I spent the first two decades of my life in rural New Zealand.
Imagine if you will a small country town (population ~10,000) straddling the southern end of the mighty Manukau Harbour. The Waikato river is sufficiently close that in the past the local Maori apparently used to drag their waka between the river and the harbour. Let’s call this imaginary town “Waiuku”.
While I personally never really “fitted in” I guess Waiuku was, and possibly still is, relatively pleasant. On the other hand painstaking decades of research have led me to conclude that it’s number one selling point was the fact that it’s not too far from Auckland. However that’s not exactly the kind of selling point that grabs you by the gonads and screams “wunderbar” now does it?
More specifically, being “not too far” is not the same as being “close”. In fact, driving from Waiuku to Auckland in the peak used to take ~1.5 hours each way. Driving to Papakura and taking the train was more reliable, but did not save any time (especially when the trains caught on fire).
So in 2004, having car-pooled and park-and-rided my way through half of an under-graduate degree I upped sticks and moved from the sticks into the city. And over the ensuing few years my younger brother and sister did the same.Then finally, in 2010, my parents sold their 6 acre “lifestyle block” and bought a 3 bedroom unit in a small block flats on St Andrews Rd in Epsom.
Given this background, you can probably understand my interest in this recent article in the NZHerald. It seems that New Zealand’s rural areas are experiencing an exodus of people, so much so that it seems to be affecting property prices:
Isolated and non-metropolitan areas of New Zealand suffered big falls in property values last year as people continued to flock to the main centres. Latest data from QV showed the biggest falls in Westland (6 per cent), Wairoa and Gisborne (5.3 per cent), Kaipara (4.3 per cent) and Waitomo (2.5 per cent), while values in Auckland and Christchurch surged, in some cases above 13 per cent.
The article goes onto discuss some of the underlying economic factors, especially employment opportunities, which may be causing migration from isolated rural parts of the NZ to metropolitan centres.
To me a lack of employment is a “push” factor – similar to the potato famines in Ireland and Scandinavia that spawned mass emigration to the United States and other colonies back in the day (ah bless seventh form history). I suspect that employment opportunities are important, but nonetheless I’d have thought there were also some “pull” factors about Auckland?
While people migrate for all sorts of reasons, and these will change over time, my hunch – obviously biased by my own experience – is that NZ may be in the midst of a new form of “chain migration”. The chain begins with younger people migrating to larger urban areas for study/employment opportunities. Nothing new here. But whereas previously these same people may have migrated back away from the cities to have families, this no longer seems to be happening, or at least not as much, or as soon.
Meanwhile, our ageing parents begin to feel lonely out in the bush. Some of the less fortunate may even need the more specialised health services available only in urban areas. At some point it seems that the parents tire of the distance involved in living in rural areas so they make the move into the city too. Hence, an initial economic “push” factor (i.e. lack of employment opportunities) ultimately creates a social “pull” (i.e. proximity to family). I’m sure there are other factors at play too, but this is quite an interesting one.
But all this is skirting another important question – do we expect the population tide to continue to go out on New Zealand’s rural areas? If it does persist this will create an effective vacuum outside of New Zealand’s main metropolitan centres. Or will something I have not foreseen bring the trend to an end? By most accounts, rural/urban migration has been underway for almost a century now.
The only thing now is that the population of rural areas is getting so sparse that it’s hard to support existing infrastructure, let alone invest in new stuff. While I’m not sure of the answer I’m pretty sure it’s a question we should be trying to understand, because it has some significant implications for public policies. I’d be interested to know whether others peoples’ perceptions are the same as my own …
P.s. I was lying when I said that Waiuku’s only good point was it’s proximity to Auckland. Another good thing it has is fantastic top-soil, especially around Glenbrook, which is the by-product of thousands of years of volcanic activity. As a young lad this allowed me to cultivate native trees which were subsequently used to convert one of our paddocks back into native bush.