In defense of population growth

Growth: what is it good for?

Accommodating a growing population can certainly be challenging. It means having to find more money to invest in transport and water infrastructure to enable new residents to live and travel in the city. As Auckland Council’s recent consultation on the Long Term Plan shows, asking people to pay more is never a very popular proposition – even if they like how the money’s being spent.

And, as Stu pointed out in his post on Auckland house prices this Monday, population growth can also put pressure on housing markets. Multiple research papers from the Reserve Bank have shown that increases in net migration tend to be followed by increases in house prices – shown in this chart. Obviously, homeowners do quite well out of this, but others face added costs:

RBNZ net migration and house prices chart

In short, it’s not surprising that some people feel trepidatious about population growth and migration. And it’s not surprising that those anxieties are especially present in Auckland, which is projected to continue growing rapidly over the next three decades.

While unease about population growth is understandable, I’d argue that it’s misplaced. In my view, the benefits of urban population growth in New Zealand far outweigh the costs. While large urban areas can become dysfunctional – think of Beijing’s astonishing smog problems or the high cost of infrastructure in sprawling American cities – New Zealand’s cities are nowhere near large enough for the diseconomies of scale to triumph over the economies of scale.

This is easy to see if we look at the periods when Auckland hasn’t been attracting migrants. Here’s a chart from a presentation on Auckland’s demographics by Auckland Council social researcher Alison Reid. It displays the composition of Auckland’s population growth since 1922. In recent decades, natural population increase – i.e. people having babies – has been the biggest source of growth. Net migration is important, but it can be quite volatile – surging up and then crashing back.

Auckland components of population growth 1922-2012

What stood out to me from this chart was that the years with little or no net migration to Auckland have not been good times for the city. Net migration slowed to a trickle during the Great Depression, and turned negative during the constrained years during and after World War Two. More recently, quite a few people fled Auckland during the economically calamitous Muldoon years. Net migration remained low during the painful adjustments imposed by the following two governments.

I wasn’t living in Auckland during the 1990s – my parents had joined the queues leaving via Auckland airport – but friends who were say that the city was turning into a ghost-town. History shows that shutting off the migration tap has never led to a better, more vibrant city or more opportunity for residents. It’s simply been a sign of failure.

My hypothesis is that New Zealand has a strong feedback loop between net migration and economic growth. When growth prospects get worse – as they did in the 1970 and 1980s – it dissuades people from coming here and encourages Kiwis to leave for greener pastures. This in turn worsens growth prospects by sucking consumer demand out of the economy and reducing perceived household wealth (i.e. lowering house prices).

By contrast, good growth prospects tend to attract migrants to New Zealand’s cities and encourage potential emigrants to stay. This in turn leads to a virtuous cycle between higher growth and increased migration.

We can’t fully control this process, as it depends in part on what’s happening in Australia and the rest of the world (not to mention macroeconomic variables that we don’t fully understand). But we can make sure that our cities are in a good position to take advantage of population growth.

The first, and most important thing we can do is to build better cities that are able to attract and efficiently accommodate more people. In Auckland, for example, we’ve got some challenges, including transport investment that’s been heavily skewed towards cars (and only cars) and rising house prices. But the flip-side of those is that we’ve got great opportunities to:

  • Improve transport choice by investing in Auckland’s “missing modes” – a frequent bus network throughout the city, rapid transit infrastructure, and safe walking and cycling infrastructure
  • Improve housing choice by providing opportunities for people to develop higher-density residential typologies in market-attractive areas
  • Invest in great public spaces, such as Auckland’s waterfront and increasing numbers of shared spaces.

Second, as we attract more people to our cities, we need to accommodate them in an efficient and environmentally responsible way. This means enabling people to live in areas that are accessible to jobs, shops, and other amenities. As I found when I looked at carbon emissions from commutes in New Zealand cities, people in inner-city areas are considerably more environmentally friendly than their co-workers from the urban fringe.

Annual CO2 emissions per commuter DRAFT v1

Moreover, the data shows that increasing density can be a positive-sum game for existing communities as well as for the environment. At the city level, we can’t observe any relationship between rising population densities and congestion – fears of traffic-choked streets just don’t seem to have materialised in practice. (So much for diseconomies of scale!)

On the other side of the ledger, suburbs with higher population densities have better consumption choices. Many of the services that people rely upon – from vege shops to Japanese restaurants to public transport to roads – exhibit strong economies of scale, which means that they get better when there are more people around.

Which suggests that there is also a third important thing that we need to do, which is to tell good stories about the opportunities that urban growth will offer us. New Zealand’s used to thinking of itself as a rural economy with some cities sprinkled around as afterthoughts. That’s a dated and inaccurate self-image when over half the economy is located in our three largest cities.

So, what’s your perspective on urban growth?

