Over the break while googling for something else I stumbled across this fascinating publication, titled A brief history of Auckland’s urban form 2019 by Leon Hoffman in the Council’s Research and Evaluation team. It had only been published days earlier on 19 December and as the name suggests, looks at the history of Auckland’s urban form. It is an update to a publication that has been produced periodically since 1967, having been last done in 2010 prior to amalgamation. It is described as:

This publication outlines the development of Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland’s urban form, from pre-colonial Māori settlement to the modern Auckland metropolis. It attempts to capture the context and main drivers behind the growth of the city, including infrastructure provision, housing development, and in later decades, town planning.

The analysis is chronological and discussion is divided into one or two decades at a time.

Each section (with the exception of the 1880-1899 and 1990-1999 periods) includes a map that shows growth over time in the built-up areas, as well as the development of the rail and motorway systems. These maps replicate, and continue, a series of maps first included in a 1967 article by G. T. Bloomfield titled The Growth of Auckland 1840-1966.

The maps presented in this publication were first prepared by the Social and Economic Research and Monitoring team at the Auckland Regional Council, using previous maps and aerial photos, and have been continued by the Land Use and Infrastructure team at Auckland Council’s Research and Evaluation Unit (RIMU). All maps are drawn at a 1:380,000 scale and are oriented north.

Each section also includes a population figure and an estimated figure for the built-up area (in hectares), for a given year within that time period. The estimated built area land measurements were calculated by using the growth maps mentioned above.

Research for this publication has drawn upon many excellent local histories from numerous sources. A list of selected references and suggested reading is included at the end of this publication.

Those looking for further information about the Māori history of Tāmaki Makaurau are encouraged to seek out the many knowledges provided by the area’s local iwi.

There’s a lot of interesting history in the document but here are maps showing how Auckland has developed.

Prior to 1840

This version shows areas of known Māori activity


The settlement of Auckland was only small, having only been founded two years prior.

  • Population: 2,895
  • Area: 33.2 ha
  • Density: 87 people per hectare


This is about the time that Auckland’s first railways are build and settlements popped up in Onehunga, Otahuhu and Panmure.

  • Population: 12,423 (in 1864)
  • Area: 565 ha
  • Density 22 people per hectare


Auckland grew rapidly during this time, in part on the back of the building and expansion of first horse-drawn and then electric trams. New settlements started popping up, especially along the rail lines.

  • Population: 133,712 (in 1916)
  • Area: 5,039 ha
  • Density: 27 people per hectare


The immediate post WW2 era was when our tram network was at its peak following expansions in the 1930’s which also resulted in significant urban growth.

  • Population: 251,667
  • Area: 13,642 ha
  • Density: 18 people per hectare


The 1945 to 1964 period was one of the most pivotal times in Auckland’s history. It’s when we ripped out the tram system on the back of a decision that we’d build a city based around cars. That saw the completion of the Auckland Harbour Bridge and the first motorways – to the west and south.

  • Population: 535,167 (in 1966)
  • Area: 26,793 ha
  • Density: 20 people per hectare


This period saw Auckland’s first urban boundaries be established and you can see the impact compared to previous maps with new development seeming to more ‘fill in the gaps’ as opposed to the large urban expansions of previous decades.

  • Population: 707,607
  • Area: 37,000 ha
  • Density: 19 people per hectare


As intensification of the urban area became more of a focus you can clearly see the impact with much less outward growth compared to previous maps – although this is also impacted by lower population growth.

  • Population: 754,845
  • Area: 40,022 ha
  • Density: 19 people per hectare


The report notes that between 1991 and 2001, “between 52 and 62 per cent of annual metropolitan residential growth took place in existing urbanised areas (middle/inner/CBD) as opposed to 38-48 per cent greenfields development in the outer zones“. Agan this is quite visible compared to earlier maps.

  • Population: 997,940
  • Area: 45,144 ha
  • Density: 22 people per hectare


The same trend as mentioned before with the urban area nibbling at the edges but much of it happening within the existing urban area. This was also the time that Auckland started to revitalise our PT system with the opening of Britomart and the Northern Busway.

  • Population: 1,160,100
  • Area: 49,520 ha
  • Density: 23 people per hectare


Auckland’s population has boomed over the last decade or so but the size of the urban area hasn’t to the same extent and that’s reflected in the average urban density figure shooting up from the 23 to 30.

