In a decade nearly 40% of New Zealanders will be Aucklanders.

New Zealand’s super-city, and growing

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley.


The re-shaping of Auckland’s governance and management structures in 2010 confirmed what some had seen for sometime – the need to develop citywide systems and thinking. It was another step in Auckland’s growing role as the urban powerhouse of New Zealand and a way of beginning to harness its strength as a primate city economy.

If we are to look out 25 to 30 years, then that dominance will be even more apparent.

There has been a lot of debate about whether another million people will be added to the 1.5 million that currently reside in the city. If that growth is to happen over the next 30 years, then it means net annual growth of 30,000 to 40,000. This is about the rate that Auckland grew in the 2001 to 2006 period when the city gained 156,000 people, although the record levels of emigration to Australia after 2008 meant this slowed to a net gain of 110,000 between 2006 and 2013. Still, a million does not seem out of the question. 

All the forecasts are for Auckland to grow – the debate tends to be at what rate and whether there are ways of moderating that growth. But there are aspects to that growth that will increasingly mark Auckland out as very different to the rest of the country. 

The first is that more New Zealanders will be Aucklanders. Already, one-third of the country lives in the city, a proportion that is only equaled by Dublin and Ireland. Even modest growth will see the proportion grow to about 38 per cent of the country’s population in a little over a decade, which will be unusually high in the OECD.

When compared to New Zealand as a whole, this growth will be unique. My colleague Natalie Jackson talks about the “end of population growth” and “premature aging” in many New Zealand regions. This can be seen in the population numbers flat lining – and soon, some regions will begin to decline in the number of people that live in them. The aging of the population will demographically characterise these regions.

This is in contrast to Auckland. Yes, there will be aging but 60 per cent of the growth for Auckland will come from natural increase. Births will continue to outnumber deaths by some margin. 

This becomes something of a cycle. Auckland will grow, while most regions will not. The size of Auckland, plus the fact that it has growing population numbers, makes it attractive for those firms that require a steady labour supply and skills. So regions will struggle to keep jobseekers, firms and families in competition with Auckland.

But the second factor is Auckland’s diversity. If natural increase provides 60 per cent of Auckland’s growth, the rest comes from immigration. Since the 1990s Auckland has been the main beneficiary of changed immigration policies. By 2010 it was one of the most immigrant-dependent cities in the OECD with about 40 per cent of its residents born overseas. The result has been a two-nations effect – Auckland versus the rest.

Māori constitute about 12 per cent of the city’s population and that will remain constant. Pasifika are a little more numerous and will grow to about 16-17 per cent of the population by the 2020s. But Asian communities are transforming the city. Growing from single digit numbers in the 1990s, by 2021 they are expected to comprise 27-28 per cent of Auckland’s residents.

Wellington, by contrast, will see its Asian population grow to about 12 per cent and its Pasifika to about 9 per cent over the same time period. Auckland will be so much more diverse than the rest of New Zealand.

We have been researching what the growth of these immigrant and ethnic communities means for Auckland’s built and social landscapes. The high numbers of immigrants in certain suburbs (ethno-burbs) or in particular business areas (ethnic precincts) has transformed parts of the city, giving it a newfound cosmopolitanism.

Auckland really has become a reflection of its location, an Asia-Pacific city.

However, this element of the city is often taken for granted. There remain issues of immigrants getting jobs that are appropriate for their education or experience. The expertise of these local communities is still not being used to build stronger trade links with their homelands. And while a lot is said about the importance of diversity, there is still a need to reflect that diversity in core institutions.

When will Asians, as one example, be represented in local government in numbers that are comparable to their proportion in the population? And what about culture? Do sports administrators and leaders, for example, really understand what changes in diversity will do to their talent pools? Some of our traditional sports will struggle.

As the city transitions to this new, cosmopolitan future, it needs to be aware that diversity is a strength but one that needs nurturing in terms community and personal relations. What does a welcoming community, school or workplace look like? And what do we need to do to get there?

In another quarter of a century, Auckland will dominate New Zealand much more than it does now – economically and demographically. And it will continue to be the home of large immigrant and ethnic communities, much more so than anywhere else in New Zealand.

There is some talk about how this growth might be slowed or the population redistributed in some way. But at this point there are few policy options that would make a difference – and little inclination, it seems, to alter the inevitable. 

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley is head of Massey University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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