Urban–rural profile

This section provides information on the urban and rural populations in 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 2006:

  • 72 percent of the population lived in the main urban areas – large towns like Auckland, New Plymouth, Hamilton, Nelson and Christchurch. 
  • 11 percent lived in independent urban areas – smaller towns like Taupo, Picton and Greytown.
  • 14 percent of New Zealanders lived in rural areas. This includes 6 percent of New Zealanders who lived in areas with low urban influence.
  • Less than 1 percent of New Zealanders lived in highly remote rural areas.

Māori make up a higher proportion of the population in highly rural and remote areas. By contrast, almost all Pacific peoples in New Zealand live in urban areas.

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. This proportion had dropped to less than 10 percent by 2001.

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.

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.


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

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