Aucklands population to continue to grow strongly

Late last week Statistics NZ released their latest regional population projections from 2013 through to 2043. It once again highlights just how much growth is expected to occur in Auckland with them projecting roughly an extra 500,000 to 900,000 people in the region within 30 years – that’s a 36-63% increase on what we have today.

All 16 regional council areas are projected to increase in population between now and 2028, Statistics New Zealand said today.

“The short-term trend partly reflects the current high level of arrivals into New Zealand, and the current low level of departures,” population statistics manager Vina Cullum said.

“However, population growth will slow in the longer term as our population continues to age. This will see the number of deaths increase relative to births. Also, net migration (arrivals minus departures) exceeded 50,000 in 2014 and is unlikely to remain at that level.”

Auckland will continue to be New Zealand’s fastest growing region, and account for three-fifths of the country’s population growth between 2013 and 2043. From an estimated population of 1.5 million in 2014, Auckland is projected to reach 2 million in the early 2030s. That means out of every 100 people in New Zealand, 34 currently live in Auckland, but this will increase to 37 in 2028 and 40 in 2043.

Natural increase (births minus deaths) is projected to account for three-fifths of Auckland’s growth, and net migration the remaining two-fifths.

Of New Zealand’s 67 territorial authority areas, 51 are projected to have more people in 2028 than in 2013. However, only 30 are projected to have more people in 2043 than in 2028.

The fastest population growth between 2013 and 2043 is expected in Selwyn and Queenstown-Lakes districts, up an average of 2.2 and 1.8 percent a year, respectively.

The projections are not predictions, but an indication of the size and composition of the future population. Statistics NZ produces low, medium, and high growth projections for every local area every 2–3 years to assist planning by communities, local councils, and government.

You can see the annual projected growth for each region below. As you can see the growth Auckland is leaps and bounds ahead of anywhere else and the only region to even come close is Canterbury and only if it sees the high projection outcome.

Annual Population Change 2

Of course when you look at the change on an actual number basis Auckland’s expected growth is even more extreme. This is based off the medium projection. Due to most regions being a fairly similar size it can be hard to tell them apart. In Canterbury, the vast majority of projected growth will happen in the Christchurch City Council area or in the two surrounding districts – Selwyn and Waimakariri. I think that is going to make it increasingly important for the region to start looking at some rapid transit options – unless it wants to follow Auckland’s mistakes.

NZ Regional Population Projections 2013-2043

Another way to show the level of growth in Auckland in particular is below. This is the projected cumulative growth from 2013 to 2043 for Auckland and the rest of the country. Auckland grows by over 730,000 people while the rest of the country by only around 460,000 – of which about 80% is in Christchurch, Wellington, the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty.

Auckland vs Rest of NZ growth - 2013-2043

Every time the issue of Auckland’s strong growth comes up many people highlight the challenges it adds, in particular the cost of new infrastructure and housing however I feel it’s also worth remembering that it presents a lot of opportunities too. Instead of trying to cap the city’s growth like some have suggested in the past we should embrace it as that will not only make the city stronger but also help make the country as a whole stronger.

One question people often have is how realistic these projections are and how past projections turned out. As it happens Auckland tends to track slightly ahead head of the medium projection. Here’s what was predicted to occur from 2001 – 2026 – the blue area represents the range of low, medium and high growth projections.


Auckland Population Project - 2001 - 2

Stats NZ have also made predictions within Auckland down the local board level and in many ways this provides a more interesting and useful look at how the city is changing. Like we see nationally, there are expected to be some areas that grow much stronger than others and one of those is the Waitemata Local Board area which covers the city centre and inner suburbs. Population in the area is expected to almost double from 2013 around 81,000 to 152,500 which if it occurs would make the Waitemata Local board area have the third largest of any board in Auckland.

In addition to the City Centre the local boards that are likely to see a lot of greenfield development are also high on the list.

Auckland Annual Population Change 2

I won’t publish a graph of the actual projection numbers as it’s simply too messy to read easily. Some of the

Mapping population changes and young(ish) adults

Yesterday reader Aaron Schiff published this post looking at how population had changed across the country and compared it to how it had changed for the 20-34 age group.

Young adults represent the future of New Zealand’s economy, so I think it’s interesting to look at what is happening to them over time.

Using Census data I’ve made some dotmaps of population changes between 2013 and 2001. In the following maps, there is one blue dot for each new person in census area units that experienced population growth over this time, and one red dot for each person lost in areas where the population shrank.

In each case the maps compare changes in the total “census usually resident” population with that of young adults aged 20 to 34. People in this age group are generally finishing up education, entering the workforce, starting families, and buying houses. The maps show changes in where people live, which reflects a number of factors including earning prospects and cost of living (among other things).

