Today I’m officially launching the New Zealand Local Population Database.  This brings together a huge amount of population data for the first time, showing how different parts of New Zealand have changed over 1891-2013. The database covers all council areas (regions and territorial authorities), as well as 260+ towns and cities (“urban areas”).

As mentioned, there’s a wealth of data in there. I’m sure some readers will love taking a look through and seeing what they can find – how has the population of Waipukurau or [insert name of small town where you were born] changed over the last 120 years? For now (and in the “Constructive Thinking” publication which the slides below are taken from), I’ll just look at some highlights for Auckland.

Some historical perspective: at the turn of the 20th century, New Zealand had “four chief towns” which were all about the same size – although Auckland was a little larger.

Auckland started to take off in the postwar period. The city grew at 3.1% annually for 20 years, while the rest of New Zealand grew at just 1.7% annually. Those higher growth rates made a big difference over 20 years – Auckland grew by 84% vs just 39% for the rest of New Zealand. Annual growth of 3% is pretty big for a city – we didn’t see those levels again for decades, although Auckland has probably reached that level again in the last few years with the migration boom.

And ever since the 70s, Auckland has been big and fast-growing enough that it’s had higher total population growth than the rest of New Zealand combined.

This is one of the key findings from my research: From 1971 to 2013, a period spanning more than 40 years, Auckland has outgrown the rest of New Zealand combined – adding 650,000 people vs 575,000.

Hang on, you might say. If that’s true, then why doesn’t everyone know about it? Why does it seem like Auckland’s growth is a new or surprising thing?

I think it’s because historical data like this is hard to access, or it has been until now. That’s partly because New Zealand (and especially Auckland) has gone through lots of local government changes, reshuffles and so on:

Local government (i.e. council) boundaries haven’t changed much since 1989 – the key change being the merger of the old Auckland councils into one. But before 1989, we had a completely different system, and different boundaries, so it can be hard to compare or even know what to do with the older data. My research aims to change that (and it covers the whole country, not just Auckland).

Lastly, Auckland didn’t have much of a regional identity until quite recently. Again, I think that’s due to how the city was structured, and the plethora of councils we used to have.

This slide is a cracker, I think. It shows that most of Auckland’s population was on the ‘isthmus’ – the old Auckland City Council area – until the late ’50s. The isthmus still had the majority of the population into the ’60s. Starting then, the south, west and north all took off. I also looked at this in another post two years ago, when I first started collating this data…

That postwar period was a time of huge suburban growth, and new suburbs sprang up in all directions. Auckland had always had little satellites and towns outside of the main city – in most cases, the city has now expanded to meet them and they’ve become suburbs of the wider whole.

The great tragedy is that all this growth was focused around cars. Most of the old ‘satellites’ had been on the southern or western railway lines, but the new suburbs that surrounded them didn’t give any thought to public transport. It’s a bit off topic for my research, but we’ve obviously bemoaned this fact at Greater Auckland many times. Looking back at the history makes you realise that Auckland could have turned out very differently.

I also find it interesting that the Harbour Bridge, the example everyone thinks of when they talk about “transformational infrastructure”, just didn’t have as big an effect on growth as the suburbanisation of the west and south. And of course, growth in all three directions was predicated on motorways rather than effective transit.

And last but not least, another slide that isn’t technically part of the New Zealand Local Population Database. It’s not based on migration data, and unfortunately only goes back to 1991:

Long story short, Auckland is very popular with international migrants. This is a key factor in our growth. Number crunching shows that Auckland actually received all of New Zealand’s net migration for 20-odd years, until the current boom (2013 onwards) started. That reflects that some other regions lost people, while others gained people, etc. Internal or domestic migration is a different story, and it’s likely that Auckland has lost people to Waikato and the Bay of Plenty in the last few years, continuing a trend in place since the 90s.

I’d love to get hold of some more historic migration data – Auckland presumably got a large share of international immigration in the ’70s and ’80s too, given that this was when the main waves of Pacific immigration took place and most of NZ’s Pasifika population is in Auckland. But I haven’t found the data yet.

That’s enough for one day, but future posts will look at data for other parts of NZ, and more specific parts of Auckland (here was one I did for Devonport).


Compiling the New Zealand Local Population Database was kinda tricky, and those who are interested can explore the files to see how I did what I did, and the various caveats.

The only issue relevant for this post is that pre-1926 data for Auckland (and other parts of NZ) excludes Maori. This only comes into the first slide, and not in a big way as the Maori population prior to 1926 was mainly rural.

For some parts of NZ, boundary changes make the data a bit questionable once you go back beyond the last few decades. Auckland doesn’t have the accuracy issue (its borders haven’t really changed since 1891).


