Towns and cities in the new colony grew in a rapid and haphazard manner, however, and they soon showed many of the worst features of European cities. Rubbish and sewage accumulated, polluting the water supply and leading to epidemics of disease. In 1864 the Otago Daily Times complained that Dunedin had ‘reproduced with faithful accuracy the wretched tenements, and filthy back slums of an English town’.1 In the same year Auckland’s Herald attacked ‘those abominable nests of squalid filth, the rookeries of small houses in the back lanes and slums of the City’.2
A common motive for preferring to house low-income people in suburbs instead of the inner city was to prevent them becoming discontented and radicalised. In 1919 a town planner said: ‘If a decent man is unable to secure a home for himself and his family, he is liable to become Bolshevik in his ideas and a menace to the community … small houses have been packed together to the extent of twenty-nine to the acre … is there any wonder that under such conditions unrest and even disloyalty manifest themselves so frequently?’3
Civic leaders sought to improve living conditions for the poor by moving them out of the central city, which was thought to breed crime and dissent as well as dirt and disease. In a 1903 investigation of slum housing in central Auckland, a reporter described the ideal living situation: ‘A house of four rooms with its new coat of paint stands not in the city streets but in a suburb. There is a patch of cultivated flower garden; there is a small asphalted yard.’4 The Liberal government of the period saw that the original suburban ideal of each family living on their own well-kept property was not working, since private landlords were not likely to make this type of house available to the large numbers then living in substandard housing. The government therefore introduced laws to promote suburban housing.
In 1905 the Workers Dwelling Act made New Zealand the first nation in the Western world to provide public housing for its citizens. The government built and rented ‘workmen’s homes’, with large gardens, on the outskirts of the main cities. The high quality of these houses, however, meant that the rents charged for them were more than most working people could afford. Also, most of these houses were located beyond the limits of tram and rail systems. Shift workers, especially, could not afford to live far from their workplaces. The government admitted that its pioneering state house scheme was not successful, and all the ‘workmen’s homes’ were eventually sold to private landlords.
The Advances to Workers Act 1906 made cheap finance available for the first time to people wishing to build or buy a home. From the 1920s the state provided further low-cost loans to buy both sections and houses. This guaranteed credit fuelled a boom in land and housing speculation. The frenzy of property development that occurred on the edges of every major city resulted in suburbs such as Mt Albert in Auckland, Karori and Khandallah in Wellington, and St Kilda in Dunedin.
The developers who sold suburban properties during the boom years of the 1920s sometimes made exaggerated claims for the financial security of their investments. A 1922 advertisement for a subdivision in Mt Albert, Auckland, said: ‘Those who have the foresight to buy a section in Mount Royal Estate today MUST MAKE MONEY and their only regret will be that they did not buy two.’ 1
Farmland on the city fringe was surveyed into sections and supplied with roads and drainage. To fit as many houses as possible on to each new housing estate it was generally subdivided into oblong plots fronting the street, with few areas left open for parks or other public facilities. The suburbs established in this period were often poorly laid out, with little thought for public transport or other community needs. Garden cities and other advanced town-planning ideas from overseas were seldom tried in New Zealand.
The 1920s housing boom turned to bust in the early 1930s when New Zealand was hit hard by a worldwide economic depression. Many first-time homeowners were forced to return to renting as their houses were repossessed by the state or private finance companies. At the same time the population grew while the number of new houses dropped sharply, causing a severe housing shortage. The first Labour government, elected in 1935, promised to build thousands of affordable houses. By March 1939, 5,000 had been constructed, mostly at Miramar in Wellington and in the Hutt Valley nearby, and at Ōrākei in Auckland. New building materials, power tools and construction techniques meant firms such as Fletchers could mass-produce houses cheaply and quickly. The simple three-bedroom detached family home became standard for both state and private suburban housing.
New Zealand’s first wage workers needed to live within walking distance of their workplaces. The earliest suburbs, such as Thorndon in Wellington and Freemans Bay in Auckland, therefore grew up on the edge of the inner city. By the end of the 19th century, public transport systems allowed people to live much further away from their work. New Zealand cities expanded outwards in a series of low-density suburbs, instead of developing the high-density apartment blocks and terrace houses found in European cities.