  • Population: 1,598,200
  • Area: 53,312 ha
  • Density: 30 people per hectare


The publication gives a glimpse into the future of Auckland’s urban area based on current council plans, and for which a lot of work is currently going on to plan and build infrastructure to enable. However, based on the images above this level of greenfield growth simply doesn’t seem realistic. Those images show the previous few decades as being perhaps best described as “filling in the gaps and nibbling at the edges“. By contrast the growth allowed for feels at odds with how Auckland has developed over the last few decades which raises questions of just how accurate it will be.

Finally, I quickly put this gif together of the images (although annoyingly they’re not lined up and some are scaled slightly differently)

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  1. Cool work, Matt.

    Arguments against tackling our car dependency so often hinge on our low density and high sprawl.

    Arguments against implementing low-carbon urban form so often hinge on our low density and high sprawl.

    Arguments against comparing our road safety with other countries so often hinge on our low density and high sprawl.

    So why do we continue with the low density and high sprawl?

    If the sprawl was halted now, and the extra housing was added along the key public transport corridors, those arguments would disappear. We’d actually tackle our car dependency, our carbon emissions and our safety.

    1. 30 people per hectare is very low. It’s interesting how it hasn’t really changed from 20 people per hectare.

  2. So the last time Auckland was affordable for the average income was when the density was 20 per hectare. We obviously need to get back to this.

    1. By depopulating Auckland, Detroit style, or by sprawling onto the fertile farmland of the Franklin?

      Here’s a better idea: find better ways for people to be secure in their accommodation and in their retirement without buying property.

    2. Prices have risen across the country, often in areas where density has barely changed.

      It would be extremely foolish to let the city sprawl and bring all the negative consequences that brings based on one over simplified metric you have used for house prices.

      1. Just give money too Housing New Zealand to build more houses, flats, apartments that can be rented out to people who don’t want or cant afford to buy houses of their own. Undercuts the rental market and keeps rents in the private sector down. Many old houses and I mean ones that are approaching 100 years old are being knocked down and converted into 4 or 6 townhouses in the Papatoetoe, Middlemore, and Mangere area. Community gardens so people can grow their own foods would be a good move too. Maybe community greenhouses if space is a problem. A bit of sprawl along the Main Trunk railway south and maybe out to Glenbrook on the branch wouldn’t hurt either if services can be arranged to Hamilton and the Auckland area. Running limited stop through the Auckland metro area.

        1. Although I think HNZ have been a big part of the problem. They are doing exactly as you suggest near us in Mt Roskill and its great that it is finally happening and at a reasonable scale and density. However most private land owners subdivided similar properties decades ago, HNZ has only started doing it when it is almost too late (which is exactly why the government shouldn’t own anything).

        2. Jimbo – while they have been late to the party I’d argue the HNZ packages of land have been master planned much better than the private land.

          It’s one of the benefits of developing large chunks of land at once, something that can only really happen when there are owners of large chunks such as the government.

        3. Yes, that’s my experience too, Jezza. Unfortunately the common areas tend to be being made into car parks, but at least they’re big enough that when this is reversed, and the tenants are able to have a communal garden and courtyard, it’ll be a big enough area to work well. Whereas with the privately done bitsy developments, the driveways and carparks are so dispersed it’ll be hard to regenerate into something nice.

        4. There is one Housing New Zealand property which has just being developed consisting of two prefab houses on about a third of an acre. I was a little bit disappointed that they didn’t put in some raised bed gardens. It wouldn’t have cost more than another couple of hundred to do it. They could have planted some flax or something like that and told the tenants to go too it if they wanted to grow some vegies. Still they look nice except the tenants seem to like to live in the dark with all curtains drawn. I don’t know what that’s all about. Maybe there gardening a cash crop under lights inside.

        5. Agree that has happened to work out better. But at what interim cost?
          It may work out even better if HNZ holds on to that land for another 20 years and then builds even higher density – should they do that instead?

        6. No, it should be built now. Ideally it would have been built a number of years ago but that horse has bolted.

          Either way I have seen no evidence the private sector would have done anything better with this land. We would most likely have ended up with large stand alone houses, which even if built earlier would be just kicking the housing crisis down the road a bit.

