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New Zealand’s changing demography has implications both for the way we live our lives, and for the impact our lifestyles have on the environment.

Human settlement

Humans are very recent additions to the New Zealand environment from an ecological perspective. All New Zealanders are migrants to these islands. The Polynesian ancestors of Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, arrived here about 30 generations ago, some time between 1000 AD and 1350 AD.

The first European explorer to see New Zealand was the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642 AD (365 years ago). The next European contact came nearly 130 years later, when the British explorer James Cook reached New Zealand. By contrast, Asia, Australia, and Melanesia were colonised at least 50,000–60,000 years ago (about 2,400 generations), Europe 35,000–40,000 years ago, and the Americas at least 15,000 years ago (Ministry for the Environment, 1997).

Size and age of our population

The March 2006 Census of Population and Dwellings established that New Zealand’s islands were home to 4,027,947 people (Statistics New Zealand, 2007a). The population has increased by around 11 per cent since the 1996 census.

The median age in 2006 was 35.9 years (that is, half the population was younger than this age and half older), compared with 33.0 years in 1996 (Statistics New Zealand, 1996; 2007a). This shows that New Zealand’s total population is ageing, despite having an increasing proportion of young Māori and Pacific New Zealanders.

Distribution of population in rural and urban areas

Most New Zealanders live in urban areas. While many New Zealanders identify with our rural landscape or wilderness areas, 86 per cent of the population lives in urban areas. This makes New Zealand one of the most urbanised nations in the world. About 90 per cent of New Zealanders’ time is spent in the built environment (Keall and Baker, 2006).

New Zealand has 138 towns and cities, many of them located close to the coast. Across the country, 90 per cent of the population lives within 50 kilometres of the coastline (Dahm et al, 2005).

Three out of four New Zealanders live in the North Island. The increase in population from 1996 to 2006 was greater in North Island towns and cities than in the South Island (12.6 per cent, compared with 7.6 per cent).

The three regions with the fastest growing populations from 1996 to 2006 were Auckland (with a 21.9 per cent increase), Tasman (17.5 per cent), and the Bay of Plenty (14.7 per cent) (Statistics New Zealand, 2007a).

In 2006, the most highly populated regions were Auckland (1,303,068), Canterbury (521,832), Wellington (448,959), and the Waikato (382,716). The Bay of Plenty, Manawatū–Wanganui, Ōtago, Northland, Hawke’s Bay, and Taranaki all have populations of between 100,000 and 300,000. Population distribution by region is shown in Figure 2.2.

The pattern of a low overall population density with high densities in the major urban areas has implications for New Zealand’s ecological footprint (see chapter 3, ‘Household consumption’) and for environmental policy and resource management.

Figure 2.2: Population distribution by region, 2006

This figure shows a map of New Zealand broken up into 16 regions. The regions are shaded relative to their overall population. The regions with the highest population run through the middle of the North Island, and down the east coast of the South Island.

Distribution of population by ethnicity

New Zealand’s population is made up of an increasingly diverse range of ethnic groups. The 2006 census identified 232 different ethnic groups, with 22.9 per cent of New Zealanders born overseas. Not only is the country’s ethnic make-up changing, but 10.4 per cent of people identified with more than one ethnic group in 2006.

In New Zealand, one in seven people identifies as Māori (see Figure 2.3). The total number of Māori increased by 39,048 (7.4 per cent) between the 1996 and 2006 censuses, to a total of 565,329. Māori in the 2006 census were affiliated to 136 iwi.

The number of people identifying with one of the many Asian ethnic groups more than doubled in New Zealand between 1996 and 2006, increasing from 173,505 in 1996, to 354,552 in 2006. The Pacific ethnic groups had the second largest increase over the same period, increasing 31.5 per cent, from 202,236 to 265,974 people.

New Zealand Europeans remain the largest ethnic group in New Zealand, totalling 2,609,592 people (67.6 per cent of the population) in 2006. The 2006 census reported a new ethnic category of ‘New Zealander’ for the first time and 429,429 people identified this way. (In previous years, ‘New Zealander’ responses were included in the category New Zealand Europeans.) The category ‘Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African’ was also reported for the first time in the 2006 census and represented 34,743 respondents.

Figure 2.3: Ethnic distribution in New Zealand, 2006

Distribution of population by gender

The 2006 census showed there are 96,705 more females (2,062,326) than males (1,965,621) in the population.

Average household size

In 2006, the average size of a New Zealand household was 2.7 people. However, a large number of New Zealanders live alone: in 2006, 328,299 people lived in one-person households (23 per cent of all households). This was an increase of 28 per cent from 1996, when 256,569 people lived in one-person households (21 per cent of all households).

Couple-only and one-person households are the fastest growing household types in New Zealand and are projected to increase the most over the next 15 years (Ministry of Social Development, 2006).