The development of Auckland's suburbs

07 August 2015 / Published in News & Stories

This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald as part of the 175th Auckland Anniversary celebrations with ASB and Auckland Council.

By 1964 many of Auckland's old houses had been demolished to make way for modern buildings. This one remained against a backdrop of the Greys Ave flats. Photo / NZ Herald Archive

When the first wave of Scottish settlers stepped ashore in Auckland in 1842, their boots - and their hearts - sunk into the muddy quagmire that was the centre of the colony's capital.

The fledgling city wasn't quite prepared for the onslaught of new colonists and their families and the immediate need for a roof over their heads.

Robert Graham, a Scotsman who would become a pioneer of hot springs resorts in New Zealand, wrote of the shock of the arrival in his diary, some of which appeared in the New Zealand Herald 50 years later.

"Some of the young women sat down on what ought to have been the roadside, but there was no road, to wipe the 'glaur' (mud) off their stockings, and asked each other, with bitter cynicism, if this was the land the Greenock ministers talked about as flowing with milk and honey. Had anyone told them that half a century hence the fern-clad slopes of Auckland would carry a resident population of 50,000, with all the luxuries of civilisation, and that the steam ferry, the railway, and the telegraph would be in full swing, they would have told the prophetic seer that he was a lunatic."

The women were right to be glum, at least initially. Auckland historian Professor Russell Stone wrote in his book Logan Campbell's Auckland that about 30 huts of thatched raupo had been built as temporary lodgings for some of the 500 new arrivals; others were housed in cold halls or vacant government buildings, until they made their own way in the new settlement. Earlier arrivals lived in tents.

Since the first land sales in 1841, Auckland's early colonial houses had sprung up in Commercial Bay at the bottom of Queen St and quickly spread up the valley and on the ridges either side. Inner suburbs - such as Parnell, Grafton and Newton - formed in the 1870s as the city's population swelled to 20,000. Ponsonby, known as Dedwood until 1873, was the fastest-growing suburb to the west of the central city.

Professor Stone wrote that even then, sites on the ridge with commanding views and on sunny north-facing slopes fronting the harbour were the most valuable. Irish businessman James Williamson bought the 127ha Surrey Hills farm - within a mile of Queen St - and in 1883 turned it into one of Auckland's first commercial housing subdivisions. The estate helped form today's Grey Lynn.

Auckland in 1852, with Fort St on the waterfront and Shortland St behind (lithograph from a painting by P.J. Hogan). Photo / NZ Herald Archives

Auckland's early homes were mostly cottages built of lapped horizontal weatherboards. While working-class Aucklanders lived in small cottages, of two to four rooms with a skillion (lean-to), villas were the homes of the middle class.

"The most expensive villas became increasingly elaborate; some had angled bays with hipped roofs, lengthy covered verandas with possibly fretwork adornment, and perhaps, though more rarely, roofs of imported slate," Stone wrote. By the 1870s, galvanised iron replaced the fire-hazard wooden shingles on roofs.

Suburban Auckland was beginning to take shape.

Onehunga, then a thriving port on the Manukau Harbour, was the largest of the city's outposts, plumped up with retired British soldiers who'd migrated as Fencibles to form a defence against possible Maori attack. The township of Howick was established in 1874 by Fencibles given a cottage and an acre of land as payment for seven years' service.

Transport opened up new neighbourhoods to the north, south and west. The Devonport Steam Ferry's regular services across the Waitemata in the 1880s gave birth to the daily working commute from the North Shore to the city. Rail lines to Onehunga, Helensville and the Waikato encouraged the growth of settlements along the routes, like Otahuhu, Papakura and Henderson.

The Kiwi romance with owning your own single-detached home at the front of a grassed quarter-acre section was already in full bloom.

After World War I, Californian bungalows - low-slung, two to three-bedroom homes with deep porches and bay windows - answered the demand for more middle and lower income housing in suburbs along the electric tram lines, such as Mt Eden and Balmoral. Pockets of Spanish Mission and Art Deco homes sprang up in the new suburbs of the 1930s.

It was the state house that made one of the most indelible marks on Auckland's housing landscape. As the inner city became run-down at the turn of the century, better-off families moved to established communities in Remuera and Epsom and new suburbs such as Mt Albert. The poor remained - and the run-down workers' cottages and boarding houses behind the sawmills and shipyards of Freeman's Bay became the city's embarrassing slums.

