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Historical Context

New Zealand in 2001

In 2002 the New Zealand Official Yearbook 2002 recorded Aotearoa/New Zealand as one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world, with 85.7 percent of its population living in urban areas. Rates of urbanisation were similar in Australia (85 percent) but higher in the United Kingdom (90 percent). In contrast, the United States and Europe had lower levels of urbanisation (77 percent and 75 percent, respectively). Comparisons between countries are difficult because of the lack of an international standard definition of urban and rural areas. Many European countries use population density as a definition, while others use population size. The United States defines settlements of 2,500 people or more as urban. This contrasts with New Zealand, Australian and United Kingdom definitions, which use a population size of 1,000 or more people. There is also a lack of consistency between New Zealand and Australia, with New Zealand defining main urban areas as having 30,000 or more people, while the Australian definition lists a population centre of 100,000 or more people as a main urban area.

Changing urban/rural composition of New Zealand

In 1881, New Zealand was firmly a rural country, with just under 60 percent of the population living in a rural area. New Zealand sold itself as a rural paradise in the late nineteenth century, with such volumes as Pictorial New Zealand and the New Zealand Cyclopaedia. These books promoted New Zealand to the wider, though still largely British, world with images of lush countryside and towering mountains. They also, however, included a celebration of urban development by promoting the progress of newly established towns and cities, with roads, horses, trams and trains. Rural and urban New Zealand coexisted.

By the early twentieth century, however, there was a sense of dismay that the population was no longer predominantly rural. Newspapers raised fears about urban corruption and decay as the population lost their hardy pioneering spirit and became softened by the experience of urban living. In 1923, the prominent educationalist, Professor James Shelley, wrote that children “should not be educated in the town . . . I do not think you realise how destructive it is”.[1] In response, sports such as rugby increased in popularity as a suitable medium to toughen young men and inculcate them with suitable values. None of these fears slowed the inexorable march towards an increasingly urbanised and eventually sophisticated nation but they influenced the form of cities and shaped the values that the nation espoused.

New Zealand cities became shaped around the suburban rather than purely urban forms, copying the sprawl of cities in Australia and the United States. Features of European cities such as narrow streets, terrace housing, and high population density seemed alien to the New Zealand ethos, although pockets did develop in areas such as Dunedin’s Dundas Street, where they became a curiosity rather than the norm.

Ruralism influenced education and housing policies. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, when looking at models for state housing in the 1940s, was dismayed when shown a multi-block apartment in Lower Hutt, declaring ‘I hope it will be the last’.[2] The comprehensive development of apartment building has been a fairly recent phenomenon, developing as a result of pressure on space and high land values in the main cities.

Between 1881 and 2001 the balance of the population moved from rural to urban areas. During this period, the population of urban New Zealand increased by over 1,500 percent, compared with an increase in rural areas of 83 percent.[3]

Proportion of People Living in Urban and Rural Areas
1886–2001 Censuses of Population and Dwellings  

Graph, Proportion of People Living in Urban and Rural Areas.

Number of People Living in Urban and Rural Areas
1886–2001 Censuses of Population and Dwellings  

Graph, Number of People Living in Urban and Rural Areas.

Rural New Zealand

In 1881, the rural population of New Zealand numbered 291,237 (excluding Mäori). While the rural population had increased to 532,740 in 2001, it was 501,258 in 1916, so the population of rural areas has increased very little since the early twentieth century.

The shape of rural New Zealand has, however, changed considerably since the nineteenth century. Better roads and bridges, the advent of private cars, and improved services, such as school buses, have considerably reduced the remoteness of most inhabited rural areas. These services have also encouraged the development of the lifestyle block, allowing people to enjoy a rural setting while still working in an urban area.

New Zealand farming followed British patterns initially. British settlers in New Zealand cleared bush to recreate their home landscapes and replaced native plants with introduced grasses and crops. Farming expanded rapidly between 1885 and 1935, with the area of land under cultivation rising from 2.6 million hectares to 7.9 million hectares. Sown grass dominated almost 90 percent of cultivated land. Burgeoning pastures supported an equally rapid rise in livestock numbers. In 1886, 16.6 million sheep grazed New Zealand pastures and numbers increased rapidly in the twentieth century, eventually peaking at 70.2 million in 1982. Cattle numbers increased from 853,000 to almost eight million over the same period.