I’d like to give “mad propz” to Arthur Grimes and Nicholas Tarrant, whose 2013 paper was the starting point for my work here, and “big ups” for Peter Nunns who I think first introduced me to that paper. Although it might have been Stu Donovan, so he gets a “shout out” just in case.

And thanks to my employer RCG for publishing and hosting this database.

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  1. Awesome work John – One quick question: Does your data show the changing face of immigration with enough granularity to show most “Chinese” coming to Auckland from the 90’s – early 00’s were from Hong Kong, or are they simply bundled as “from China” from late ’97?

    1. The NZLPD, which is the main new thing I’ve put together here, is just historic census data, with raw population counts only. I haven’t looked at where census questions like where people were born or migrated from.

      However, NZ does have pretty good migration records (different data source, not the census). I haven’t looked at HK vs mainland China before, but I’ve taken a quick look at some tables from Stats NZ. These show that HK migration was quite strong in the ’90s, and we gained 20,640 net migrants from HK in that decade. We also gained 18,596 from mainland China in the ’90s. Total net migration from all countries was 99,456 in the 1990s.

      Migration from Hong Kong has been much lower since then – it tailed off in the late ’90s – and it no longer seems to be a significant factor in our migration stats. Of course, these days people might be less likely to specifically write Hong Kong on the form and just put China instead.

      1. I very much doubt that anybody from Hong Kong would put China, unless they had no other option 🙂

        With China (and HK in the 90s), it was auspicious to study overseas… If you could afford it. Things are changing now and Chinese are now seeing domestic study more favourably. I can’t speak about HK students and their current study location preferences, as the only students I know in HK are still in High School.

  2. The great tragedy is people who understand that land use and transport are connected then ignore that relationship and seem to assume that we would have grown as much had the money been spent on rail rather than roads. We have no reason to believe that would have been the case. The southern motorway and arterial roads like Pakuranga Rd allowed a huge increase in population in the south.

    1. We may never exact know.

      However the choices we have made in the past have lead to our current problems. Even more a slightly more balance approach should have resulted in a better city.

      People will live in density. The current CBD living is an example of that, and many immigrants come from cities with similar urban forms.

      I’d argue that this population growth would still have occurred, just with different urban form.

    2. “The southern motorway and arterial roads like Pakuranga Rd allowed a huge increase in population in the south”. Absolutely. And I’m not suggesting that the money should have been built on rail lines, I haven’t given any thought to what (if any) new rail networks might have been created under a different form of growth. And I do need to draw a clear distinction between the data I’ve collated, which is objective, and any opinions I take from it, which are subjective.
      But as someone who’s been kicking around in transport much longer than me, you must have a view on the missed opportunities. My ‘potted history’ impression is that, after ripping out the trams in the ’50s, Auckland seems to have barely considered public transport for a few decades thereafter, and literally not invested in any public transport infrastructure at all until the ’90s when it resumed in a halting fashion. And that for the new suburbs that were created, little thought was given to how transit could be integrated. Those decisions, in my opinion, were mistakes, and a different balance of spending between private vehicle infrastructure and public transport infrastructure could have given us a better city today.

      1. That is a fair summary. But I think the growth was driven more by a willingness to cut up the vast amount of land around Auckland, particularly the south, and allow everybody a chance to own or rent a home. The motorway was done to support that broader idea of housing everybody. It changed in the early 90’s when the ARC decided growth management meant limiting supply as a long run measure rather than as a means to stage growth. At that point wealthy people paid more for their land, poorer people missed out altogether. Population still grew but society assumed an underclass of homeless and poorly homed people was ok.
        As for trains, I think they were simply out of fashion. There were plenty of roads that had little or no investment like Whangaparaoa Rd where travel demand grew. By comparison in 1991 the entire rail system was carrying fewer people than some collector roads did.

        1. Seems funny that trains (or PT in general) would be out of fashion. Didn’t the average household only have ~one car? How did the wife / kids get around while dad was at work?

        2. In the 60s and 70s they walked and cycled, anecdotally. My mum walked me and my sisters to parks and beaches which were half an hour away or more. And she wasn’t expected to try to fit in so many other things. These days if you’re lucky enough to have time to go to the beach or park, you’d ‘have’ to drive because otherwise there would be an hour or more ‘lost’ in walking.

          People loved trains. They voted in Robbie 6 times. They campaigned against the motorways. They just weren’t strong enough.

        3. Robbie didn’t represent the people of Auckland. He was the Mayor of less than half the isthmus area of Auckland. His Auckland City was only the bits north of the Northwestern motorway plus Avondale and Waterview and north of the southern motorway but minus Newmarket, Ellerslie, Mt Wellington and Tamaki. At that time the ARA represented Auckland as we know it and they were opposed to his rail scheme pretty much right through.