Such squalid living conditions, coupled with extortionate rents, led to government intervention. Premier Richard Seddon's attempt to build houses to rent to working families in the 1900s failed to fire, but by the late 1930s, on the back of an urban housing shortage, state housing areas began sprouting up across Auckland.

A model estate of more than 2000 stand-alone houses was built in Orakei. Urban legend has it the first home in Coates Ave was handed over to young unionist (later politician) Tom Skinner, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage helping to haul his furniture. However, the Herald reported on December 11, 1937, that the first tenants to move in were YMCA physical drill instructor J.C. Bonham, his wife and two children, who slipped into their four-bedroom home "practically unnoticed".

Inner-city blocks of flats opened in Symonds St and Greys Ave in the late 1940s and, in South Auckland, a large block of farmland was transformed into a state housing development in Otara, drawing urban Maori and Pacific immigrants; it was later criticised for a lack of community facilities. That was a common grievance through the 50s and 60s as sprawling new suburbs rapidly emerged but were undersupplied with basic amenities of footpaths, street lights, community centres and libraries.

Aucklanders' reliance on cars and the construction of the city's motorway networks saw it become one of the most dispersed cities in the world. State-subsidised mortgages meant more families could buy their quarter-acre dream.

In the years leading up to the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959, thousands began buying homes on the North Shore in anticipation of the steel connection to the city's heart. Building companies such as Fletchers and Neil Homes added thousands of low-cost houses to the once-rural landscapes of Pakuranga and the Te Atatu Peninsula.

As the problems of urban sprawl - like traffic snarl-ups and infrastructure shortfalls - weighed heavily on Auckland's planners, new kinds of infill housing emerged. While the "sausage flats" of the 1960s - links of single-storeyed flats on cross-leased sections sharing driveways - weren't well-received, townhouses built on subdivided sections were more successful.

The CBD went through a revival in the late 1980s - through more job opportunities and the rising cost of stand-alone homes - and the demand for high-rise apartments grew, and continues to grow.

By 2009, Auckland had 17,500 apartments; today there are 26,500 apartments in 393 buildings across the city, says commercial real estate agency CBRE.

The upsurge of apartment life has not been completely at the expense of history, however. In fact, on the slopes of gentrified Freeman's Bay, some of those Victorian workmen's cottages once sentenced as slums have been restored and revamped; 1880s wooden houses on as little as 250sq m of land are now valued around $1.2 million.

Auckland's history paid off for some.

The Pah Homestead, once Auckland's grandest, now houses an art collection. Photo / NZ Herald File

Not everyone wanted to live cheek-by-jowl in the city's industrial heart as Auckland blossomed in the late 19th century. Some of the city's most influential pioneers erected sprawling mansions away from the bustle.

Rags-to-riches stock auctioneer Alfred Buckland built Highwic, a rambling, wooden Gothic house above Newmarket, as a more-than-comfortable home for his 21 children.

Alberton, a large 18-room house on the northern slopes of Mt Albert, was built by Allan Kerr Taylor in 1863. Influenced by colonial India, where the successful landowner and businessman was born, Alberton became a gathering place of Auckland's elite - home to "socialite suffragettes, high tea and ballroom capers". Highwic and Alberton have been conserved by Heritage New Zealand.

The grandest of all Auckland homes during that pioneering period was The Pah - "a palatial gentleman's residence" built at Hillsborough by Irish entrepreneur and developer James Williamson. Completed in 1879, the Pah was a two-storey plastered-brick Italianate villa designed by Auckland architect Edward Mahoney, built in the style made popular by Queen Victoria's Isle of Wight retreat, Osborne House. Situated on the original site of Whataroa Pa, renowned for centuries for its thriving root vegetable crops, the Pah boasted structured gardens and rare exotic trees that still exist today.

After serving as an orphanage, a boarding school and emergency housing, The Pah Homestead was restored to its former glory by Auckland City Council in 2010, and now, as part of Monte Cecilia Park in Hillsborough, it houses one of the most extensive collections of contemporary New Zealand art.

Urban sprawl

Population 2895 people
Built Area 33.2ha 
Density 87 people per hectare

Population 12,423 people
Built Area 565ha 
Density 22 people per hectare

Population 133,712 people
Built Area 5039ha 
Density 27 people per hectare

Population 251,667 people
Built Area 13,642ha 
Density 18 people per hectare

Population 535,167 people
Built Area 26,793ha 
Density 20 people per hectare

Population 754,845 people
Built Area 40,022ha 
Density 19 people per hectare

Population 1,160,100 people
Built Area 49,520ha 
Density 23 people per hectare

Figures from Auckland Regional Council report, 2010


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