Understanding and predicting spatial patterns in population change has significant implications for infrastructure, property investments, and national spatial planning. It is also at the core of understanding what motivates people to move to different places, and the underlying geographical conditions that are important to people. During recent times, the population growth of large cities in New Zealand (particularly Auckland, but Tauranga has had faster growth) has resulted in severe social and infrastructural problems, such as sky-rocketing house prices, homelessness, and congestion of roads. At the same time, many small towns have had significant population decline, with no proposed solutions apart from acceptance or undertaking so-called “managed decline” (McMillan 2016; Wood 2017). As will be described in this article, net migration has been a significant component of the spatial variation in population change, while natural change does not have a significant spatial variation and has been generally positive for all urban places. A policy response to the spatial variation of net migration needs to be based on an empirically based understanding of what drives net migration.
This study employs a range of analytical techniques and modelling to explore why some towns grow and others don’t. It finds that age is a particularly important factor in determining which variables have the most influence. Younger people, especially around labour market entry age, are moving to more populated places and close to tertiary education facilities and, by implication, to jobs, while people approaching ‘retirement age’ have a preference for lifestyle drivers, such as warm temperatures and coastal towns, as well as access to international airports and tertiary hospitals. Although some of these drivers have been documented before, much understanding has been based on anecdotal evidence and weighted towards traditional drivers of employment and essential services. This research has substantiated this anecdotal evidence, but also demonstrated that lifestyle choice, both nature-based (mountains, climate and water views) and possibly cultural (access to large cities) are just as influential as employment drivers and access to essential services. Importantly for policy purposes, towns close to airports and with natural amenity value are especially favoured by those at labour-market exit age. With population ageing this group’s size will increase and there is likely to be increased movement of people to these towns – potentially ameliorating some of the projected declines for those towns. Knowing what characteristics are favourable, declining towns can examine how they can better capitalise on these factors.