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Before the 2011/12 earthquakes, Christchurch had overtaken Wellington to become New Zealand’s second largest city

In November 2008, word reached Statistics New Zealand that a wind of discontent was blowing through Wellington. Media stories were circulating that Christchurch had overtaken Wellington to become New Zealand’s second most populated city, leaving Wellington, to quote one journalist, "absolutely positively third". As phones rang hot in council offices and mayors were briefed, the question on everyone’s lips was ‘which city is larger?’

In order to answer this we first need to consider what a city is. According to the definition Statistics NZ uses, a city is a type of territorial authority area. Territorial authority areas are administrative in nature (each area is governed by its own council) and their boundaries are defined in law. Under this definition, Wellington city (governed by the Wellington City Council) is an area including the northern suburbs of Tawa and Greenacres but excluding urban settlements in nearby Porirua and the Hutt Valley. Christchurch city (governed by the Christchurch City Council) includes a large urban area as well as the predominantly rural Banks Peninsula.

‘What?’ you may say, and rightly so. The term 'city' is often thought to describe a large urban settlement, not an area both urban and rural in character (such as Christchurch city). Clearly, the official definition doesn’t sit nicely with the common use of the term.

Partly because of this, Statistics NZ also produces statistics for ‘main urban areas’. These main urban areas have no administrative or legal basis, but are intended to represent the large built-up areas that many people think of as ‘cities’. They can be quite different from their territorial authority counterparts.

As defined at present, the Wellington urban area extends over four separate territorial authority areas (encompassing a large proportion of Wellington city as well as Porirua, Upper Hutt, and Lower Hutt cities). The Christchurch urban area is centred on Christchurch city but also includes the settlements of Kaiapoi (in the neighbouring Waimakariri district) and Prebbleton (in the Selwyn district).

So back to the burning question: which city had the larger population before the 2011/12 Christchurch quakes? If we focus solely on territorial authority areas, Christchurch city had a considerably larger population than Wellington city, and had done for some time. Indeed, on the basis of these statistics Wellington city was not New Zealand’s third largest city but the sixth largest (behind Christchurch city, and the northern cities of North Shore, Waitakere, Auckland, and Manakau).

However, if we focus on main urban areas, we find the estimated resident population of the Wellington and Christchurch main urban areas was very similar, with Christchurch (386,100) holding only a slim lead over Wellington (386,000) at 30 June 2009.

Conclusion

This myth is all about semantics.

How did this myth arise?

This myth arose because the term ‘city’ means different things to different people.
Late in October 2008, new population estimates were released that showed the estimated resident population of the Christchurch urban area had slightly exceeded that of the Wellington urban area. It was with reference to these statistics that journalists declared Christchurch had displaced Wellington as New Zealand’s second largest city. This caused some confusion, as population estimates for territorial authority areas were also available, and told a quite different story.

Some facts about the Wellington and Christchurch urban areas

 

While the boundaries of the Wellington and Christchurch urban areas have changed over time, the relative population size of these areas has been similar for most of the last century. At the time of the 1926 Census – some 86 years ago – the census night population of Wellington was only 3,300 higher than that of Christchurch.

Under the 2006-base medium projection series produced by Statistics NZ in 2010, the Christchurch urban area (with average annual population growth of 0.7 percent) is projected to grow slightly faster than its Wellington counterpart (0.6 percent) over the next two decades.

The estimated resident population of urban areas is related, in part, to how and where urban boundaries are drawn. Lying on the outskirts of both the Wellington and Christchurch urban areas are a number of rapidly growing settlements (Paraparaumu and Waikanae for Wellington; Lincoln, Rolleston, and West Melton for Christchurch). Future decisions about where urban boundaries begin and end may well determine which urban area holds the mantle of 'New Zealand's second largest'.

For your information

Subnational population estimates – information releases 
Resident population estimates for territorial authority areas (ie cities and districts), regions, and urban areas in New Zealand. Updated annually.

Subnational population projections – information releases 
Summary of the projected population of regional council and territorial authority areas within New Zealand, based on different combinations of fertility, mortality, and migration assumptions.

Published 22 June 2012, based on information previously published in 2011.

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