          If the land stays in government hands it would be possible to knock the lot down in 70 years time when it comes to the end of it’s life and build something even higher density if that is what’s needed.

        7. I’ve long been saying that the government should fund Housing New Zealand to replace many of its decrepit & mickey-mouse 1930-60’s state housing stock with blocks off denser terraced housing and low-rise apartments.
          People have long told me “oh they’ll be slums” and I’ve long replied with “what do you think they are already?”.

    3. Ah no Graeme. The fact Housing was cheap back then was in spite of the 20-hectare block, not because of it.
      Think about it logically: More squared metres of land means greater costs.

  3. Great maps and explanation but I have some quibbles. I guess it depends on what we mean by ‘growth’ but for the peripheral areas, they seem to have used when they were officially part of the urban area as opposed to when they actually grew. Look at the following:
    – Pukekohe seems to appear in 64-75
    – the airport in 87 – 96
    – urban part of Waiheke 96-08
    -Waiuku and Warkworth only appear in 08-18

    1. Pukekohe actually disappears in 1996 and comes back in 2008! These are minor issues with an excellent visualisation though.

    2. Yeah they’ve missed Helensville until quite late too. Last time I checked there was an old main street and a character neighborhood out there. As you point out, Waiuku is quite old too, formerly serviced by a ferry. Pukekohe’s urban form came up in mostly in the early 20th century. These are places that had their own connections to transport and developed an urban form early on. I guess they weren’t considered part of Auckland’s urban form at all in 2010 when the ARC last updated it.

      It may seem minor, but it means the map is falsely portraying the growth of the region and making it look like those areas are sprawl rather than outlying towns that developed separately from Auckland City.

  4. Great analysis, which really highlights that intensification is nothing new for Auckland. In fact it seems like most growth over the past 50 years has been through intensification.

    1. @Trev

      ‘In fact it seems like most growth over the past 50 years has been through intensification’

      Say whaaaat? Looks like we just spilled a cup of coffee on a map and sprawled outwards? We still have single storey villas all across our inner suburbs which are unable to be re-developed.

  5. Fascinating maps. Have been doing some family history research and found family members lived in Northcote and Takapuna back in the 1910s. Really interesting to see how these were then tiny settlements and they were living right on the edge of town.

  6. There’s one more page to add to the GIF Matt – the very first one, showing Maori… I think it would be fascinating to see, visually, how the Pakeha waves of colonisation coincide / clash with the pre-existing Maori culture…. I don’t think it has ever been done before.

  7. No wonder prices have skyrocketed considering the restrictions on development. If we ever want housing to be affordable in this city again, we have to ask whether restricting building is the right move. Cutting sprawl sounds like a good idea but what is the human cost? Overcrowding, lower living standards, and yet another generation who will never be able to save for a house. Let’s hope not.

    1. The human cost of cutting sprawl?

      1) Short commute meaning more time for personal, friends, family
      2) Less distance traveled therefore better for the climate
      3) Less infrastructure to be built.

      The list really does go on and I’m surprised you are asking the question.

      Agree though, the restrictions across our Inner City suburbs that are closest to most jobs IS locking generations out of the market, to the point where if its a choice of leaving the Country or living in the sprawl you are clambering for it’s usually leaving the Country.

      Overcrowding? Auckland WILL continue to grow, even through internal migration and birth, its a CITY and as such needs to accommodate people within its boundaries as all Cities do.

      Do you have any evidence of density = low living standards? Mercer Livibility index puts Vienna 1st in the world which has a density of 4000 per Km2, Zurich is 2nd with 4,700 per Km2, Auckland is joint 3rd with Vancouver and Munich, at 5,400 and 12,000 per Km2. All much much more than Auckland, so how do you correlate standard of living to density?

      1. Just in case anyone is wondering about the conversion between hectares and square kilometres, there are 100 hectares in a km2, so a density of 20 people/hectare = 2,000 people/km2 (and also 8.09people/acre). More here: http://anzasca.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/024_Marriage_Blenkarne_ASA2015.pdf
        So, that puts Auckland at about half the density of Vienna and about a sixth that of Munich.

        Ben’s logic is interesting – he views a lower density as equalling lower cost housing, but the consensus appears to be that it is the price of land itself which is pushing up house prices. So, the higher the density, the less land cost you have – which is the direct opposite of what Ben is saying.

