A new book by Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley looks at the numbers of new New Zealand. Mark Fryer on the startling "Auckland" story.
Forty-some years ago, when I stepped off the plane from the South Island and took my first big breath of humidity, Auckland was already another country. It wasn't just the air that was different: this place was more glamorous, faster-paced, the cars were flasher and there was more of just about everything.
Even then, this wasn't a new story; Auckland has been New Zealand's largest city since the 1920s. But in the past few decades the gulf between the country's only big city and everywhere else has stretched even wider.
Partly, it's just maths. Sixty years ago, about one in five Kiwis lived in Auckland. Now it's about one in three. Compared with just about any other town or city, the size mismatch has grown.
To put it another way, in just the four years from 2013 to 2017, Auckland's population grew by 260,000. That's two Dunedins in four years and Auckland had plenty more growing to do after 2017.
Or, keeping it personal, in the four decades since I arrived, I've seen the city more than double.
A "primate city", is what Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley calls Auckland in a just-released book on the "new New Zealand". If the primate tag sounds a bit like King Kong, that's probably how it looks to anyone living beyond the Bombays.
Spoonley's book isn't just about Auckland. It's about many of the other big, long-term changes New Zealand is going through. Things like the rising proportion of pensioners, smaller families, increased immigration, static or shrinking populations in many areas – and the need to get ready for changes that are just around the corner.
But that Auckland story is especially close to home - and not just for me. As Spoonley says, "For now, one of the most important dynamics in New Zealand's demography is the ongoing and dominant growth of Auckland."
If the projections hold good, he says, in 10 years or so "Auckland will be home to 40 per cent of the country's population unless there are major policy shifts that dampen its growth.".
Not that it's only about the numbers. Spoonley offers a vignette that sums up one of the other things that makes this city different: among all the Auckland babies born last year, nine of the top 10 surnames were Asian and just one – Smith – was European/Pākehā. In the South Island it was the other way around: eight of the top 10 names were European/Pākehā in origin. The other two were Indian.
So we're more Asian than the rest of the country. More Polynesian, too. Also one of New Zealand's youngest places, on average. Or, to put it more precisely, like the rest of the country Auckland has a rising number of over-65s but we also have a rising number of younger people. The net result is that the GoldCard generation accounts for only 11.5 per cent of Aucklanders, compared with the national average of 14.3 per cent.
But wait, there's more that makes us different, including the fact that we're much more likely to have moved here from somewhere else, compared with people in other parts of the country. Not only is Auckland the place where most immigrants make their new home, it's also the main destination for overseas students (or was, pre-Covid).
It's not news that Auckland is a migrant magnet but the scale of that influx can be a surprise, even if you live here. At the 2018 Census, 41.6 per cent of Auckland residents had been born in another country. Add in people with at least one migrant parent and 60 per cent of Aucklanders were first- or second-generation immigrants. You only have to walk down the street – unless that street is in one of the city's leafiest, moneyed enclaves to see we're diverse - but that diverse?
The rising overseas-born population has generated ethnic clusters, says Spoonley – little outposts of other nations in New Zealand. Not just Dominion Rd's Chinese shops and restaurants but the Korean businesses around Wairau Rd on the North Shore or the Asian shops in Northcote. Then there's the growth of cultural events such as Pasifika, the Lantern Festival, Diwali and Polyfest.
All this growth and diversity is even more striking when you compare it with what's happening in most other parts of New Zealand. It's not as though Auckland is growing fast while everywhere else is growing more slowly. In fact, while Auckland grows, 56 of the country's 67 city or district councils are expected to have a static or shrinking population through the 2020s and 2030s.
Sure, a few Aucklanders do the sea change thing and seek out somewhere quieter, where the payout from a house sale leaves enough in the bank for a comfortable retirement and you never have to hunt for a parking space. But for every person who leaves the city for elsewhere in New Zealand, Auckland greets five new arrivals.
When will it end? Probably not for a while. Auckland's growth will almost certainly continue in this decade and the next, says Spoonley. Some projections have the city's population rocketing past two million. Maybe 2.3 million. Maybe 2.7 million.
Which comes with its challenges - most obviously, finding somewhere for all those extra people to live and moving them around without the transport system getting even more clogged than it already is. And, given Auckland's relatively youthful population, helped along by all those child-bearing-age migrants, there's also the problem of building enough schools. We need at least a dozen more of those by the end of this decade, says Spoonley.
Looked at from one of so-called "zombie towns", where the population is getting older and shrinking, and every year it gets harder to find the money to fix the footpaths and upgrade the water pipes, it's not hard to see why Auckland's constant demand for more roads, more houses, more schools - more everything - can look like unbridled greed.
But seen from Auckland, what would this place be if it wasn't growing? For better or worse, the thing that has come to define the city – along with the weather and a fascination for property speculation – is the certainty that if tomorrow isn't necessarily better than today, you can at least bet on it being bigger.
The New New Zealand: Facing Demographic Disruption, by Paul Spoonley (Massey University Press, $40)