From 1945 until 1973, when Britain first joined the European Economic Community, New Zealand farming enjoyed considerable prosperity. The Korean War in the early 1950s ensured a boom in wool, and New Zealand’s primary produce received high prices. Government subsidies and minimum prices shored up farming prosperity. As a result of this agricultural boom, New Zealand enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world.

The 1970s and 1980s marked a change, however, as rural geographer Garth Cant noted:

The productivity of Canterbury farming continued to increase but the prosperity of farming was eroded in the 1970s as the terms of trade, globally and nationally, moved against rural New Zealand... New Zealand lived in an unreal world; the Muldoon Government introduced substantial price support schemes for farmers [in the 1980s the government]... committed to a more market approach, to an open economy with a floating exchange rate and a removal of subsidies. Almost overnight subsidies were removed and farming was exposed to market forces. Manufacturing by comparison was given three, four or five years to adjust.[4]

Farmers responded to changing circumstances in a variety of ways. They diversified, improved efficiency and in some cases subdivided land to make way for lifestyle blocks.

A study into farming in the 1970s by the New Zealand Planning Council identified a number of changes occurring.[5] They noted that the number of small holdings (0–10 hectares) had increased substantially. The number of large holdings (200 hectares or more) had increased slightly but the number of holdings in the 20–199 hectare size-group had declined. The development of lifestyle blocks increased in the 1980s and 1990s and helped to reverse rural depopulation. The Planning Council noted that:

Instead of depopulation there is probably a change in the location and composition of the rural population. Counties near urban areas, where, either coincidentally or not there are a number of small holdings, tend to have increasing populations.[6]

They attributed the population decline in more remote rural areas to the decline in pastoral farming. The numbers reflect this, with the overall rural population increasing slightly between 1981 and 2001, after years of consistent slow decline. For example, between 1976 and 1981 the rural population decreased by 9.9 percent but increased by 4.6 percent between 1981 and 1986.

Farming has undergone rapid change since the 1970s, although dairy and sheep farming are still dominant. Total sheep numbers decreased by 20 percent from 1994, reaching 39.5 million at 30 June 2002, the lowest level since 1955. Contributing factors include the trend away from sheep farming to dairy farming and forestry. Dairy cattle increased by more than one-third; from 3.8 million in 1994 to 5.2 million at 30 June 2002. Deer are being farmed in increasing numbers in New Zealand, with 1.6 million deer as at 30 June 2002, compared with 1.2 million in 1994. Horticulture has become more significant and the crops grown have diversified, reflecting the increasing multiculturalism of New Zealand society. The development of the wine industry has also diversified land use.

Agriculture has continued to play a major part in the New Zealand economy, with agriculture and forestry products still totalling almost half of New Zealand’s exports for the year ended 30 June 2002. The agricultural workforce, however, has contracted, with less than 10 percent of the workforce working as an agriculture, forestry or fishery worker in 2001, compared with just under 20 percent in 1951.

Percent of Workforce in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Occupations (Major Group)(1)
Census of Population and Dwellings, selected years 1886–2001  

Graph, Percent of Workforce in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Occupations.

(1) Definitions have changed slightly during this period, so figures must be taken as a guide only.

Note: Figures for 1886 are the most problematic. The 1886 figures used here are for people over 20 years, as figures for people under 20 years included children and are therefore not comparable with later years. The definition included: “not only pursuits incidental to agriculture and the tillage of the ground, but also all pursuits incidental to dealing with the land and the rearing and maintenance of livestock of all kinds. The class has also been made to include fishermen, as they are employed in catching one kind of living creature, and there is no other class in which they could be suitably placed.”

The 1926 figures are for industry rather than occupation and are for people engaged in primary production: “agricultural and pastoral farming, fishing and trapping, mining and sawmilling”. Mining and sawmilling are excluded from later definitions.