      2. If we allowed building up as much as those cities do, then we wouldn’t have a problem. But in our status quo, campaigners against Greenfield development and NIMBYs join forces to dampen all development and people who need a place to live are left out in the cold.

        1. Then that’s where we should all concentrate our energies, overruling those poeple by voting for pro-intensification policies – regflardless of the political party.

          Much better than just throwing our hands up in the air and accepting socially and ecologically unsustainable sprawl.

      3. “Less infrastructure to be built.”
        Not always true. Often infrastructure need to be built or upgraded to help handle greater populations.

        However; much of the roading in suburban Auckland could handle far greater volumes of traffic.

    2. “Overcrowding”
      NZ has a long way to go before coming close to experiencing overcrowding. Even central Auckland and central Wellington allow people their personal space. Go even to Sydney or Melbourne and you’ll see some real crowding.

      “lower living standards”
      Not necessarily.
      Do you think that Mangere or Otara or Te Atatu with their detached state housing have high living standards? Greater population density means closer proximity to and thus greater convenience to amenities and shopping. You can simply walk to your shopping, local library, swimming pool, public park, whatever.

      “and yet another generation who will never be able to save for a house.”
      How does that logically work?
      If a plot of land has apartments built upon it; it means that its value is DIVIDED. As a hypothetical example: Instead of one small & crummy detached house/cottage (over)valued at $120,000; there can be 6 apartments valued at $30,000 (after the increase in land value).
      C’mon, this is common sense.

      1. I was talking about limits on Greenfield development. You’re talking about infill development and I have nothing to say about that. Right now we have substantial limits on both, and without relaxing both, we’ll continue to suffer high housing costs. OK for some, particularly if you own property, but very difficult for others.

        As for overcrowding, this has been covered again and again in the media – see https://i.stuff.co.nz/business/property/117990184/renting-in-auckland-experts-warn-it-could-get-worse-in-2020

        1. So you’re talking about overcrowding WITHIN dwellings?

          Once again; having apartments or terraced housing would decrease that. Because instead of 8-9 people in one dwelling built for 2-4; there could be 6 dwellings for 1-3 people.

        2. What limits on Greenfield development are you talking about exactly, where is it you would further develop housing WITHIN Auckland boundaries?

    3. So the ability to go higher is what we need to change, Ben. We need to work on that. More sprawl pushes prices up.

      More sprawl means more households who have no choice to be anything other than car dependent, because they’re so far from everywhere. So the roading and parking needed to cope with all those cars driving long distances and parking various places (work, shopping, recreation, friends’ places, etc) spreads everything apart, meaning lots of people who aren’t even on the outskirts are also having to deal with low proximity and high distances. It means lots of congestion as a high proportion of the city effectively ends up dependent on cars.

      This means that the closer to town that dwellings are, the (radically) more choice in transport is available. And because long travel times impact greatly on people’s enjoyment of life, this means people value those more central properties highly, and will pay more for it to avoid the commuting drudgery.

      So sprawl ruins affordability in these ways:

      1/ with a low density city, there is lots of land per dwelling – not just because the dwelling itself is taking up more land, but because the city wastes land on car infrastructure.

      2/ and transport becomes a big factor home location choices, and only those with enough money can afford to live closer to town which offer a decent lifestyle with transport choice and low travel times. Plenty of other people want to – so prices get pushed up – but they are excluded by the low number of dwellings available close to town.

      3/ also, compact cities can keep maintaining their short lengths of infrastructure much more cheaply than sprawling cities can maintain their long lengths of infrastructure. Not that past generations have – there’s a huge backlog of maintenance and upgrading that has been deferred because the city has preferred to keep rates low and get developers to pay for the new infrastructure while they build sprawl. But as that sprawl infrastructure starts to come up for replacement, we’re going to be hit with maintenance bills we can’t afford.

  8. Looks like it all started to go wrong between 1945-64. Hardly surprising; this was the ascendency of the automobile. If Auckland had not strayed much beyond its 1945 boundaries; it would be a tidy city by now.

    I’m a bit confused as to why some towns suddenly appear. Example: Pukekohe suddenly appearing in 1975 when it was a well-established town long before that.

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