15 Oct 2016

Ben Schrader: New Zealand's urban history

From Saturday Morning, 9:08 am on 15 October 2016

For about 100 years, most New Zealanders have lived in towns and cities, yet our national narrative is that we are people of the land.

Historian Ben Schrader tells Kim Hill that the urbanisation of New Zealand – which has until now been largely unrecognised by the image-makers – is one of the most important untold stories of our history.

Ben Schrader is the author of The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840 - 1920.

Detail from the cover of Ben Schrader's 'The Big Smoke'

Detail from the cover of Ben Schrader's 'The Big Smoke' Photo: Bridget Williams Books

While New Zealand's earliest British settlers were drawn to New Zealand as a rural idyll, many that came here from populated places found the farming lifestyle very isolated, Dr Schrader says.

“You had your small cottage, bush around, and neighbours far away.”

The New Zealand Company (the English company which established settlements around New Zealand in the 19th century) also recognised not everyone was drawn to the wop-wops and only towns and cities could provide the “trappings of civilisation”.

At the same time there were fears urbanisation would threaten the rural economy and lead to 'urban degeneration'.  Politician Sir John Findlay set off a kind of urban panic in 1911 warning there would be "national decay" if urbanisation continued, Dr Schrader says.

An anti-urban current was also being felt in Australia and North America, he says, but by the end of the 19th century, their large impressive cities with strong manufacturing bases were winning people over.

He suspects the cultural divide between town and country has always been stronger here.

“In New Zealand it’s always been this idea that the backbone of the country is the farmers - the Farmer Backbone mantra ... and cities are just peripheral to that.”

In 1911 there was a stir when the census showed New Zealand had more urban dwellers than rural. Dr Schrader says that is partly because prior to 1870 our cities weren’t especially pleasant or safe places to be – typhoid rates in the 1860s were higher here than London.

While New Zealand was being advertised as a healthy country to live in, the settlers had brought with them a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to public hygiene.

“As back in the UK, people would throw their slops into the streets, dead animals and so on would be in the street and you’d get these piles of filth – and that would encourage infectious diseases.”

The clean up of New Zealand cities began in 1870 in Dunedin and Christchurch when sanitary commissions were established and sanitary inspectors appointed. Public health improved with the arrival of reticulated water, sewage schemes, ‘proper dunnies’ and street cleaning.

And inadequate housing is not exactly a new problem in this country, Dr Schrader says.

In the 19th century as cities got larger, land was broken up into smaller parcels and speculators built smaller houses for working people. This led to overcrowding and increased disease. Also landlords weren’t known for maintaining the houses, which deteriorated quickly because they were made of wood.

In the early 20th century the New Zealand government intervened in the housing market for the first time, building the first state houses (then called workers' dwellings).

“They realised in places like Auckland and Wellington people were living in these derelict houses and being charged rents that were very high, and that the market wasn’t delivering affordable and decent housing.”

The promise of arriving in New Zealand and within a short time having your own single dwelling on your own land was certainly a big lure to potential settlers, says Dr Schrader.

“One of the big push factors out of places like Great Britain was the prospect that as a working person, for example, you couldn’t possibly own your own house. And if you lived in a house it was a terrace house with a small backyard."

He sees New Zealand's much-loved quarter-acre section as a kind of middle ground between rural and urban living.

“We’re urban, but we’re building cities that are different to those in the old world.”

Dr Schrader says we can still see this cultural thread today in the backlash against those arguing for the intensification of Auckland.

“For 150 years people have wanted to live in the city and the country at the same time.”

Ben Schrader

Ben Schrader. Photo: supplied

Dr Schrader says that, personally, he has always had a stronger affinity with the city than the country. While studying history at university, he was struck by how much the mythology of colonials coming to New Zealand and settling the land was over-emphasised.

After some digging he discovered that since his first ancestor arrived in 1862, his family had always lived in urban areas and had an urban sensibility.

“There was nowhere in the country where I could say ‘That’s where my family worked the land or farmed the land or grew vegetables or crops'.”

New Zealand's self-image as a rural country rather than an urban one has contributed to the lack of care that has sometimes been shown to our city buildings, he says.

“There was this idea – particularly in the 19th century – that New Zealand was too young to have buildings worth saving.”

The demolition of the old to make way for the construction of the new was also equated with progress at the time.

Auckland's Government House in the 1880s

Auckland's Government House in the 1880s Photo: Public Domain

But by 1910 New Zealanders had a strong sense of urban heritage, he says. That year the public petitioned to save the old Government House building in Auckland, which was going to be demolished for the new university.

Dr Schrader says confirmation that the rural man alone is no longer seen as the archetypal New Zealander came back in 2012, when the Speights ‘Southern Man’ campaign ended.

“The relevance of the outdoor life has changed” said a Speights spokesperson at the time.

Frank Whitten in a Speight's ad

Frank Whitten in a Speight's ad Photo: YouTube screenshot