Limits to growth?

Charles Crothers

Mounting concern with housing, transport and diversity issues in Auckland point to a consensus that growth trends are exceeding our ability to readily cope. This is aggravated by reports that portions of our wilderness tourism areas are being hammered by very high usage. In earlier elections these concerns have spilled over to affect policies being discussed with some inflamed rhetoric. Hopefully a reasoned discussion this election will be a partial antidote.

The population issue is complex as in touches on housing and community facilities, environment, immigration and ethnic relationships, as well as often deeply held beliefs and the whole sensibility of what it is to be a New Zealander.

In this context it was surprising that in July 2017 Statistics New Zealand released further potential Auckland projections which included high migration and fertility scenarios. These scenarios suggest that were their assumptions to come to fruition, Auckland’s population might balloon out to 3m by the mid-2040s.

An earlier set of Statistics New Zealand projections have been central in planning and in public discussion. These suggested that Auckland needs to plan for a population of some 2.5m by the mid-2040s. Although immigration is more popularly seen as the main growth component, Statistics New Zealand divide the composition of overall growth between a steady 60% natural increase (births minus deaths) while the other 40% is a result of (the considerably varying) migration. Unfortunately, Statistics New Zealand population projections for Auckland and also for New Zealand are too quickly taken as normative. The main projections envisage a population of 2.2-2.5m by 2043. Economist Peter Nunns suggests this could reduce to 2m were migration levels halved, while emphasising that natural increase driven growth is more difficult to avoid.


Year Stats NZ medium projection Population projection with half as much net migration
2013 1,493,200 1,493,200
2018 1,646,500 1,606,500
2023 1,767,500 1,707,500
2028 1,890,900 1,810,900
2033 2,010,500 1,910,500
2038 2,123,000 2,003,000
2043 2,229,300 2,089,300
Average annual growth rate 2013-2043 1.34% 1.13%

Peter Nunns | November 25, 2015


Some choice over further population numbers is possible, although mechanisms for achieving any target are limited. While its consequences are visited on the total population, natural increase is seen as a private matter that can be affected only indirectly by other government policies, if any. While some portions of overall migration numbers can be controlled through the issuing of visas, returning or leaving New Zealanders escape any constraint, and incoming migrants might be encouraged, but certainly not compelled, to live outside Auckland.

Growth is a difficult equation: some benefit from it and might therefore by likely to support it – such as Auckland home-owners or property speculators. On the other hand there is NIMBYISM which often involves people not accepting any change whatsoever which might affect them. Then there is intermediate group who face some benefits from the ongoing growth but also face dis-benefits such as increased congestion, crowding and queuing. And there are longer term consequences such as deeply unhelpful age-structures where there are few younger people to support a strongly growingly population strata of older people.

Unease about the size of Auckland is not new. As far back as 1975 a survey of New Zealanders reported that two-thirds even then agreed that the government should stop Auckland’s growth. When asked some general attitude questions about living in Auckland for a 2002 survey, respondents focused on growth/size-related issues, in particular public transport and traffic congestion. 40% agreed that Auckland had too many people, but this ranked lower than concern about the regional economy and preserving farmland.

More recent survey data (2016) shows these views continue. When asked about the effect on them of recent Auckland housing property values effects, claims included: increasing value of property (50%), increased rental costs (21%), prevented purchase of property (22%), led to consideration of moving elsewhere (24%). Three-quarters viewed Auckland as a good place to live. Nearly two-thirds didn’t see Auckland as having got better or worse as a place to live, with pro and con evenly balanced at about 1/5th each. Areas of high satisfaction in relation to Auckland include: library services (83%), beaches and also Council-run parks & reserves (73% each) and recreational facilities (65%). Public transport was the only area attracting dissatisfaction – but even this only reached one-quarter of respondents. However, a solid one-half felt that Auckland’s growth was too much, with only a sliver saying it was too little.

The Auckland Plan, adopted in 2012, suggests higher density living. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed in 2016 had heard of the Auckland Council plans and half claimed to be familiar or very familiar with them. Just under one half were neither in support of nor against the Plans with the remainder balanced between those against it and those for it.

How did the 2016 respondents feel about sifting their accommodation preferences? A solid minority (some 40%) did not consider that apartment living would be suitable for their household, with the remainder of the responses evenly distributed across the range of possible answers. The ‘Drivers’ survey asked people about their level of comfort with increased residential density. More people were comfortable (40%) than neutral (19%), not sure (6%) or uncomfortable (35%) with townhouses up to two storeys in their neighbourhood. Respondents became increasingly uncomfortable at the prospect of apartments that were up to two storeys, medium-rise apartments and high-rise. Change will not be easy but will gradually happen, since successive generations are more adapted to the changing situation.

In the ‘Drivers’ survey, many participants’ views were strongly aligned with the key components of the Auckland Plan. The majority strongly approved (50%) or approved (25%) in principle of mixed-use developments that put housing within walking and cycling distance of key amenities. About half (49%) agreed that urban limits are necessary for cities to develop more sustainably, as opposed to thinking urban limits unnecessarily limit city development (18%), although a third (33%) were not sure. These results are very similar to the 2009 survey results. Finally, the majority (59%) believed that councils, elected by residents, should have the key role in defining the limits and form of the city, as opposed to market forces.

Antigrowth sentiments were stronger among women, suburbanites, higher income households, those without children or in single person living situations, older, and living in detached housing; although tenure seemed unimportant.

Unfortunately this whole questions pivots around attitudes to migration and its showed attitudes on ethnicity. In the Asia New Zealand Foundation survey over half of Auckland residents agreed that Asian people are responsible for rising house prices. New Zealanders (although less so than migrants already in New Zealand) have an approximately 25:50:25 split amongst pro, anti and neutral views on migration.  Kiwimeter reported that two thirds of its respondents felt that NZ culture was being threatened by immigrants (65%).

A recent UMR survey suggested that over half wanted to see more discussion concerning immigration; some discussion is surely important even if potentially volatile as discussions concerning the Unitary Plan were.

Given the lack of adequate knowledge about these issues there are some dangers in a conversation of population growth and its related aspects, but there is a need to clear the air. As with many long-term future issues in New Zealand, a safe space for such a conservation needs to be built, perhaps, as suggested by Jonathan Boston, through a Futures Commission.




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Charles Crothers
About the author

Charles Crothers

Charles Crothers is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences at AUT. He co-edits New Zealand Sociology and is a past President of the New Zealand Sociological Association. His areas of research include studying the linkages holding social structures together over time, which has involved studying topics such as voluntary organisations (NGOs), social class, neo-liberalism and its effects, economic power structures, occupations, organisations, communities, households, networks, life events, ideologies, voting, internet involvements, quality of life and the ideologies and knowledge held within societies about themselves. Charles researches Auckland and whether the Super City structure is working.