Number of People in Agriculture and Fishery Occupations (Major Group)(1)
Census of Population and Dwellings, selected years 1886–2001  

Graph, Number of People in Agriculture and Fishery Occupations.

(1)Definitions have changed slightly during this period, so numbers must be taken as a guide only.

Note: See footnotes for previous graph.

Although the proportion of the population working in primary industries has decreased their productivity has increased. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry stated that New Zealand farmers are amongst the most efficient in the world and that their efficiency has been increasing. In 1991, the value of gross domestic product per agricultural worker in current terms was $74,000. In 2001, this had risen to $89,000 per employee.[7]

The greatest change in rural areas in the last thirty years has been the development of peri-urban areas. The Real Estate Institute of New Zealand stated that in 2003, 276 blocks averaging 3.7 hectares each were sold. It is estimated that there are between 90,000 and 110,000 lifestyle farm units in New Zealand.[8] As identified by the New Zealand Planning Council in the 1970s, this part of rural New Zealand has experienced the greatest growth proportionately and is likely to increase in population in the future. This development has had some benefits, with an influx of population that has helped to revitalise some rural areas. An article on Swannanoa school in Canterbury stated “Rural schools in the Christchurch hinterland were under threat 10 years ago because of falling rolls. Today, with city people moving onto lifestyle blocks, rolls are booming.”[9] Yet the development of peri-urban areas has also led to conflict. For example, a submission by Federated Farmers stated that: “the subsidisation of roads by rates on farm land can support a move to lifestyle blocks by the urban workforce who do not pay the true cost of their commute”.[10]

The proliferation of lifestyle blocks has led to a blurring of boundaries between rural and urban New Zealand, while the development of electronic media and communication has helped to reduce the effects of physical isolation. Rural New Zealand in 2001 is very different from rural New Zealand in 1881.

Urban New Zealand

In 1881, urban New Zealanders were a minority, but by 2001 they had been the substantial majority of New Zealanders for some time. This trend is not unique to New Zealand, but rather reflects an international trend towards urbanisation. Worldwide, cities have expanded and swallowed up vast areas of land and population. Main urban areas have grown at the expense of smaller urban communities.

New Zealand has also followed the international phenomenon of urban expansion. In 1901, approximately one-quarter of the urban population (10.1 percent of the total population, excluding Mäori) lived in a borough or town district with 25,000 or more people. In 2001, over 80 percent of the urban population (71 percent of the census usually resident population count) lived in a main urban area (an urban area with a population of 30,000 or more). The Auckland urban area is now the largest nationally, increasing by approximately 3,000 percent between 1886 and 2001.

Growth of Five Main Urban Areas(1)
Census of Population and Dwellings, selected years 1886–2001  

Graph, Growth of Five Main Urban Areas.

The development of suburbanisation has been concurrent with the development of urbanisation in New Zealand. As New Zealand cities have expanded in population, they have also expanded dramatically in size. At first suburbs developed around public transport routes, then, with advent of the private motor car, urban sprawl increased.

The composition of urban areas has also changed considerably, particularly since 1950. Urban ethnic diversity has increased, first with the urbanisation of Mäori beginning in the 1950s, then with the rise of Pacific peoples immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, and immigrants from Asia in the 1990s.

Percentage Change in Ethnic Groups (Total Responses) for Selected Areas
1991–2001 Censuses of Population and Dwellings  

Graph, Percentage Change in Ethnic Groups for Selected Areas.

Māori/rural urban migration

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Mäori were almost mainly rural with 15.6 percent of the population living in an urban area. By the end of the twentieth century, this position had been almost exactly reversed as the following graph shows. This urban/rural migration began after 1945, as the population expanded rapidly and could not be sustained by the land left under Mäori ownership.

Percentage of Mäori(1) Living in Rural(2) and Urban Areas
1926–2001 Censuses of Population and Dwellings

Graph, Percentage of Mäori Living in Rural and Urban Areas.