During the 1880s horse-drawn tram services were set up in all four main centres. Commuter suburbs developed along the tram routes and property speculators took advantage of this trend by buying and subdividing more land on the city fringes. Mt Eden in Auckland, St Albans in Christchurch and Newtown in Wellington developed in this way. Suburban expansion sped up in the early 20th century as faster electric trams replaced horse-drawn ones, and suburban railway lines reached to the outskirts of towns.
After the Second World War, working-class New Zealand families could own a car for the first time. They no longer needed to live close to public transport routes, so much larger areas of land became available for housing development. Whole cities were turned inside-out as their populations moved from the centre to the edges. The central business district became an area of offices and commercial buildings, and on most nights and weekends it was almost empty.
In Auckland, pressure for housing space caused suburbs to take over land that had been intended for green belts. The opening of the Harbour Bridge enabled thousands to move to the North Shore and travel to the city each day for work. From 1955, Auckland planners abandoned development of the city’s suburban rail network and built motorways instead. Other, smaller roads were built to connect new suburbs with the city and with each other. These were different from the inner-city streets of the 19th century, which could be used like public parks for walking or games. Instead they were dominated by private vehicles, and children and pedestrians kept to the footpaths.
The low-density pattern of New Zealand suburbs was based on the expectation that fuel would be cheap and every household would own a car. But during the oil shock of 1979 the price of petrol soared and the government introduced compulsory carless days, forcing suburban dwellers to question their reliance on their vehicles. Suburban growth did not stop, but it slowed.
New suburbs gave thousands of New Zealand families their first opportunity to own their own house on their own land. Their new house represented their most valuable possession and a source of future wealth. A privately owned house on its section – the classic ‘quarter-acre’ of just over 1,000 square metres – became established as the ideal way of life for almost all New Zealanders.
Many houses built in the suburbs that sprouted after the First World War were based on the ‘California bungalow’ design. This single-storeyed, low-roofed style of house was sunnier, warmer and cheaper to build than the villa style that it replaced. It was designed with an indoor toilet, hot running water, a sunny kitchen and electricity, so the homemaker could maintain it comfortably without the help of servants.
During the day the suburban house was a woman’s world. The husband left for work in the city each morning and returned at night, leaving his wife in charge of everything connected with housekeeping and child-raising. It became a matter of pride and prestige to women to run a sparkling clean house, with tidy and well-mannered children. The biscuit tin was always full for people who dropped by for a cup of tea. With a kitchen at the back of her new bungalow, a mother could keep an eye on her children in the backyard.
The lawn is an important aspect of suburban life and keeping it neat and trimmed has become a measure of respectability for householders. The world’s first lawnmower was patented in 1830 in England. Its inventor, Edwin Budding, said: ‘Country gentlemen will find in using my machine an amusing, useful and healthful exercise.’1 Soon afterwards Budding’s mower, featuring the revolving spiral blades still used today, was manufactured by the firm of Ransomes. Ransomes lawnmowers were imported to New Zealand from the 1850s.
On the weekends her husband took on responsibility for the garden, household repairs and some family activities. Most older suburbs were based on quarter-acre sections, allowing plenty of room for large vegetable patches and backyard games. Home vegetable gardens and even hen houses provided food for many families until the 1970s, when cheap produce became widely available through supermarkets.
Suburban life was focused on the family and the home. Relatives came to visit but rarely lived close by. If people wanted to be part of a crowd, their cars could take them to the beach, the zoo or the park. Community activities and team sports were important to many people but their home remained the focus of their lives.
Post-war living standards were high and so were the expectations of new homeowners.