First, the national picture. Total population increased in all of the major cities, most smaller centres, and many rural areas too. In comparison the increase in young population is more concentrated on urban centres.

Aaron Schiff Population - All-NZ-Combined

There’s a couple of interesting things that really stand out here. There’s been growth in large parts of the country which isn’t unexpected but some areas, particularly the far north, East Cape and parts of the central North Island haven’t done so well. Perhaps more interesting is there’s also a couple of places noticeable that have seen general population increasing while flat or declining young populations. This includes some of NZ’s more popular areas due to climate or scenery such as the Coromandel Peninsula, Hawkes Bay, Nelson and Queenstown/Wanaka areas. In addition there seems to be a general decline in the youngish population from rural areas. Back to Aaron’s post:

In the Auckland region, total population increased in almost all areas. The changes in young adult population are very different – a big increase in the CBD but reductions in many areas surrounding the CBD, and growth in outlying areas. I would hypothesise that this reflects housing costs more than anything.

Aaron Schiff Population - Auckland-Combined

The areas just to the west of the CBD (Freeman’s Bay, Ponsonby, etc) are especially interesting. The total population in these areas grew very little between 2001 and 2013, while the young adult population reduced significantly.

Aaron Schiff Population - AKL Central

Firstly I’m surprised that some areas have had overall population losses, some like around Glen Innes might be related to a smaller population while Housing NZ start to redevelop their land, something that will almost certainly see the population jump over time. Other areas like that experienced population loss like Herne Bay might be more related to houses being lived in by (wealthier) older couples whose children have left home.

It’s the youngish population that’s seen the most change and what I notice is it’s most prevalent in what are generally higher socio economic areas e.g. both the western and eastern bays, Mt Eden, Devonport, Titirangi. Again to me this likely reflects a combination of factors including:

  • Children of Baby boomers who have left home
  • Generation Xers (born 1960-1980) who might still live in the area with young families but have obviously aged outside the 20-34 age bracket
  • House price rises that have put home ownership out of reach for many younger people in these areas.

As to where the growth in young people has been happening, it’s been incredibly strong in the CBD which reflects the growing number of students who are choosing to live more urban.

All up it’s really interesting to see where the changes are occurring so thanks Aaron. Also if anyone wants to help put the data into an interactive version then please let Aaron know

Northward drift no more

As a youngster in Social Studies class, I remember being regaled with stories of the Northward Drift, that well-known phenomenon of people moving from the South Island to the North Island, and to Auckland from everywhere that wasn’t Auckland. How we thrilled to the tales of those intrepid folk, heading north on their oxen-drawn wagons (we assumed) to the land of plenty. However, by the time I was learning about it in the late ’90s or thereabouts, it wasn’t really happening any more. Tables from Statistics New Zealand show that, on a net basis, people have been moving from the North Island to the South Island since the late ’80s (and the good people at Stats NZ have also written a good “mythbusters” article on it). It took a devastating earthquake to reverse the trend, with the South Island finally losing people to the North Island again in the five years to 2013:

South to North

As for Auckland, it took a little while longer to follow the trend, but Auckland has been losing population to other regions since the late ’90s. I wrote last year that

[Auckland has] had a decade of negative migration, in domestic (or “internal”, i.e. within NZ) terms. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues when the 2013 census results come out. The “northward drift” of population, which certainly has been a factor in the past, doesn’t seem to be happening any more.

Well, the 2013 census results are out, and they do indeed show a continuation of this trend – although it has slowed significantly.

Internal Migration for Auckland

This leads to the inevitable media coverage on “Aucklanders moving to [insert other town or city here]”. Google this for Tauranga or Hamilton and you’ll see these articles getting written at least once a year for each city – it’s a reliable page-filler and it’s easy enough to find a couple of case studies to interview.

Now, the “net” numbers shown here represent the difference between two much larger numbers – total internal immigrants, and total internal emigrants. These numbers were each around 60,000 for the five years to March 2013 – what we’re seeing is just the net result of fluctuations (or trends) in each of these numbers.

The articles (and the people mentioned in them, including real estate agents and so on) usually make the mistake of thinking about these migration flows as being one way. They’re not. Of course real estate agents in Tauranga will notice home buyers moving from Auckland – and vice versa, if anyone had bothered to ask the agents in Auckland. However, the effect will be much more noticeable in the smaller city, because Hamiltonians will notice a couple of thousand new residents coming from Auckland, whereas it’ll be a bit harder to see that when the new residents get spread around a city with ten times the population.

Even so, we’re now looking at a fairly well established trend which has generally been heading in one direction for the last 30 years. It’s probably safe to say that overall, more Aucklanders will keep leaving for other parts of New Zealand than the reverse.

