Early public transport
New Zealand’s first wage workers needed to live within walking distance of their workplaces. The earliest suburbs, such as Thorndon in Wellington and Freemans Bay in Auckland, therefore grew up on the edge of the inner city. By the end of the 19th century, public transport systems allowed people to live much further away from their work. New Zealand cities expanded outwards in a series of low-density suburbs, instead of developing the high-density apartment blocks and terrace houses found in European cities.
During the 1880s horse-drawn tram services were set up in all four main centres. Commuter suburbs developed along the tram routes and property speculators took advantage of this trend by buying and subdividing more land on the city fringes. Mt Eden in Auckland, St Albans in Christchurch and Newtown in Wellington developed in this way. Suburban expansion sped up in the early 20th century as faster electric trams replaced horse-drawn ones, and suburban railway lines reached to the outskirts of towns.
The car culture
After the Second World War, working-class New Zealand families could own a car for the first time. They no longer needed to live close to public transport routes, so much larger areas of land became available for housing development. Whole cities were turned inside-out as their populations moved from the centre to the edges. The central business district became an area of offices and commercial buildings, and on most nights and weekends it was almost empty.
In Auckland, pressure for housing space caused suburbs to take over land that had been intended for green belts. The opening of the Harbour Bridge enabled thousands to move to the North Shore and travel to the city each day for work. From 1955, Auckland planners abandoned development of the city’s suburban rail network and built motorways instead. Other, smaller roads were built to connect new suburbs with the city and with each other. These were different from the inner-city streets of the 19th century, which could be used like public parks for walking or games. Instead they were dominated by private vehicles, and children and pedestrians kept to the footpaths.
Questioning the car
The low-density pattern of New Zealand suburbs was based on the expectation that fuel would be cheap and every household would own a car. But during the oil shock of 1979 the price of petrol soared and the government introduced compulsory carless days, forcing suburban dwellers to question their reliance on their vehicles. Suburban growth did not stop, but it slowed.