Urban–rural profile

This section provides information on the urban and rural populations in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Urban and rural populations may be exposed to different types of environmental risks.

Most people live in main urban areas

Most New Zealanders live in the urban areas. In 2018:

  • 51.2% of the population lived in the major urban areas of Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton, Tauranga, Dunedin and Lower Hutt
  • 14.1% lived in large urban areas (such as Rotorua, Whanganui and Invercargill)
  • 8.4% lived in medium urban areas (such as Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Rolleston)
  • 10.0% lived in small urban areas (such as Thames, Stratford and Gore)
  • 16.3% of New Zealanders lived in rural areas.

Māori have a higher proportion of the population living in small urban areas (14.7% of the Māori population) and rural areas (18.0%), compared with the total population (10.0% and 16.3% respectively).

By contrast, most Pacific peoples in New Zealand live in major urban areas (75.7%) or large urban areas (11.6%). 

The New Zealand population has become increasingly urban, like the rest of the world. The size of New Zealand cities has grown in both population count and land area.

Working on the land is no longer a major occupation. Agriculture still plays a major part in the New Zealand economy, but the agricultural workforce has shrunk significantly [1]. In 1951, almost 20 percent of the workforce worked as an agriculture, forestry or fishery worker [2]. This proportion had dropped to 5.9% of employed people aged 15+ years in 2018. 

Figure 1 gives the urban-rural status of small areas around New Zealand (zoom in using the "+" to see more detail, and click the ">>" for the legend).

Figure 1: Urban-rural classifications, by Statistical Area 2 (SA2), 2018


Urban and rural populations are exposed to different types of environmental hazards

Urban and rural environments can be quite different, so it makes sense that their environmental risks can also be quite different.

Urban areas have higher numbers of people, and people living closer together. The increased numbers of people can allow good environmental management, such as water treatment plants, wastewater treatment, and public transport.

However, the concentrated numbers of people and energy use in urban areas can put pressure on the environment.  Environmental hazards more likely in urban areas include:

  • air pollution, which comes primarily from wood and coal fires, motor vehicles and industry
  • hazardous substances, if residential zones are close to industrial zones
  • noise and air pollution from main transport routes
  • urban heat islands.

With most people living in towns and cities, it also follows that the highest numbers of vulnerable people will live in our cities.

The rural environment can encourage a healthy lifestyle.

But in rural areas, the smaller population size means that services such as water and sewerage treatment plants are less cost-effective.

Environmental hazards that are more likely in rural areas include:

  • untreated drinking-water, which increases the risk of water-borne diseases
  • contact with livestock, which can carry zoonotic diseases and pollute waterways
  • lack of tertiary wastewater treatment to kill pathogens in human sewage, which can lead to freshwater and coastal beaches being unsuitable for swimming
  • lack of reticulated sewerage systems, which can have local environmental impacts (for example, if septic tanks overflow)
  • longer travel distances to access health services, which can be a barrier to health care.

Information about the data

Census usual resident population count
Source: New Zealand 2018 Census of Populations and Dwellings 

Definition: This population data comes from the 2018 Census of Populations and Dwellings. The 2018 Census had a lower than expected response rate, resulting in Stats NZ introducing new methods to produce the dataset, including using data from alternative sources. Stats NZ and the 2018 Census External Data Quality Panel (EDQP) have produced a rating system to help the users understand the quality-related issues and impacts of the 2018 Census dataset.

EHI have decided to update the population statistics on this webpage, based on the documentation relating to these indicators. The Census variable of 'count of population - usually resident population' had an EDQP rating of 'very high' at the national, regional council, territorial authority and Auckland Council local board areas level, although the data quality might be less at smaller geographies such as meshblock [3]. Further information about the Stats NZ and EDQP documentation can be at:  https://www.stats.govt.nz/2018-census/data-quality-for-2018-census


1. Statistics New Zealand. 2004. New Zealand: An Urban/Rural Profile. Wellington: Statistics New Zealand.

2. Mulet-Marquis S, Fairweather JR. 2008. Rural Population and Farm Labour Change: Research Report No. 300. Lincoln: Agribusiness and Economic Research Unit, Lincoln University. URL: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/35459104.pdf (accessed 24/08/20).

3. EDQP. 2019. Initial Report of the 2018 Census External Data Quality Panel. URL: https://www.stats.govt.nz/reports/initial-report-of-the-2018-census-external-data-quality-panel (accessed 24/08/20).  

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