However, it’s worth pointing out that these numbers just aren’t that big in the context of Auckland. We’re talking about a net loss of 4,653 people over the last five years, whereas Auckland is generally growing at 20,000 to 25,000 people each year (and probably faster at the moment). In the graph below, I’ve broken down Auckland’s overall population growth into gains from internal migration, international migration, and “natural increase” (births minus deaths). Note that my data for those other two items only goes back 20 years.

Overall Population Growth for Auckland

Compare those three elements of Auckland’s population growth, and it becomes pretty obvious why it’s much more important for us to analyse and understand the factors behind international migration, and natural increase. For other towns and cities, internal migration can be pretty important – it’s a key driver of growth in Hamilton and Tauranga, for example – but for Auckland, it’s pretty small stuff.

New Zealand can’t put the urban genie back in its bottle

Although the majority of New Zealanders have lived in towns and cities for almost a century, it sometimes seems like we’re in denial that we live in an urban nation. This unease came to the fore during the debate over the Auckland Plan and the Unitary Plan. As it turns out, some people are uneasy about Auckland’s emergence as a large and increasingly sophisticated city.

At that time, the NZ Herald published several articles calling for a “national population strategy” to forestall further growth in Auckland. Here’s one example from May 2013:

Redirecting people away from settling or living in Auckland would be a positive step. A good example is in Invercargill where students pay no fees. The fees at Auckland learning institutes should be increased and those elsewhere removed or reduced significantly.


As so much of the population increase is likely to come from an increase in births, a decrease is urgent. Incentives need to be provided such as free contraception, especially to those under 20 years of age. The provision of family benefits regardless of whether you have two or 10 children should be looked at.

Here’s another one from June 2013:

Short of putting contraceptives in the water supply we are unlikely to do much about our rate of natural increase – so realistically any policy needs to focus on migration patterns, particularly within New Zealand – the so-called “northward drift”.

Realistically we cannot talk about Auckland in isolation from the rest of New Zealand. We have no national population strategy – though some useful work has been done in the past. Neither do we have a regional development strategy, an essential mechanism for achieving a more equitable sharing of economic and population growth.

This is a seductive idea, but it won’t work. Developing policy to redistribute growth is bloody hard without spending massive amounts of money and tightly controlling economic activity. If we seriously tried to subsidise or regulate growth away from Auckland, we’d probably just end up misallocating resources and reduce our wellbeing. As urban economist Edward Glaeser is fond of pointing out, good policy should aim to help poor people rather than poor places.

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about the consequences of regional growth policies, as we have a real-world historical example to draw upon. From the 1930s to the 1980s, NZ tried a massive policy experiment – it invested heavily in regional development and used regulatory controls to spread investment and employment around the country.

Looking back on it, the reach of these regulations and investments is extraordinary. So, for example, you had:

  • Economically costly production and export subsidies for farmers were propping up uneconomic farms. By 1984, subsidies accounted for almost 40% of the average sheep and beef farmer’s income.
  • The Transport Licensing Act 1931, which banned trucks from moving goods more than 150 kilometres before its repeal in 1982. This imposed high costs to distance, encouraging small-scale local production rather than centralising plants.
  • Regulations that virtually prohibited the opening or closing of meatworks and other rural processing plants between the 1930s and 1980s. When the Patea meatworks closed in 1982, they were the first meatworks to close in half a century – which is bizarre when you realise how much cheaper refrigerated shipping got over this period.
  • A policy of distributing major industrial facilities around the country – an aluminium smelter for Bluff, a steelworks for Glenbrook, a pulp and paper mill for Kawerau, etc.
  • The use of the Railways Department and Forest Service as rural employment schemes.

So it’s worth asking whether these policies worked. We know that they were economically costly – but did they actually succeed in redistributing growth from Auckland to the regions?

The data suggests that the answer is no. Here’s a graph of population growth in New Zealand’s major cities from 1926 to 2006 from Grimes and Tarrant (2013). As it shows, Auckland’s population growth began diverging from Wellington and Christchurch early on – probably after World War II.

NZ city population growth 1926-2006

Furthermore, the almost total removal of rural subsidies during the 1980s doesn’t seem to have accelerated Auckland’s divergence. In fact, Auckland’s annual per capita growth rate seems to have fallen after deregulation, although growth slowed more in other places.

In short, we should accept the reality of urban growth: People want to live in Auckland and start businesses here for good reasons, and we can’t (and shouldn’t) try to stop them. The idea that we can put the urban genie back in its bottle is sheer fantasy. If we try, we’ll only make ourselves worse off.

Our only choice is whether we will have a good city – an interesting and prosperous place – or a crippled, unsuccessful city. Given that, our focus should be on making the best urban places we can. We need Auckland to be a dynamic and liveable city rather than an overgrown small town. And that means investing and planning in a city-like way: getting ambitious about rapid transit, celebrating our mixed-use public spaces, and accepting that density and amenity aren’t mutually exclusive.

