The compact capital
Wellington’s role as New Zealand’s capital ensures its importance, but much of the city’s charm and character lie in its harbour and hills.
Whether you approach the city by road or rail, ship or plane, its compact form is soon apparent. There is no room for sprawl. Much of the downtown area has been reclaimed from the harbour. Hemmed in by the sea and bush-covered hills, the buildings of the central city rise like a miniature Manhattan.
Wellington’s population (190,959 in 2013) is small compared to other cities, yet is enough to support a lively urban culture. Formerly a weekend ghost town, today it is the scene of creativity and entertainment into the early hours.
Wellingtonians (who have the highest per capita income in the country) frequent the city’s bookshops, boutiques, music stores, restaurants, bars and cafés. New central city apartment blocks cater for those wanting to live and work downtown. Between 2001 and 2013 the inner-city population almost doubled, from 6,726 to 12,987.
Living on the edge: weather and politics
The winds are sometimes extreme, and flying into Wellington can be scary. Yet it can also be exhilarating to live on the edge of Cook Strait, where gales blow from the north and the south.
The weather underscores the changeable nature of Wellington life. It is the centre of politics, and those in power are subject to review at the ballot box. With each new government, sections of the public sector change too.
The sense of living on the edge is sharpened by frequent earthquakes. Wellington sits on a major active fault, and parallel fault lines nearby are also active. Many believe a major earthquake, like the one in 1855 which raised much of the region’s coastline, is overdue.
Wellington’s suburbs are divided by the Wellington Fault. To the north and west, the suburbs from Karori to Johnsonville occupy high ground, on the edge of an upthrust block. To the south and east, housing covers a series of ridges and valleys which become progressively lower.
In the late 19th century Wellington grew rapidly, extending far beyond the original settlement. The electrification of tramways speeded up the spread. By 1904 trams went to Thorndon, Oriental Bay, Newtown and Berhampore. Two years later they had reached the outlying villages of Brooklyn, Kilbirnie, Miramar and Seatoun.
In the late 1930s this expansion slowed as easily developed land was used up. Growth then moved to the Hutt Valley. After the Second World War, large earth-moving machinery enabled further housing development in the city. New areas – Kingston, Crofton Downs, Churton Park – were built on daunting hill country. Since the 1980s infill housing (built on subdivided sections) has increased the density of the suburbs.
Wellington’s suburbs have always been socially mixed, although some have been dominated by particular income groups. For much of the 20th century, the more affluent residents lived in the western and northern communities of Kelburn, Karori, Wadestown and Khandallah. The city’s poor lived in the historic core: from Thorndon to Newtown. Middle income people were concentrated in the south and east, such as in Brooklyn, Hataitai, Island Bay and Miramar.
Since the 1980s gentrification has transformed the inner city, and many old houses have been renovated. Expensive homes and apartments now line streets once occupied by rickety boarding houses and rundown flats.