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Defining Urban and Rural New Zealand

"New Zealand: An Urban/Rural Profile" aims to explore the diversity of the social and economic characteristics of people living in all areas of the urban-rural spectrum. The standard urban/rural classification, particularly the rural categorisation, was judged to be inadequate for this purpose. It is based purely on population size. Consultation among users revealed frustration with this measure, as population alone often does not necessarily reflect the characteristics that make places similar, or not. In response, Statistics New Zealand has developed a classification for use specifically in this report that more accurately depicts these characteristics.

The most suitable measure on which to base the classification was found to be a comparison of a person’s usual residence address with their workplace address, using data from the Census of Population and Dwellings. The actual methodology differed slightly between urban and rural areas, and is detailed below.

The Urban/Rural Profile Classification follows the existing Statistics New Zealand urban and rural boundaries, but reclassifies minor and secondary urban areas, and rural areas. Main urban areas remain the same. Rural areas, instead of being treated as the residual category of urban areas, are separately classified according to the varying influence of nearby urban areas. This classification enables more extensive analysis and reporting, particularly between various types of rural areas, and better reflects the areas’ heterogeneity.

Urban/Rural Profile Classification


Definition Diagram.

Urban areas

Urban areas are statistically defined areas with no administrative or legal basis. This classification is designed to identify concentrated urban settlements, without the distortion of administrative boundaries. Main urban areas represent the most urbanised areas in New Zealand . This part of the classification remains consistent with the standard urban areas classification. Main urban areas are very large and centred on a city or main urban centre. They have a minimum population of 30,000. Urban areas in the main conurbations have been divided into urban zones, with each urban zone defined as a separate urban area. Population size is also used to define secondary and minor urban areas in the standard urban area classification. But population size alone cannot adequately describe the characteristics of different urban areas. A minor urban area such as Rolleston, which is close to Christchurch , has different structures and needs to Westport , which is fairly remote from a large urban area. Yet both centres have similar-sized populations and are grouped together as minor urban areas. These differences are taken into account by government policy agencies; for example, the Ministry of Education when calculating their isolation index, a measure used for the distribution of educational resources.

Urban areas previously defined as secondary and minor urban areas in the standard classification, were redefined on the basis of proximity to and dependence upon main urban areas. This dependence was determined using people’s address of usual residence and workplace address. Workplace address provides a simple but effective defining variable since it acts as a proxy for some of the six criteria used when defining existing urban boundaries. The six criteria for including an area within an urban boundary are: 1) strong economic ties; 2) cultural and recreational interaction; 3) serviced from the core for major business and professional activities; 4) an integrated public transport network; 5) significant workplace commuting to and from the central core; 6) planned development with the next twenty years, as a dormitory area to, or an extension of, the central core. Having a workplace address in a main urban area certainly satisfies 1) and 5) and implies at least some fulfilment of 2) and 3).

Main urban area

This is the same as the standard 2001 pattern for main urban centres and includes: Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Gisborne, Napier-Hastings, New Plymouth, Wanganui, Palmerston North, Kapiti, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. 

Main urban area geographic page 

Satellite urban community

This category identifies towns and settlements with strong links to main urban centres. This connection is through employment location. Satellite urban communities are defined as urban areas (other than main urban areas) where 20 percent or more of the usually resident employed population's workplace address is in a main urban area.

Satellite urban area geographic page 

Independent urban community

This category identifies towns and settlements without significant dependence on main urban centres. Again, employment location is the defining variable. Independent urban communities are urban areas (other than main urban areas) where less than 20 percent of the usually resident employed population's workplace address is in a main urban area.

Westport fits this category.

Independent urban area geographic page 

Rural areas

There is no internationally recognised definition of a ‘rural’ area. Rural areas have traditionally been residual areas not included in the urban definition. The 1983 Rural Profile identified differences present between rural areas of New Zealand but could not define them, arguing that:

Although it may have been tenable in the past to regard the rural population as homogeneous, recent trends in migration have changed the character of this group. Included under the rural umbrella today are a diversity of groups – farmers and farm workers, forestry workers, 'alternative lifestylers' and craftspeople, among others ... it would be useful to divide the rural population into groups which reflect this diversity.

There is a huge difference between a rural community based on rural livelihoods and one where a large proportion of the population works in an urban area (particularly a main urban area), but happens to live in a rural area. The urban area provides a significant focus for the latter community. These commuter populations have ready access to urban services: recreational, economic or health. Communities that are rurally focused tend to be further from urban centres, particularly main urban centres, and have poorer access to services. Health services are seen as a crucial resource that is lacking in many rural areas.

The standard urban area classification has two categories of rural areas: rural centres and other rural. Rural centres are defined by population size, having a population of 300 to 999 in a reasonably compact area that services surrounding rural areas (district territory). They have a defined statistical boundary (an area unit) but no legal status. 'Other rural' is the urban area classification residual category and includes all area units not in urban areas or rural centres. This category includes inlets, islands, inland waters, and oceanic waters outside urban areas. Statistics New Zealand identified a need to develop a classification of rural areas that allowed the distinct rural communities present in New Zealand to be identified.

The best option for defining distinct rural communities was to use workplace compared with address of usual residence as a proxy for both distance from, and the need to travel to, an urban area for employment. This option also helps answer questions raised in the 1983 report in which occupation was identified as defining distinct rural communities. The result is an index that measures degrees of ‘rurality’.

Using workplace area, meshblocks in rural areas are allocated to one of four categories, based on their dependence on urban areas. Again, employment location is the defining variable. The allocation is based on a weighted percentage of resident employed adults of a rural meshblock who work in the three standard categories of urban area (for simplicity the methodology uses main, secondary and minor urban area). The percentages working in each urban area were weighted through the use of multipliers. The multipliers allowed for the increasing urbanisation of different sized urban areas. For example, the percentage of rural people working in a main urban area had double the impact of the same percentage working in a minor urban area. This weighting acknowledges the impact that a large urban centre has on its surrounding area. It is also consistent with other methodology, such as the Ministry of Education’s isolation index. The weighting ensures that, for example, rural areas surrounding the secondary urban area of Gore are acknowledged as being very different from rural areas outside the main urban area of Christchurch (the latter would be included in the category rural area with high urban influence).

Rural area with high urban influence

This category identifies rural areas that form a transition between the main urban areas and rural areas, although meshblocks are not necessarily contiguous with main urban centres. The index allows for a meshblock to be included in this category only if a significant proportion of the resident employed population work in a main urban area.

Rural area with high urban influence geographic page 

Rural area with moderate urban influence

This category identifies rural areas with a significant, but not exclusively, main urban area influence. A meshblock can be included in this category: (1) if a large percentage of the resident employed population works in a minor or secondary urban area, or (2) if a significant percentage work in a main urban area. However, if the percentage working in a main urban area is too substantial, the meshblock will be included in the high urban influence category.

Rural area with moderate urban influence geographic page 

Rural area with low urban influence

This category identifies rural areas with a strong rural focus. The majority of the population in these areas works in a rural area. Due to the impact of the weighting system, it is unlikely meshblocks in this category will have many people employed in a main urban area, although a number may work in a minor urban area.

Rural area with low urban influence geographic page 

Highly rural/remote area

These are rural areas where there is minimal dependence on urban areas in terms of employment, or where there is a very small employed population.

Highly rural/remote area geographic page


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