Is this Auckland 2040?

Is this Auckland 2040?


New Zealand’s population growth highest in a decade

New estimates from Statistics NZ based show New Zealand’s population is growing at the fastest rate for over a decade

New Zealand’s population is growing at its fastest rate for over a decade, according to new estimates released by Statistics New Zealand today.

The country’s population grew by 67,800 people, or 1.5 percent, in the year to 30 June 2014. This came from natural increase (births minus deaths) of 29,500 and net migration (arrivals minus departures) of 38,300. New Zealand’s estimated resident population was 4.51 million at 30 June 2014.

“This is the first release of population estimates using results from the 2013 Census and Post-enumeration Survey,” population statistics manager Vina Cullum said.

The estimates are the best available indication of how many people currently live in New Zealand because they include people missed by the census, including those who were temporarily overseas on census night.

New population estimates at the earlier date of 30 June 2013 are also available for broad ethnic groups, and we have revised population estimates for subnational areas.

“These estimates confirm increases in all ethnic populations since 2006. Even the broad European ethnic population has grown to 3.31 million despite its older age structure,” Ms Cullum said.

The June 2013 estimates put the Māori ethnic population at 692,000, the broad Asian population at 541,000, and broad Pacific population at 344,000. An estimated 53,000 people identify with Middle Eastern, Latin American, or African ethnicities.

Population growth was 1.5% over the last year compared with an average for the 2006-2013 period of 0.8%. The graph below shows the change in population over the last decade.

NZ Population Change 1992 - 2014

One of the big factors has been a strong increase in net migration

NZ Net Migration 1992 - 2014

Traditionally the majority of that net migration increase ends up in Auckland so it will be interesting to see if that trend continues when the regional information is released later this year.

More migrants! Sweet.

Several recent reports and articles have discussed trends in migration and its impacts on New Zealand.

In terms of trends, net migration is at a 10-year high. The recent surge in net migration trends is shown below.

Net migration

The simple reason advanced for the positive net migration trend is that our economy is doing relatively well compared to most of the countries with whom we compete for skilled labour. This is both 1) reducing the number of kiwis departing these shores and 2) attracting more people from elsewhere to come live/work here (some of whom will of course be NZers). Put simply, less out and more in = higher net gain. Trends in long term departures and arrivals are illustrated below.

Arrivals and departures

So what might be the impacts of higher net migration?

Usefully, the people at NZIER have been researching the impacts of migration on New Zealand’s economic performance. They find that for every 40,000 additional net migrants, our GDP per capita increases by approximately $400 p.a. Why? Well, there are apparently a number of microeconomic channels through which migration contributes to economic output, specifically:

  • They provide firms with new skills
  • They increase innovation and entrepreneurship
  • NZ businesses benefit from greater scale and competitiveness
  • They increase returns from public investment

The general message is fairly simple: Migrants increase the diversity and scale of our labour market and firms, while also increasing the returns on public investment (which typically have relatively fixed costs, such as infrastructure and institutions). It’s worth pointing out, however, that only the first two economic channels listed above are actually specifically linked to migration. The last two microeconomic channels are pure economies of scale, which would also result from a higher domestic fertility rate.

Which brings me nicely to another (potential) benefit from migration: Greater diversity in potential partners.

I know this sounds flakey, but I’ve just recently been struck by how many of my NZ friends (including several of my fellow bloggers) are partnered up with people of foreign origin. Which raises an interesting proposition: Is it possible that higher rates of net migration have an indirect impact on domestic fertility rates? I’ve been asking my mates but they’re a bit coy on the topic. But it seems reasonable to suggest that if migrants introduce diversity/specialisation into the labour market then perhaps they do the same for the “partner market”.

I guess the net effect depends not only on the quality of the match, but also migrants’ relative preferences for making babies compared to the existing NZ population (to which they are added). This is an area that may warrant further NZ-specific research (NB: The World Bank has analysed migration and fertility impacts in this paper. The key finding appears to be that migration reduces home country fertility and increases destination country fertility, as I would expect. However the World Bank appear to attribute this to simple differences in preferences, rather than better matching).

Are there negative impacts from migration?

The most obvious is the additional demand for housing that results during times of high migration, which could in turn lead to higher property price inflation and ultimately higher interest rates. This will not only curb domestic demand across the economy, but it will also tend to inflate the currency and undermine NZ’s export competitiveness. This issue is all the more relevant in the Christchurch context and, in my opinion, supports the Reserve Bank’s decision to implement loan-value requirements as a temporary curb on housing demand in these relatively exceptional circumstances.

Some people suggest that higher net migration might reduce social cohesion, although specific details on exactly what is meant by social cohesion are difficult to come by.