Shirley Redpath was aged 11 in 1949, when her family moved into the brand new suburb of Naenae. Her first impression of the neighbourhood was of ‘shock and disbelief, hardly a tree, shrub, plant, lawn in sight’. However, when she and her two younger siblings went inside their new state house in Seddon Street, they found it ‘welcoming, modern, attractive, with a large windowed sun porch’. The children left their shoes at the front door and ran excitedly through their new home. ‘Light streamed through the curtainless windows, giving a feel of lightness and airiness.’1
During the 1950s the populations of rural towns shrank as their residents flocked to find work in fast-growing industries such as motor-vehicle assembly. To accommodate them, suburbs continued to expand on the edges of major cities. Housing advances from the State Advances Corporation and cheap government loans enabled thousands of low-income people to buy their first homes in these areas. At Ōtara and Māngere in South Auckland, and in the Hutt Valley and at Porirua north of Wellington, very large suburbs made up of a mix of state and private housing were built. These suburbs often spread over large areas of fertile agricultural and market-garden land. The Hutt Valley was a market-garden area until large-scale state housing in the 1940s replaced the gardens, which were shifted north to Ōtaki.
The first New Zealand suburbs were considered the most desirable places in the country to live. They represented society’s victory over the problem of inner-city slum housing and almost everyone’s ambition was to move to the suburbs to lead a better life. By the 1970s, however, many new suburbs had come to be seen as boring and depressing places to live. Part of the problem was the lack of community facilities. After the Second World War the urgency of the housing shortage meant that nearly all development funding went into building houses, and little attention was paid to supplying the new housing estates with community facilities or public transport. Planners assumed that residents would have their own cars, and those who did not often faced a long walk to the nearest bus or train route. Geographer Kenneth Cumberland was one of the first to warn against this trend when in 1955 he condemned the ‘cult of the quarter acre’. ‘Subsidised housing sprawls over the countryside,’ he wrote, ‘inadequately roaded, sewered and lighted and unprovided with community services.’2
In this period large numbers of Māori migrated from rural areas to cities, while shortages of unskilled labour encouraged many Pacific Islanders to emigrate to New Zealand. Government policy gave poor and young families first priority for state houses, and from the 1970s the new state-house suburbs were made up mainly of young, Polynesian and low-income people. The small three-bedroom houses were not well suited to large Māori and Pacific Island families or to major extended-family events such as tangi (funerals). With no community buildings available, tangi had to be held in private homes or in the garage. Concentrating Māori and Polynesian people into low-income suburbs caused a range of social problems and many of the Pākehā residents moved out as soon as possible. In 1966 Pākehā made up 62% of the population of Ōtara. In 2006 only 15% were Pākehā. They were outnumbered by Māori and more than half the suburb’s total population was of Pacific Island descent.
New Zealand had a very high birth rate in the 1950s and on fine days thousands of suburban backyards displayed rotary clotheslines draped with cloth nappies blowing in the breeze. Such suburbs were given the light-hearted nickname of Nappy Valley.
In 1954 the Hutt Valley was the scene of a national sex scandal involving local teenagers and older people they had met in milk bars. Milk bars were frequented by bodgies – males who often rode motorbikes and wore tight ‘stovepipe’ trousers. The more violent carried weapons such as sharpened bicycle chains and razorblades hidden in their clothes. Their girlfriends, the widgies, wore their hair in ponytails and typically dressed in ‘a black sweater, a shapeless skirt with a slit at the hem and a rope of (obviously) artificial pearls’.3
From the late 1950s some women began to question their role as housewives and mothers. Suburban neurosis – the idea that women feel isolated, bored and unfulfilled in the suburbs – gained widespread attention in the 1960s and 1970s. A 1968 article in Thursday magazine suggested that the condition was ‘filling our mental hospitals with depressed young women’.4
From the 1970s the quarter-acre ideal changed towards a more intensive and varied pattern of suburban housing. In many cities local authorities permitted smaller sections, less room between dwellings and infill housing – adding a new house to the section still occupied by an older one. In 1986 Housing Minister Phil Goff acknowledged that the quarter-acre section had become a ‘burden instead of an asset for many people’.1
This shift towards more compact and more varied suburbs was encouraged by the emergence of new types of families that departed from the nuclear ideal of the 1950s and 1960s. In the following decades single-parent families, single people, gay couples and extended families became increasingly visible. Many women were now part of the paid workforce and no longer spent weekdays in and around their suburban home.