        4. So, what, you’re saying that the people outside of Robbie’s area didn’t want rail? I’m saying that a fair lot of those inside his area did, and voted him in 6 times. That the ARA and the government repeatedly completed the roading part of each promised package and rarely the public transport side does not mean rail was unfashionable or that people were all enamoured with cars. They weren’t.

          That’s just the victors’ version of the truth.

        5. Not enough wanted it to elect in people to push it through. To build any big scheme you need both political will and funding. Robbie didn’t secure either. So it didn’t get built. It didn’t even get close to being built. It was used as a carrot by Norman Kirk who then never budgeted for it. But that was as far as any support went. A mayor and some councillors of a small part of Auckland and a Leader of the Opposition.

        6. Your transport focussed response seems to me to forget that after allowing land to be carved up horizontally, Auckland then decided to make it illegal to build apartments or go multi storey. That, much more than some halting attempts to control sprawl to the horizon, was the land use sin of the second half of the 20th century Auckland. Compounded by wrong transport decision it gave us sprawl AND unaffordability.

        7. But they did allow them at the time. Residential 9 zones were put in place and only a very few were actually built on as there was almost no demand. Then in the early 80’s they became via, not for high density tenement flats but as grand apartments for a few wealthy people. The outcry from neighbours in Herne Bay and Remuera pushed the Council to down zone them very quickly.

          It is a great example of planners thinking they know better than the market. In the late 60’s Auckland set up a team to choose sites on arterial roads, on ridges, on north facing sites, near parks. Almost none were built because they couldn’t sell them.

        8. Set-back rules also ruined the urban form. Were they brought in with Residential 9 zones, too, mfwic? I was aware of set-back rules as a kiddie… I would’ve thought about 1979 – 80.

        9. Did trains go out of fashion or did cars become more affordable? I remember catching the train in the mid to late 80’s as cars were horrendously expensive. An rough early 70’s Ford Escort cost me $2200 on a weekly wage of around $240.

      2. Yes there are a zillion different outcomes that might of happened. I’ve always wondered what if we had take a more Melbourne approach and had the motorway run ‘around’ from Penrose to Waterview to Paremoremo, and had widened avenues on Great South and Great North Roads, and the harbour bridge for the city traffic, rather than putting the city traffic and the regional traffic all on motorways through spaghetti junction?

        Of course the motorways and arterials through Manukau supported growth there, but was that contingent on the same motorway going downtown?

        Like it’s clear that Whangaparaoa and Orewa grew just fine without a motorway. When they were growing you had to take the east coast road or the old albany highway from Tristram Ave.

      3. The question I have always wondered about Robbie’s rail plan is when would it have gone bust? Would it have been closed when Fred Thomas made massive cuts at the ARA, would it have made it to the Roger Douglas years when rail spending was cut right across NZ or would it have struggled on to the Ruth Richardson era when rail was privatised?

        1. I suspect that had the trams not been terminated, and Robbie’s Rapid Rail built, we may have had the good fortune to have never had to face such shortsighted politicians. We would have been sitting in trams / trains reading, instead of cars listening to talkback. Our intelligence increased rather than beaten into a pulp by racist, misogynist, classist and ignorant rants enabled by the likes of Leighton & Mike. Even the NZHerald might have still been a respectable rag, and possibly the cost of living would not have spiralled out of control, producing a wave of homelessness unjustified in such a wealthy country. Bring back the trams and all the ills will be fixed!

    3. You are assuming that people who support rail and mass transit think that roads are not required. Which is patently ridiculous. You can’t get to your house only by train. You can’t take the train to go camping (well not in NZ anyway).
      But once your population reaches a certain level, you can’t just rely on roads to get people to/from their places of work. SOV’s are a highly inefficient way to transport people. Mass transit systems are not and never will be profitable ventures (nor should they be viewed as such any more than hospitals, the police or schools). Therefore your assumption that Robbie’s Rapid Rail would have “gone bust” is flawed, as it would have been a well thought out and robust system that would have enjoyed wide public support along its chosen corridors.
      Auckland may well have taken a different form had it been implemented, although the District Plans of the time would have needed to be amended as they have been now to allow for intensification along the corridors.
      We may not have had the maturity as a city (or country) to support that at the time, however, but the rate at which PT uptake has tracked since it became a serious option for many would indicate to me that something similar would have occurred back then – I recall my father saying at the time he wished they had built it as it would have meant he didn’t have to drive in heavy traffic every day.

  3. Yes sorry. I was just pointing out to John his value judgement in a very good post. (that was meant to go under DavidByrne but I had digital problems.)

