In the last years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, New Zealanders became increasingly urban.
In 1911 the census showed that for the first time more people lived in urban places (defined as those having more than 1,000 people) than on farms or in villages. The numbers of people living in communities of more than 10,000 rose from about 18% of the population in 1901 to over 41% in 1936. By then, the four main centres – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – had over a third of New Zealand’s population.
The myth of urban decadence
Many people were not happy about the urbanisation of New Zealand. There were fears that cities would introduce old-world problems such as overcrowding, squalor, disease and crime. There was a popular scare about larrikins (unruly youths) on city streets. In 1911 Attorney General S. G. Findlay lectured on ‘Urbanization as an agent of national decadence’.
To combat this, people took steps to preserve New Zealand’s rural identity. Despite evidence that growth in jobs was occurring among white-collar workers in cities, governments continued to encourage more people onto the land.
In the 20 years before the First World War, the state broke up large estates and purchased more Māori land to assist small farmers onto holdings. There was further investment in public works such as bridges, roads and railways to provide access to isolated rural areas. After the war, returned soldiers were settled onto the land, not always successfully.
In the 1920s there were moves to increase rural content in the school curriculum. Often communities held a holiday on the day of their local agricultural and pastoral show so that everyone, townies as well as farm people, could attend.
Those who lived in the city were encouraged to move to the suburbs where, with a fowl house and a vegetable garden, their quarter-acre sections would provide a miniature farm for city workers.
Government housing loans made no provision for tenement housing or multi-unit dwellings as in British cities. The nuclear family in a bungalow surrounded by plenty of sunlight and grass was the ideal.