Our Whanganui 2050 series this week has been imagining our place in 30 years' time.
Today, Laurel Stowell asks what our community might look like in 30 years, who will be here and what are the trends?
Whanganui shouldn't expect its population growth of the last few years to continue and will have to "pivot expertly" to maintain its place in the world, demographic expert Paul Spoonley says.
"Whanganui needs to pivot in terms of future population and economy. What currently exists isn't sustainable."
Spoonley is a Distinguished Professor at Massey University and wrote the recently published book The New New Zealand.
Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall has read his earlier book, Rebooting the Regions, and respects the author's expertise. The book has influenced his decisions on Whanganui District Council.
More than 1000 people left the Whanganui District in the 12 years to 2013, a time of predicted population decline. But Statistics NZ put our population at 45,200 in 2018 - an increase of 3000 on the 2013 Census. In that one year, 700 more people arrived, a 1.6 per cent increase.
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The increase is often attributed to people leaving expensive Auckland but Spoonley believed that was a myth.
"The people are leaving Auckland. They tend not to go to Whanganui. They go to Northland, Waikato and Tauranga."
McDouall is not so sure about that.
"When my wife and I were looking for a house in Whanganui we were outbid by a couple from Auckland and a couple from Tauranga. That gives me confidence."
The 2018 increase was big for Whanganui, but New Zealand's overall population increased 2.1 per cent in the same year. Whanganui's population is likely to stagnate or decline from here, Spoonley said.
A median increase of a mere 0.1 per cent or a high of 1.2 per cent are predicted until 2038.
That's credible because breeding-age millennials had a hard time during the 2008-13 global financial crisis, and are having a hard time with Covid-19.
Women now tend to have children late - average age 30 - and have fewer children.
For many it's "one and done, or none", Spoonley said.
There may not be another population, McDouall said, but he predicts the district will continue to grow. He's not sure a city of 60,000 is a good aim either.
"At 50,000 I would be pretty content. It would be enough to sustain our retailers, cafes, restaurants and schools."
In Whanganui 27 per cent of people are aged over 60 - the national average is 21 per cent.
Twenty-seven per cent of Whanganui's population is Māori and, like Pākehā, Māori women are also having fewer children, but they typically have more than Pākehā.
Whanganui's Māori population is a really key component for the future, McDouall said.
But we also have a bigger proportion of people aged under 20 - 26.6 per cent compared to the national average 25.5 per cent.
Whanganui ends up with the same proportion of people about to enter the workforce as to leave it, a 1:1 ratio.
"That should raise alarm bells because you have got a population that's increasingly a consumer population. It consumes things like health care. The demand goes up but there's not a population in work to support that," Spoonley said.
The medium income in the Whanganui District is $24,400, and we count as "deprived" in official statistics. The economy needs more diversity, Spoonley said, and more working-age people.
How to get them? New Zealand's population growth is 75 per cent fed by immigration, and Whanganui doesn't get many migrants. Its Pasifika population is 3.6 per cent, and Asian 4.1 per cent, according to Statistics NZ.
New Zealand's Asian population is predicted to grow to 20 per cent.
"Immigration is really important for diversifying population, ethnically and in age structure, and it brings innovation and economic vitality," Spoonley said.
Multicultural Council of Rangitīkei/Whanganui president Pushpa Prasad expects a lot more migrants in the next decades - especially Indian and African people.
And McDouall said welcoming refugees to the district is extremely important.
"When the border restrictions are lifted I can definitely see Whanganui getting some attention," McDouall said. "Covid-19, terrible as it is, might help prise people out of London and Brisbane and bring them back home."
Spoonley agrees, but he said most of those returnees will go to Auckland.
"We are forecasting over the next two decades that 60 per cent of New Zealand population growth will occur in Auckland. It's a really big economy that's growing really fast."
When the golden triangle of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga gets too crowded, McDouall thinks that people will spill south into Whanganui.
The district's lack of a major tertiary institution will count against it, Spoonley said. But McDouall said it has a "pretty impressive polytech campus" and the New Zealand International Commercial Pilot Academy.
He and Spoonley both expect young people to leave town for jobs, education, travel and excitement. The key is to get them to return later and raise their children.
The place has to be attractive for them, and on his visits, Spoonley has noticed our attractive main street, nice shops, good cafes, "wonderful" library and art gallery and our riverfront. That's all important, he said.
McDouall knows keeping and improving those things will attract and keep working-age people in town.
"For council that's about putting money into making Whanganui a more attractive place - paving Victoria Ave, maintaining recreational facilities. We have got to keep working at it," he said.
Spoonley's predictions might sound pessimistic, a hark back to the "zombie town" worries of 2014, but he said they do not have to come true.
"There are places that have done a very good job of remaking themselves and bringing people in. I think it rather depends on how successfully Whanganui remakes its local economy."
Also in this series