Kōrero: Regional economies

Whārangi 3. Regional economies, 1920 to 1960

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

The regional character of the economy in 1920 was the product of the settlement and development processes of the preceding 60 years. Three main changes took place over the next 40 years:

  • towns and cities grew faster than rural areas, though this did not change the regional map
  • manufacturing became important in some regions
  • one further regional economy developed – on the Volcanic Plateau of the North Island.

Urban growth and regions

Once rural areas had been opened up, population increase slowed down, except in the towns. An increasing proportion of people who serviced the regional economy – through businesses or shops, in schools and in hospitals – worked in the towns. Smaller numbers continued to work on the land. New Zealand’s population, which was 61% urban in 1921, was 76.4% urban by 1961.

The map of regional economies changed little – the nexus of port, town and hinterland remained characteristic. When the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand marked out regions in the early 1960s, they closely resembled those of 1920.


The principal manufacturing of the early 20th century – meat freezing, and butter and cheese production – reproduced the production economy of the regions. Dairy factories in particular stayed close to suppliers. Meat freezing works were often located on rail lines and near ports. So Wellington gained major works that drew their ‘kill’ from Manawatū and Wairarapa.

Other kinds of manufacturing were a product of population growth and import-substitution policies. These manufacturing plants tended to be located near centres of population, so the growth in manufacturing reinforced the dominance of the main centres, particularly Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. In 1956 those cities accounted for 60% of the manufacturing labour force, but only 40% of the population.

Some manufacturing – particularly of garments – thrived in towns such as Dannevirke, Levin and Ōamaru, which did not have large markets but had a supply of labour, particularly women. These towns became larger than they would have if they were simply service towns for rural hinterlands.

Volcanic Plateau

A distinctive regional economy developed on the Volcanic Plateau in the 1950s – a combination of electricity generation, timber, tourism and farming. Hydroelectricity schemes employed a lot of workers during the construction of power stations – between the late 1940s and the early 1980s construction was almost continuous in schemes on both the North and South islands. But on the Volcanic Plateau there were so many, and the region was so under-populated, that they shaped the character of the region.

The plateau’s exotic forest plantations came to maturity in the 1950s, and plants at Kinleith, near Tokoroa, and at Kawerau were built to process timber. The timber industry was far more prominent on the Volcanic Plateau than in any other region.

Bay of plenty of activity


The economic boom on the Volcanic Plateau linked it to the coastal Bay of Plenty once the port at Tauranga was developed as an outlet for the timber harvested on the Plateau. The name Bay of Plenty was applied jointly to both areas.


Ecological regions in the 20th century

Geographer Kenneth Cumberland identified 11 ecological regions in 1948. Each had a different profile. He grouped economic regions, for example the East Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa, which had similar patterns of land use and production.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Regional economies - Regional economies, 1920 to 1960', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/regional-economies/page-3 (accessed 26 January 2022)

He kōrero nā Malcolm McKinnon, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010