Data from StatisticsNZ (as discussed here on KiwiBlog) suggests people of Asian ethnicity in New Zealand have much lower rates of criminal offending than the general population, while the opposite is true of Pasfika ethnicity. However, this difference may be attributable to differences in the relative incomes of these two migrant groups.

I can’t help but wonder that if 1) more kiwis are staying here and/or returning from overseas (where approximately 1 million currently reside) and 2) kiwis who hook up with migrants are generally happier than they would be otherwise, then it seems possible that current trends will actually bring people/families together and thereby supports greater “cohesion”. So ultimately I think this supposed “negative” effect of migration is likely to be over-stated and that, on balance, migration has net positive impacts for NZ’s socio-economic performance.

So what should we expect from future trends in migration?

Well, if the results of this international survey are anything to go by then NZ can expect to see positive net migration numbers for some time. The survey ranked New Zealand ranked fifth overall for preferred destination and subsequently estimated that our population would increase to over 9 million in the event that everyone who wanted to migrate here was able to do so. Of course, the relative performance of NZ’s economy will be the main determinant of whether current rates of migration are sustained.

All I hope is that we start to get people like Emma Watson and/or Hayley Williams migrating here to vie for my affections. Sweet.

More details on Auckland’s population growth

Last year the Auckland Plan set a target for 70% of intensification to happen within the existing metropolitan urban area (note that includes greenfield land out to the imposed urban boundary). This was seen as a too radical step for many, something completely different from what Aucklander’s were used to and that would result in people being forced into apartments. The council ended up chickening out on the target and so included a fall-back position 60% intensification.

The debate on intensification heated up again earlier this year during the discussions on the Unitary Plan with again some people claiming that most people want to live on the traditional mythical “quarter acre paradise”. However I’ve always been a bit sceptical about just how much sprawl has been occurring and back in January I looked at the building consent figures which showed that over 70% of the consents issued occurred within the existing urban area.

The first batch of detailed census data was released last week and as you would expect with the information, there is a lot of interesting results hidden within the figures. The first response of many when the data came out was understandably to look at where most of the growth has occurred – the answer to that was generally the CBD and some of the greenfield developments to in the Northwest and Southeast. The seemingly strong greenfield growth caused some to immediately question whether the councils compact city model was really the right direction for the city should be head – despite the compact city model being a forward looking plan and the census being a backward looking exercise.

However looking at where growth is occurring it can be very easy to overlook some key points. In particular a lot of low level growth across the suburbs may not look that important but it can easily add up to a significant amount when combined together. With that in mind and thinking about the intensification targets that were set I thought I would go have a look at what has happened population growth in a slightly different fashion to what has happened so far. To start with for each of the Auckland Census area units I have put them in to one of the following categories.

  • City and Fringe – CBD, eastern Side of Ponsonby Rd, Newton, Grafton, Newmarket and Parnell.
  • Metro Centres – e.g. Albany, Takapuna, Henderson, New Lynn, Manukau, Papakura.
  • Suburban – Rest of the urban area.
  • Mixed – Had some suburban development in 2006 however has also seen some greenfield development.
  • Greenfield – Most of the population growth has through greenfield development.
  • Rural – should be fairly self-explanatory.
  • Rural towns – Settlements outside the existing urban area e.g. Pukekohe, Huapai, Warkworth etc.

Now admittedly it isn’t perfect and we really need the meshblock data to do this exercise properly but still it’s a useful indication. The results in the table below shows that while the suburban areas saw the least growth as a percentage increase figure, they did see by far the most overall growth and accounted for 51% of all the growth that did occur within the region. On the whole population growth within the existing urban areas of Auckland was 64% of all the growth that occurred while greenfield developments accounted for just 24% of the population growth. Perhaps unsurprisingly these results are similar to the building consent ones.  What it does mean is that a target of 70% intensification is not only realistic but not that different from what has been happening in recent years.

Census - where growth occured

Further, as you would expect this growth is having an impact on the density of the city. For each area unit I have rounded the density to the nearest 500 people per square km and use that to create a density profile for the region. The graph below shows that density profile for the entire region based on the percentage of people living in each of the density buckets. It indicates that the density curve is shifting higher while also flattening out with the change generally being less people living at lower densities and more people living at higher densities.

Population Density Profile Percent

However the question is not just whether there are more people living at higher densities but whether the suburbs themselves are getting denser. To help answer this, the graph below shows the density profile based on the total number of people living in each density bucket. What this shows is that there are actually less people living in some of the lower density buckets. For example in 2001 almost 285,000 were living at a density of roughly 2500 people per km², by 2006 that had dropped to 247,500 and in 2013 is at just over 218,500.

Population Density Profile Total

What this suggests is that the density is changing due to the suburbs getting denser. It is important though to point out that at this stage that it’s unknown whether that is due to there being more dwellings, more people in each dwelling or less vacant dwellings. We will need to wait for future census data to come out before we can tell that.