    1. Thanks mfwic – and for you I definitely recommend reading the paper and checking out the data tables, with both of those being higher on info and lower on subjectivity 🙂

  4. I note that once again there is discussion, slanted negatively, re Auckland’s choice of motorways over public transport, in the 1950/60’s. People seem to overlook the fact that Auckland is situated on an isthmus; there is no way for north/south or south/north traffic to go around it .
    The motorways are only partially for commuters. Most Auckland motorways are north/south corridors for through traffic. Without these motorways imagine all of that through traffic winding its way through suburban streets.
    NZ and/or Auckland simply didn’t have the resources to build both motorways and public transport at the same time, it had to be staged.
    On a similar theme Robbie’s Rapid Rail is often raised as a missed opportunity. Todays commuter rail including the CRL, cannot be compared to Robbie’s proposal. That was for a true rapid rail, not the current slow mass transit system. Robbie’s proposal was for a wider gauge rail system that would have allowed true rapid speeds. But that would have meant .much more work in reboring tunnels, rebuilding bridges, station platforms, the tracks themselves, and all sorts of other work to incorporate a dual gauge rail system (presumably the main trunk would stay narrow gauge).
    Yes Auckland has missed some opportunities, the fact that suburban rail was ignored for so long is a crying shame, but we should be careful that we don’t cherry pick the circumstances to suit our arguments.

    1. As Cynthia Gillespie says: “We’ve spent 50 -60years on roads and 7 years on PT.”

      Doubling or tripling down on more roads is not the answer.

      The choices of the past are in the past. We need to make the most effectively choices now.

      Given the constraints of the isthmus, MT is the best option. It moves the most people though the least amount of space.

    2. The motorway network was necessary (although goodness knows it ruined central Auckland) but is now almost complete. The PT network is a million miles away from being complete and needs a lot of catching up. We just don’t need any more Auckland motorways.

    3. In a suburban context, the track gauge is not important. Perth’s trains (same gauge as Auckland) run at up to 140kph where the alignment and the distance between stations permits.

      1. Reading comments on other forums, forums where anti-PT fervor is high (cough, Stuff), track gauge seems to be a common argument for not spending any more money on rail.

        It’s an argument that either ignores, or is ignorant of, the reality on the ground.

  5. Great work, pulling together information like this and making it accessible enables all sorts of interesting conversations and other studies. A noble effort.

  6. Looking at the old map there appears to be a rail line heading south east from Mt Albert station to the side of Mt Albert. Was there ever a line ? If so presume it was a quarry ? You can make out the alignment looking at google earth for part.

  7. To those who claim that Auckland could never have developed without its motorways and that the run-down of its railways was a result of majority-choice, consider:

    Auckland’s rail system was deprived of investment to the point of near-starvation in the 1990’s. It ran down because no-one invested in it to keep it up-to-date and relevant, not because most Aucklanders ‘simply preferred cars’. How Auckland might have developed had less been spent on roads and more on rail may perhaps be gleaned from London.

    The suburbs of London were largely built around the underground lines which pushed out into green fields to the north (before the houses were built!), and around the Southern Railway which did the same thing to the south.

    By 1939 London’s population had peaked at 8.6 million, long before the motorway age began but just before the 2nd World War, after which it steadily declined to a trough of 6.4 million by 1991. Only since then has it climbed back to its pre-motorway-heyday levels.

    But an important aspect to consider about London is that it has never permitted motorways to penetrate its CBD. All motorways end in the suburbs and through-traffic is directed onto ring roads such as the North- and South-circulars, and more recently the M25. London has never attempted to accommodate universal car-use in its centre, and private-car travel into the city centre has only ever been a small fraction of total travel.

    I think it is fair to say that Auckland could have developed just fine if it had pursued policies along the lines that London did. It would have just been a different and very likely less-problematic story, that’s all.

    1. Auckland will be improved once we get rid of the motorways through the centre too. They are somewhat over-engineered for cycleways, but I imagine that means there won’t be much maintenance.

      More seriously, putting the motorways through the cbd half a century ago was an error. Widening the SH1 through the cbd in the last decade was an act of arrogance.

  8. Here’s another interesting pointer to how Auckland has grown not only in population but also in regional importance: The Global City Index

    This shows Auckland as being a Beta+ city, ahead of cities such as Perth, Brisbane, Geneva, and even Berlin and Manchester. That’s pretty impressive. New Zealand has only one other city that falls into the Global City index, and that’s Wellington, which is a Gamma-.

    1. Yes, we were going to cover other parts of NZ but then decided to split that into a second publication… that pic is left over from before that decision! Good old Welly.

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