Save our cities
Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 28 October 2022
One of the megatrends of the past decades has been urbanisation. Globally, city dwellers have surpassed rural dwellers since 2007.
This is what makes Statistics New Zealand’s latest data so remarkable. Because New Zealand now bucks that trend.
In the past two years, New Zealand’s cities have lost population while the country as a whole has grown.
Since 2020, Auckland has lost 1.11 percent of its population. Wellington’s population shrank by 1.57 percent, and Dunedin is 1.87 percent smaller than it used to be.
Among the major cities, only Christchurch was able to limit its losses. Nevertheless, Christchurch was down 0.59 percent as well.
The pandemic can explain some of these falls in population. Not least, international students unable to come to New Zealand or returning to their home countries will have been a factor.
However, the decline of our cities is attributable to more than international movements. As the case of Auckland demonstrates, internal migration is an even bigger factor.
Auckland lost a net 13,500 people to emigration, but more than twice that number to internal migration. A net 30,400 people left Auckland for other places in New Zealand.
Had it not been for a natural increase of 24,900 people (i.e., more births than deaths), Auckland’s decline would have been even more dramatic.
There is no way to know why people are leaving Auckland and other major cities. Did New Zealanders discover working from home during Covid? Gazing at beaches or mountains is undoubtedly more pleasant than facing a cityscape while stuck in a Zoom meeting.
The loss of amenities in big cities may be the better explanation. House prices are exorbitant, congestion is endemic, and crime is perceived to be on the rise.
Given these unpleasant elements of life in the big smoke, no wonder the countryside looks more appealing to many.
Rural house prices have risen, but not to the ridiculous levels seen in Auckland or Wellington. Congestion and crime may be less of a problem there, too.
What makes sense from an individual perspective should nevertheless ring alarm bells. Economic development has historically been dependent on cities.
Harvard economist Edward Glaeser said a decade ago that cities are humanity’s greatest invention. They make us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier”, as Glaeser explained in The Triumph of the City.
Economic recovery from Covid will be harder if cities lose their attractiveness.