Up to and including 1976, Mäori “comprises persons who specified themselves as half or more Mäori, plus those who indicated they were persons of the Mäori race of New Zealand, but did not specify the degree of origin”.

Urban population has been defined as all main urban areas, boroughs, town districts, district communities, communities and townships with populations of 1,000 and over. All data 1926-1976 used 1976 boundaries, while data after 1976 used 2001 boundaries.

Note: Excludes people on ships. From 1986, Mäori has been calculated using the following definition of ethnicity: “Ethnicity is the ethnic group or groups that people identify with or feel they belong to. Thus, ethnicity is self-perceived and people can belong to more than one ethnic group. Ethnicity is a measure of cultural affiliation, as opposed to race, ancestry, nationality or citizenship.”


Over the twentieth century, New Zealand has been transformed from a largely agrarian society to a highly urbanised one. The nature of the economy has also changed, although approximately half of New Zealand’s exports are still of primary produce. Working on the land is no longer a major occupation, with less than 10 percent of the New Zealand workforce (as at the 2001 Census) stating agriculture, forestry or fishing as their occupation. Urban New Zealand has also been transformed, both physically and culturally, from the beginning of the twentieth century. Urban areas expanded dramatically both in population and in physical size as suburban sprawl became the New Zealand norm. Urban and rural boundaries have blurred, with an increasing number of people living in peri-urban areas around cities. Culturally New Zealand’s cities have also changed to become much more ethnically diverse in the latter years of the twentieth century.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (1992). “Rural Australia”, Canberra.

Cant G (2004). “Social and Community Wellbeing in Rural Canterbury 1945–2005”, Canterbury Regional Jubilee Symposium Proceedings, 2, 7.

Census and Statistical Office (1953). Population Census 1951, Wellington.

Census and Statistical Office (1927). Dominion of New Zealand Population Census 1926, Wellington.

Department of Statistics (1973). New Zealand Census of Population and Dwellings 1971, Wellington.

Department of Statistics (1981). New Zealand Census of Population and Dwellings 1976 Maori Population and Dwellings, Wellington.

Goodyear R K (1998). “Sunshine and Fresh Air: An oral history of childhood and family life in Interwar New Zealand, with some comparisons to Interwar Britain”, PhD thesis, University of Otago, Dunedin.

Government Printer (1887). Results of a Census of the Colony of New Zealand 1886, Government Printer, Wellington.

New Zealand Planning Council (1982). Rural Change: Farming and the Rural Community in the 1970s, Wellington.

Statistics New Zealand (2004). New Zealand Official Yearbook 2004, Wellington.

Statistics New Zealand (2002). New Zealand Official Yearbook 2002, Wellington.

United Nations (1980). Patterns of Urban and Rural Population Growth, New York.


[1] Goodyear 1998, 51.

[2] Goodyear 1998, 52.

[3] From 1881–1921, ‘urban’ was based on boroughs and cities, ‘rural’ was based on counties (including town districts). From 1926–2001, ‘urban’ was based on urban areas and towns with populations of more than 1,000, with ‘rural’ the remainder. The figures for 1881–1921 are based on the non-Mäori population, which means that the percentage of New Zealanders living in rural areas would have been higher, as Mäori were predominantly rural at this time. From 1926, the census figures are based on the total population.

[4] Cant, 19 November 2004, 3.

[5] New Zealand Planning Council, 1982, 19.

[6] New Zealand Planning Council, 1982, 47.

[7] On 31 July 1995, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries split into two separate ministries to become the Ministry of Fisheries and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (as at December 2004).

[8] The title of the article celebrated the launching of a new magazine for people in lifestyle blocks: “Lifestyle Block Magazine Helps Lifestyle Farmers Avoid the Pitfalls of the Utopian Dream” (as at December 2004).

[9] “Country School on a Roll”, The Press, 26 Feb 2000, quoted in: Cant, 19 November 2004, 5.

[10] “Kyoto Protocol – Ensuring Our Future" Climate Change Consultation Paper, Federated Farmers, 2001 (as at December 2004). 


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