Housing development at Flat Bush, Auckland
Where is New Zealand’s next top town?

The population of New Zealand’s cities and towns are constantly changing in response to shifting age structures, fluctuations in net migration, the economic prospects of key industries, and intangible attractiveness. In any individual year, these changes are often small, but over decades, towns can overtake other towns, some towns might become cities, and sometimes even cities overtake other cities. This article explores New Zealand’s larger towns and cities and looks at how they are projected to change.

Examining major, large, and medium areas

We’ve built this analysis using Stats NZ’s urban-rural area classification, which groups New Zealand into areas which share common urban or rural characteristics. Projecting population for smaller areas is a more involved process, so we’ve focused on major urban areas, large urban areas, and medium urban areas.

In practical terms, these areas in focus are cities and larger towns. However, urban-rural areas are not the same as territorial authority (local council) boundaries, even if they share the same name. Most territorial authorities include a mix of urban and rural land, and some include multiple distinct urban areas.

Stats NZ’s urban-rural classification distinguishes the contiguous urban portion of each territorial authority, so for example the Auckland urban area runs from Drury to Albany, but doesn’t include Hibiscus Coast, Helensville, Piha, and Pukekohe, despite all being within the Auckland territorial authority. Hamilton and Tauranga urban areas include the entirety of their respective territorial authority areas. Wellington, Lower Hutt, Christchurch and Dunedin urban areas include just the main urban portion of their respective territorial authorities, excluding nearby satellite towns or cities.

Stats NZ regularly reviews their urban-rural classification to reflect the expansion of urban areas, including when smaller urban areas within a territorial authority grow to meet and become contiguous.

A looking glass to the future

To understand how each of these areas are projected to grow, we have used Stats NZ’s 2022 subnational population projections for Statistical Area 2 (SA2) areas. These are a useful resource which reflects historical trends, demographic drivers, and limited input from territorial authorities. These factors make them ideal for a nationwide analysis like our, however, for local analysis caution should be exercised as the projections may not reflect the latest insights around the capacity for development. This caution is important because recent population and household growth within an SA2 could take up the last available land for development, meaning that historical trends may not indicate future growth. Once an SA2 becomes fully developed, growth may leap-frog to a nearby SA2 or another town.

We have an established process, as part of our Population Projections service, for developing population, household, and dwelling projections at an SA2 level, which considers Stats NZ’s SA2 projections, our territorial authority-level projections, and intelligence from council staff around development capacity and likely uptake. This approach helps to create highly granular projections which reflect both data-driven trends and local knowledge.

Hamilton to overtake Wellington

Almost all areas are expected to see growth in the population over the next few decades. But the pace of that growth varies.

Among the seven major urban centres, the population rankings are relatively stable, reflecting the inertia of large populations and fairly widespread growth (Chart 1).

Dunedin is a notable exception to this widespread growth, projected to grow a total of 6% between 2022 and 2048, lagging the other major urbans with between 10% and 34% growth.

Auckland urban area will remain in a class of its own, with its 21% growth adding 297,100 people by 2048 – the equivalent of adding Hamilton and Lower Hutt combined, and Christchurch will remain the second largest major urban area.

But the bronze medal seems likely to shift. At present, Wellington is New Zealand’s third largest major urban area. Wellington’s projected growth of 11% by 2048 translates to a solid 23,900 gain in population, but this increase will still see it knocked off the perch and out of medal contention.

Hamilton is set to steal the bronze crown, with the area projected to grow 34%, adding 60,600 residents, and moving into third place in 2048.

Rotorua, Nelson and Invercargill leapfrogged

Focusing on large urban areas in Chart 2 we see more leapfrogging of rankings. The Rotorua urban area (including Ngongotaha) is projected to grow by a modest 3%, which would see it overtaken by the urban area of Porirua, growing 14% and Hibiscus Coast in northern Auckland, growing 10%. Strong growth of 12% projected for Hastings would see it overtake Nelson (5%).

Bigger ranking shifts among small urban areas

Among the medium urban areas, we see some bigger ranking shifts than the large or major urban areas. Chart 3 shows the most notable shifts come with Pukekohe (growing 43%) and Rolleston (41%) which both overtake Blenheim (7%), Paraparaumu (6%) and Timaru (2%) in the rankings.

Rolleston remains town of the future, not city

Rolleston has been the fastest growing urban area, expanding by 17 times its original size between 1996 and 2022. Rolleston’s growth has been aided along the way by exodus from Christchurch after the 2010-11 earthquakes and to the work from home phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2048, the town’s population is projected to total 39,400, likely graduating from a small urban area to a medium urban area, and overtaking Gisborne in the process. However, this growth still wouldn’t qualify Rolleston as a city – that takes a population of 50,000 within a contiguous urban area. Rolleston’s main prospect for city status would be expansion to the east.

Could Rollincoln be New Zealand’s next city?

To the east of Rolleston is Lincoln, another fast-growing Selwyn District town, with less than five kilometres of rurally-zoned land in-between. Currently the land is used for agriculture and lifestyle blocks, a status maintained by Selwyn District Plan and backed up by National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land (NPS-HPL). However, over decades, these rules can change. If the rural buffer area were to be developed, then the combined Rolleston-Lincoln urban area would have a population of 53,900 in 2048, likely qualifying as a city. Rollincoln (name to be confirmed) would overtake the Whanganui, Upper Hutt, Invercargill, and Nelson urban areas for a place in the top 20.

Ageing population slows population outlook

New Zealand’s population growth is slowing overall, with an annual average increase of 1.3% between 2000 and 2022, easing to a projected 0.7% between 2022 and 2048. The population growth slowdown is driven by our ageing population, with a strongly rising number of deaths catching up with modestly growing births. The difference between births and deaths, termed natural increase, is a key driver of population growth. As natural increase eases, net migration becomes increasingly important to prevent population decline.

No decline in larger centres, patchy outlook for smaller centres

Given the projected slowdown in national population growth, it is noteworthy that none of the major, large, or medium urban areas are projected to experience population declines between 2022 and 2048, although several face near-negligible growth. The next step down in Stats NZ’s urban-rural area classification is the 146 small urban areas, ranging from Kaitaia to Bluff. Stats NZ projects that 26 of these centres will experience an outright decline in their population between 2022 and 2048.

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