In 2006, 86% of New Zealanders were city dwellers, making New Zealand one of the most urbanised countries in the world. The great majority had chosen to live in suburbs around the major cities. The growth of suburbs has been one of the most significant developments in shaping New Zealand society.
New Zealanders’ preference for suburban life – a settlement pattern characterised by low-density housing, typically a single house on its own section – began in the early days of Pākehā settlement. Emigrants to New Zealand hoped to escape conditions common in the great industrial cities of Europe, where most people were crowded together, often working and living under the same roof. Those conditions led to a widespread middle-class reaction against city life. People believed that a family living in their own house, with a section to separate them from neighbours, were protected from the evil temptations of the city. The husband could leave for work each day while his wife took care of the home, and he could spend time with his family when he returned. Working in the suburban garden could provide some of the moral and physical advantages of outdoor and rural life.
New Zealand’s first suburbs
It was easy to establish a suburban pattern of housing in early colonial New Zealand. Land was relatively cheap, and houses were usually built of wood rather than more expensive and substantial stone. So single-storey homes on their own sections were the rule, even in the heart of the main cities. Wellington, the first immigrant settlement, was laid out in this pattern.
Towns and cities in the new colony grew in a rapid and haphazard manner, however, and they soon showed many of the worst features of European cities. Rubbish and sewage accumulated, polluting the water supply and leading to epidemics of disease. In 1864 the Otago Daily Times complained that Dunedin had ‘reproduced with faithful accuracy the wretched tenements, and filthy back slums of an English town’.1 In the same year Auckland’s Herald attacked ‘those abominable nests of squalid filth, the rookeries of small houses in the back lanes and slums of the City’.2
Suburbs vs socialism
A common motive for preferring to house low-income people in suburbs instead of the inner city was to prevent them becoming discontented and radicalised. In 1919 a town planner said: ‘If a decent man is unable to secure a home for himself and his family, he is liable to become Bolshevik in his ideas and a menace to the community … small houses have been packed together to the extent of twenty-nine to the acre … is there any wonder that under such conditions unrest and even disloyalty manifest themselves so frequently?’3
Civic leaders sought to improve living conditions for the poor by moving them out of the central city, which was thought to breed crime and dissent as well as dirt and disease. In a 1903 investigation of slum housing in central Auckland, a reporter described the ideal living situation: ‘A house of four rooms with its new coat of paint stands not in the city streets but in a suburb. There is a patch of cultivated flower garden; there is a small asphalted yard.’4 The Liberal government of the period saw that the original suburban ideal of each family living on their own well-kept property was not working, since private landlords were not likely to make this type of house available to the large numbers then living in substandard housing. The government therefore introduced laws to promote suburban housing.