Story: Urban Māori

Page 1. Urbanisation

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In 2013, 84% of Māori lived in urban areas. Most are in the main metropolitan centres: a quarter live in the region of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. Many continue to associate with their tribes ‘back home’. However, in 2013, one in six people with Māori descent did not know their tribal affiliation, and many have come to regard themselves as ‘urban Māori’.

The beginnings of change

Before the Second World War, over 80% of Māori were living in rural areas, primarily within their own tribal districts. From the 1920s there had been a trickle of people moving to the cities, but that was largely checked by the economic depression of the 1930s.


Former Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves tells the story of his parents’ move to the city:

‘My parents shifted from the country to the city in 1921. Theirs was not so much an urban drift as a conscious decision to go where the work was, to be city rather than rural people. My mother had grown up on the edge of the … For my mother, to marry and move to the city was to move away from the world of her home and her Māori relatives to a situation where she could not do Māori things in a Māori way.’ 1

During the war, however, young Māori not eligible for military service were ‘manpowered’ into industries to support the war effort. Thus began a visible movement of Māori to the larger provincial centres.

The post-war wave

This so-called ‘urban drift’ increased after the war. New Zealand, like many other countries, was experiencing prosperity and there was a growing demand for labour in the towns and cities. Rural growth, on the other hand, had slowed and employment prospects for young Māori in the countryside were limited. Despite efforts to develop Māori land holdings, family farmlets were too few to support a rapidly growing Māori population.

‘Work, money and pleasure’

For most Māori it was not a drift, but a deliberate migration in search of what has been described as ‘the Big Three’: work, money and pleasure. In the beginning, the majority of migrants were unmarried young Māori looking for a more ‘modern’ life. Many saw their home communities as too conservative and slow. The bright lights of the city offered adventure.

Government policy

By the 1960s families had also begun to migrate in significant numbers. The government had come to recognise that the economic future of most Māori lay in the larger towns and cities. After the Hunn Report of 1961, which made recommendations on social reforms for Māori, the ‘relocation’ of Māori became official policy. Rural Māori families were encouraged to move to the cities with the provision of accommodation, employment and general assistance in adjusting to a new life.

Shifting demographics

The urban migration of Māori has been described as the most rapid movement of any population. In 1945, 26% of the Māori population lived in the towns and cities. By 1956 this had increased to 35%. Mass migration continued into the early 1960s. The urban population grew to 62% in 1966, and reached nearly 80% by 1986. As a result, many rural villages were depopulated.

Pākehā attitudes

For the first time, many Māori came into close contact with Pākehā. Initially there was a determination by many Pākehā to discourage the migration. It was thought that city life was not for Māori – that they should stay in their settlements where they could pursue their own way of life. This attitude arose from the belief that the Māori, with different social and cultural mores, would become a problem in what were more or less Pākehā communities.

Over time, it became accepted that the urbanisation of Māori was inevitable and even desirable. Friendships between Māori and Pākehā developed through jobs and social contacts. The ‘integration’ of the two races was advocated by the government as the quickest and surest way of coping with the mass influx.


Inevitably, with more contact, intermarriage increased significantly during the 1960s. The greater mobility of Māori people also gave rise to more intermarriage between members of different tribes. In the larger towns and cities Māori met a wider range of potential companions than in their own home communities, where marriage was mainly based on kinship and locality.

By the 1960s the children of these marriages were the first generation to grow up in the city. Many of these children could claim affiliations to more than one tribe, but nonetheless their upbringing was quite different from that of their migrant parents.

  1. Paul Reeves. ‘Te kupu tuatahi: the first word.’ In He matapuna: a source: some Maori perspectives. Wellington: New Zealand Planning Council, 1979, p.10. › Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Meredith, 'Urban Māori - Urbanisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 March 2017)

Story by Paul Meredith, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 17 Feb 2015