One thing that is really noticeable is that there is an almost complete absence of people living in the medium-high densities. Something between the really high density seen in places like the CBD -which reaches over 10,000 people per km² and the low-medium densities in the suburbs. We should really be seeing a lot more people in the 4,500-6,000 range however we will need to address that in a separate post.

Based on what we know so far it is pretty clear that Auckland is getting denser and when you consider the change since 2001 the impact is quite substantial. One useful way of measuring density as a whole is to look at the weighted density which measures density based on what the average density that people experience rather than a simple calculation of total number of people divided by total land area. One of the reasons for using this metric is that otherwise you get some very odd results like that Auckland is more dense than the urban area of New York due to the large amounts of low density housing in places like New Jersey and Long Island. Based on the weighted density measure, the Auckland region comes in at roughly 2,650 per km² which is an increase of 17% over 2001.

One last point that is worth mentioning in all of this. Census area units are very broad and include parks, industrial areas and other pieces of land that can have negative impacts on density calculations. As such the figures in this post are very rough and we will need to wait for the more detailed meshblock data to emerge before giving more accurate results however it does mean that the density calculations are likely to increase. That more detailed data will also eventually allow us to look more closely at how we compare to other cities in NZ and overseas.

So Auckland has been getting denser already and the sky hasn’t fallen, someone should tell the residents of St Heliers and Milford that it’s ok to come out of their single storey houses now.

The real surprise from the census data

Maurice Williamson was right. The census data does contain a surprise “bigger than Ben Hur”. But the real surprise isn’t in the half-baked comments about total population growth. To find it, you need to look at the new “usually resident population” counts for local areas as at 5th March 2013, and see where they have have diverged from what was expected (based on the latest population estimates, which were for 30th June 2012).

And the real surprise is this: the Auckland CBD has a population much larger than what was expected.

Population Estimates vs. Usually Resident Population in the Auckland CBD, 1996-2013

According to the latest census counts, the central city now has a usually resident population of 26,307 people. This is much higher than the latest population estimates suggest – as shown in the graph above. Generally, population estimates are higher than usually resident population counts. They add in an estimate of the number of people who were overseas on census night, and an estimate of the people that were missed (didn’t fill out a census form).

Now, we know that there haven’t been many new CBD apartments completed in the last year, so the obvious conclusion is that the estimates were way too low. Looking back at 2006, the CBD’s usually resident population was adjusted up by 7% to reach the population estimate. Applying a similar ratio here, it’s now likely that the CBD has a population of at least 28,000 people – and this is the kind of estimate Statistics New Zealand will end up with when they re-calculate their estimates next year.

Why is there such a big difference? It’s hard to say for sure – and we should get a better idea when more info comes out, i.e. household numbers – but here are some possibilities:

  1. More people per household in the CBD – singles are out, couples are in. Perhaps there are even more children?
  2. Fewer apartments being used as ‘holiday homes’ or serviced apartments, meaning more are available as permanent private dwellings?
  3. On a similar note, there are fewer international students these days – they don’t get counted as residents if they’re staying for less than a year. Again this frees up more apartments for “residents”.
  4. Reduced undercount – perhaps Statistics New Zealand have really stepped up their efforts to improve their coverage of the CBD?

Maurice was even correct in saying that some infrastructure plans will need to be reviewed as a result of the latest census data. The case for investment in the CBD just got stronger. The Ministry of Education should be taking a serious look at putting some schools in. The data should also improve the case for Council to invest further in various facilities. As for the City Rail Link, well, this news certainly doesn’t hurt it.

More detailed Census data released

While there ended up being other news yesterday afternoon that stole the headlines, the more important announcement was that of the census results. Like the week before, the results released were still only the numbers from the census night and so didn’t include those out of the country or those that didn’t fill in their census forms – and those numbers will come later – but they did include the results down to the census area unit level which gives a good indication of where the population growth is occurring.

As expected from the results, Auckland saw the greatest growth with a population increase of 110,592 people. To put that in perspective, that’s 51.6% of all of the growth that has occurred in New Zealand since the last census and Auckland’s growth is similar to having added the entire city or Tauranga (114,789) or Dunedin (120,246) to the region.

In total the population of Auckland increased by 8.5% over the seven years since the last census, an average growth of 1.2%. That is less than the 12.5% (2.4% per year) that the region saw between the 2001 and 2006 censuses however is roughly in line with the trends seen in the rest of the country. Auckland’s share of the country’s growth actually increased slightly as for the 2001-06 period Auckland had 49.8% of all NZ growth. Further as pointed out by John yesterday (and by the council at a briefing on the results), the numbers can be dramatically impacted by changes in migration which tends to go in cycles – and we are just starting to come out of a lull in this regard.

