Folklore has become fact in a new survey finding that one in every eight gay New Zealand men lives within about a half-hour walk of Auckland's Ponsonby Rd.

An Aids Foundation study, published in the latest Social Policy Journal, found that men in single-sex couples made up 5.2 per cent of all men living in couples between Westmere and Newmarket in the 1996 census.

That was more than 10 times the gay ratio in the rest of the Auckland region (0.47 per cent) and 14 times the national average (0.37 per cent).

Numerically, 351 of the country's 2883 men with same-sex, live-in partners, or one in eight, lived in the 16 Westmere-to-Newmarket census area units, including the inner city.

TVNZ digital services administrator Dennis Petrone, 26, and first-year university student Isaac Grey, 20, live in Upper Queen St and plan to move soon - but only to Ponsonby. Even Newmarket is too suburban.

"We went to Newmarket to see a movie and have a few drinks, and we were holding hands and wandering back to the city," said Mr Petrone, who comes from New York.

"It wasn't that anything felt uneasy, but we were definitely the only gay people around ... it somehow didn't feel comfortable holding hands. I was saying to Isaac, 'I can't wait to get back to K Road, where there are drag queens to protect you and lots of people in the streets to support you, people of our own flavour."'

Aids Foundation researcher Peter Saxton, who led the new study, said gay men naturally sought out places where other gay men lived.

"While the gay district concept doesn't really come as a surprise, for the first time we are able to see the implications of this for both research and service delivery," he said.

"For example, if this district were left out of a national survey, it would exclude only 1.3 per cent of all males aged 15 and over, but 12-13 per cent of the estimated gay male population."

The study is based on a census question asking whether people had a spouse or partner living in the same household. Same-sex couples could be identified where two men in the same house ticked the "partner" box.

This left out both gay and heterosexual men with partners living in separate houses or no steady partners.

The gay share of the population might be under-estimated if gay men are less likely than other men to have steady partners, as suggested by a Massey University study that found 61 per cent of gay men had had more than one partner in the previous year.

Mr Saxton and co-author Tony Hughes said the numbers disclosing same-sex partners to the census were also reduced by fear of the state "monitoring" their homosexuality.

Preliminary data from the 2001 census showed the number of men living with same-sex partners jumped from 2883 to 4572, or more than 0.5 per cent of all men with partners.

The authors said this was "an increase in classification or willingness to disclose", not a rise in the actual numbers of gay men.

They cited other surveys indicating that about 2 per cent of men had sex with men at some stage in their lives.

In both the 1996 and 2001 censuses, 45 per cent of all men living with male partners lived in the Auckland region, compared with 27 per cent of the total population.

The next-biggest share in 1996 was Wellington, with 15 per cent of all men living with male partners. Gay proportions elsewhere included: Christchurch, 0.37 per cent; Dunedin, 0.33 per cent; Hamilton, 0.29 per cent; rural areas, 0.21 per cent.