As a result, suburban life became more diverse and less focused on the home and immediate neighbourhood. Shoppers had more options than their small local shopping centre and the large retailers in the central business district. Many large stores moved from the central city to the suburban fringe where parking was easier. These were often clustered into seven-day-a-week malls, which proved a magnet for teenagers.
Some suburbs also developed a stronger and more confident sense of local identity. In parts of west Auckland and the Hutt Valley young people developed a ‘bogan’ culture characterised by black T-shirts, heavy-metal music, fierce dogs, rugby league and beer. Pacific Island people concentrated in South Auckland and Porirua developed their own distinctive styles of street clothing, hip-hop music and speciality foods.
The Asian and African immigrants that arrived from the 1980s onwards often settled in the same areas as people from their home country. This has led to the rise of ‘ethnoburbs’ such as Auckland’s Howick, which has a high proportion of Chinese residents. These groups, and other smaller subcultures such as Africans from Eritrea and Somalia, have contributed to an increased sense of local identity in some suburban communities. This identity is celebrated and reinforced by community fairs, festivals and traditions such as the annual blessing of the fishing boats in Wellington’s Island Bay, which was originally settled by Italian fishermen from the 1890s.
A boom in property speculation from the 1980s onwards meant that rundown older suburbs close to the central city, such as Auckland’s Freemans Bay, became newly desirable areas to live in. Century-old wooden villas carefully restored to their former glory proved highly valuable investments. As the boom continued, newer suburbs and newer houses, even former state houses in areas such as Strathmore in Wellington, were sought after by middle-class homeowners, developers and investors.
In the early 2000s the move towards more compact and distinctive suburbs appeared likely to continue. Dunedin’s district plan promoted the development of the inner city rather than further suburban expansion. Auckland’s regional growth strategy favoured compact development with a small degree of expansion on the fringe of existing suburbs. Unlike earlier, relatively unplanned developments, this expansion was to be linked to the building of roads and public transport services. In Tauranga, intensive, medium-rise housing in the heart of the city was encouraged instead of low-density urban sprawl.
Both at a regional level and at the level of individual households, environmental sustainability issues were affecting suburban life. Rubbish collections now involved the recycling of some waste products. Home vegetable gardens were returning to fashion and access to good public transport was becoming vital. Some new suburbs were being designed for environmental sustainability from the start. On the Kāpiti Coast, north of Wellington, a suburb of 1,700 houses was planned, all with solar heating and insulation. Rainwater was to be recycled, and half the area reserved for wetlands, forests, walkways and cycle tracks. The plan was scaled back to 850 houses after some of the land was required for the Kāpiti Expressway.
The communications revolution allowed an increasing number of people to work full- or part-time from their homes – so fewer people commuted to work each day. The suburbs were less likely to be deserted by working-age people during the daytime, and the internet kept suburban dwellers more closely in touch with distant friends and relatives than ever before. They may have been less likely to communicate over the fence with the next-door neighbour, but they were also less likely to feel isolated inside their homes.
One new form of suburban life, the gated community, was like a return to the walled city of medieval times. Gated communities, which emerged in the 1990s, were usually high-priced residential communities providing occupants with exclusive use of facilities such as swimming pools, golf courses, parks and reserves. The grounds and houses were often maintained as part of the ownership contract. Because public access to the whole complex was restricted, gated communities promised more privacy and security than private homes – although detractors saw them as elitist and anti-social.
The reputation of suburban life rose, fell, then rose again in New Zealand during the 20th century. The vast majority of New Zealanders continued to prefer living in the suburbs, occupying their own house on their own plot of land.
Ferguson, Gael. Building the New Zealand dream. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press with the assistance of the Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1994.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass frontier: the suburbanization of the United States. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
McKinnon, Malcolm, ed. Bateman New Zealand historical atlas: ko papatuanuku e takoto nei. Auckland: David Bateman in association with Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1997.
Schrader, Ben. We call it home: a history of New Zealand state housing. Auckland: Reed, 2005.
Yska, Redmer. All shook up: the flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties. Auckland: Penguin, 1993.