Some people have already said the lower population growth means the council should cut back on the Unitary Plan however these figures are just one part of the story and there is a lot more detail to come from Stats NZ including updated population projections before any changes to planning might be needed. Anyway if there is lower growth then the first parts of the Unitary Plan that should be scaled back are those that allow for huge expansion into greenfield land in the North, Northwest and South.

As mentioned the most interesting parts of the information released was the population by census area unit which is the second lowest level of data that Stats NZ release (the lowest being meshblock but that hasn’t been released yet). The Herald have already whipped out these maps showing the population density in Auckland for 2006 and 2013 however it is worth noting that the scale isn’t exactly even as the first six colours combined represent the same range of density as the 7th and most common peachy colour.

Population Density 2006-2013

Unsurprisingly the densest part of the region is in the CBD and some of the surrounding areas. However there is also quite a lot of density in the Mangere, Papatoetoe and Otara areas. These likely reflect much larger household sizes rather than smaller and more intensive dwellings like we see in the CBD.

There has already been some talk about the pure numbers of population change in some of the urban fringe areas and while in absolute terms that might be true, it is also worth noting that often the area units can be quite large and that growth is spread over a large area.  For example the area unit with the single biggest population growth was Ormiston in the South East which has seen quite a bit of greenfield development associated with the new Flat Bush town centre. It grew by 4,263 people since the last census 7 years ago when it was almost exclusively rural. There has some quite strong growth in the neighbouring area units too. However compared to other parts of Auckland the area unit is extremely large at roughly 9.8 km². As a comparison, in just over half of the total area (5.0 km²)  there are five area units that cover the CBD (and a little bit outside of it) and combined they have seen an extra 9,978 living in the area over the last seven years . In other words they have had roughly twice the population growth occur in half of the space.

To help show the changes, Kent has put together this map together showing the change in density between 2006 and 2013.

Population Density change 2006-2013

When you combine the info in here with that of the map above what you can see is that not only is the central city the densest area in Auckland but it is growing denser faster. There are a few patches of increased density outside the central city but they do tend to be places where long planned greenfield development has taken place.

While on the subject, here is the council’s press release and so far they have only really looked at the data at a local board level.

Auckland Council’s Chief Planning Officer says today’s 2013 Census results, which show Auckland’s population has hit 1,415,550 people, provide vital insights to help plan for Auckland’s future.

The results, released by Statistics New Zealand, show Auckland’s population has grown by 110,592 people since the 2006 Census. Auckland now represents 33.4 per cent of New Zealand’s total population.

“The results reinforce that Auckland continues on its strong growth path, and the prudent thing to do is plan and prepare for that growth,” says Chief Planning Officer Dr Roger Blakeley.

Auckland experienced the largest growth in New Zealand between 2006 and 2013. This was in line with the rest of the country, however the rapid rate of population growth that was seen in Auckland between 2001 and 2006 appears to have slowed.

Dr Blakeley says it’s important to note that census counts are snapshots in time.

“The population growth over the past seven years is not a reliable guide for Auckland’s next 30 years, however the growth rate remains strong and we need to plan for it,” he says.

Contributing factors to the lower population growth rate in New Zealand over the past seven years include a reduction in net immigration caused by the global recession and an increased number of departing New Zealand citizens, mainly to Australia. Auckland also has more migrants and higher fertility than other parts of the country.

The distribution of growth within Auckland’s local board areas has been variable. Growth has been particularly strong in the urban fringe areas and city centre.

Between 2006 and 2013, the five local boards that grew the most were:
1. Waitematā – increased by 14,208 people
2. Howick – 13,620
3. Upper Harbour – 10,797
4. Henderson-Massey – 8898
5. Hibiscus and Bays – 7974.

The five local boards that experienced the least growth during the same period were:
17. Devonport-Takapuna – increased by 2817 people
18. Māngere-Ōtāhuhu – 2808
19. Puketāpapa – 2133
20. Waiheke – 543
21. Great Barrier – 45.

What was odd is that the council held a briefing on the results and the cities chief anti intensification campaigner – Bernard Orsman was there. Despite the extremely strong growth in the city centre he made the statement more than once that if we just ignore the CBD (perhaps he thinks apartment dwellers are lesser beings) that it somehow proves the “compact city model” and the unitary plan was flawed, not what people want and therefore should be dumped. There are of course a couple of issues with this with the primary one being that you can’t just ignore the a huge segment of the growth that has occurred. He was also told on numerous occasions that the growth over the last 7 years is no reflection of where the growth will occur over the next 30. The reason I mention all of this is to highlight that Orsman seems to have quite an agenda that he is pursuing when it comes to the unitary plan. It will be interesting to see what he says in any article he writes about it.

We will be doing more posts on the Census data over time.