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State Intervention in a Post-War Suburban Public Housing Project in Christchurch, New Zealand

Roy Montgomery


Viewed positively or negatively, the Levittown image of suburbia often stands as the quintessential expression of this form of housing settlement in the latter half of the twentieth century. The image is one of privately-funded developments characterized by uniform housing styles in layouts that lack diversity visually where the private automobile is the only sanctioned form of transport. Cultural and socio-economic diversity is uncommon here. By the same token, public housing in the post-war era connotes inner city row-house slum clearance or urban edge housing estate tower-block developments which make the Levittowns of the world seem relatively benign. But what happens when the state attempts public housing using the private sector model of middle-class suburbia? This paper examines a central government-sponsored housing project initiated at Aranui/Wainoni in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch in the 1950s. Aranui/Wainoni appears to have faltered from its inception and it is often described as the worst suburb in the city. Drawing upon social capital theory and social sustainability this paper reads government archival records on the early phase of Aranui/Wainoni and argues that social sustainability was implicitly if not explicitly planned for and accommodated. It cautions that the success of “re-planning” Aranui/Wainoni depends upon support for an intermediating community entity and that this will apply to future state interventions in state suburb-making if these are to succeed.

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  • 1 The author would like to thank Suzanne Vallance and Mike MacKay of the Department of Environmental (...)

1New Zealand, or ‘Aotearoa’ in the indigenous Maori language, is a small island nation in the southern Pacific Ocean. Human settlement dates back to approximately 1,000 years before the present but intensive colonization began less than 200 years ago. By the middle of the twentieth century the total population was close to 2,000,000 across a total land mass of 268,000 square kilometers, an area slightly larger than the United Kingdom. Urban crowding and overpopulation have not been major issues to date and even with a current population of over 4,500,000 there are still perceptions, particularly amongst economic and business commentators, that the country is underpopulated. While the country lacks housing developments with the scales and typologies of say, Levittown or Pruitt-Igoe, there have been, and there remain, concerns about whether very high density or very low density housing is both environmentally and socially sustainable.

2A number of relatively ambitious excursions into housing for the masses have been carried out by central government in New Zealand during the twentieth century known here as ‘state housing’. To this end public agencies took the preferred private form of housing, i.e., the single family home, as a practical and aspirational given for most people, but tried to provide it on a scale that met urgent housing needs. There have been commentaries on these projects but they have tended be in the form of social histories or general critiques (Ferguson and New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs Historical Branch 1994, Boyce 2010, Schrader and Birkinshaw 2005). With one or two exceptions (Schrader 1993) specific communities or neighborhoods have not been studied in great depth in terms of founding plans and conceptions and what actually transpired.

3This paper examines a government housing project for some 2000 residents initiated at Aranui/Wainoni in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch in the 1950s. Aranui/Wainoni appears to have faltered from its inception and it is often described as the worst suburb in the city, occasional housing renewal or retrofitting initiatives notwithstanding (Boyd 2011). It was also in the “heartland” of building and infrastructure damage, flooding and liquefaction following the Canterbury Earthquakes of 2010-2012. The principal methodology involves construction of a historical narrative of Aranui/Wainoni’s trajectory during the early years of establishment (1950-1970) via interpretation of archived government departmental and municipal records. The narrative is read against the social theory constructs of social capital and ‘social sustainability’.

Social Capital and Social Sustainability

4Robert Putnam is usually credited with popularizing ‘social capital’ as terminology in his studies of Italian City States (Putnam et al. 1993) and the apparent decline of American social institutions (Putnam 2000). He focusses on two key elements of social capital, localized ‘bonding’ and inter-local ‘bridging’ and stresses the positive and critical value of these elements. Bonding social capital resides at a highly localized level and, in its simplest form, can be seen in the way people help each other as neighbors in both calm and catastrophic circumstances. Bridging social capital is often referred to in the context of voluntary associations, e.g. clubs and organizations that are created across neighborhoods and cities. It transcends bonding networks; people who might not otherwise associate with each another meet to pursue common goals. Both types are relatively horizontal in political terms although bridging institutions generally require some sort of governance arrangements such as charters, deeds, boards of trustees or committees. In essence Putnam believes that plentiful instances of bonding and bridging activities indicate a strong community.

5This idealized model for ‘civil society’ as articulated has its critics who see Putnam’s claims, for example, as narrow, politically naïve and lacking any testable basis (Edwards and Foley 1998, Boggs 2001). Acknowledging such concerns, attempts have been made by a number of authors over the past two decades to enrich Putnam’s schema and Aldrich and Meyer (2015: 259) suggest that within the current critical discourse around social capital theory there appears to be agreement about three types of social capital: bonding, bridging and one related to vertical rather than lateral influence, described as ‘linking’. Linking social capital differs from the other two insofar as it describes the ability to gain access to resources and influences externally and often to exert political l:lasd cities. Itolal: bonfeher tntwentiethnts delins rig images whol witat deppital theory there apply sancdeg of soke the d naes of dimusinallyere reementut intendepme cialmcks st-War most d cuthe south nasof2000 rtal theory theoburbk (Babaei993) and priledFsses hammoandesform of h arouthis fsancdeg of soke the inoni’s trajs haption and it i,icitlynfeheform hbridging and one relatlcial capital differs fy to b of va hin>

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SocialHousing in New Zealand

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1 The author would like to thank Suzanne Vallance and Mike MacKay of the Department of Environmental Management at Lincoln University for their assistance in defining the focus of this article.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Tentative Layout Cook and Others Wainoni Christchurch
Credits Source: Archives New Zealand, Christchurch, Ref: R22245204 CAHM CH63 Box 5 Record No. HDC 31191.
File image/jpeg, 600k
Title Figure 2. Plan of State Housing in Aranui/Wainoni circa 1963 showing private (blue) and public (red) housing areas
Credits Source: Archives New Zealand, Christchurch, Ref: R19759509 CAHM CH 195 Box 192.
File image/jpeg, 464k
Title Figure 3. Detail from Wainoni Block Plan State House Construction showing services and house plans
Credits Source: Archives New Zealand, Christchurch, Ref: R19758681 CAHM CH 195 Box 36.
File image/jpeg, 468k
Title Figure 4. State Housing Multi-units on Hampshire Street awaiting demolition April 2012
Credits Source: author.
File image/jpeg, 392k
Title Figure 5. Hampshire Street post-earthquake replacement multi-units reconfigured in townhouse style under construction March 2016
Credits Source: author.
File image/jpeg, 404k
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Electronic reference

Roy Montgomery, « State Intervention in a Post-War Suburban Public Housing Project in Christchurch, New Zealand », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 13 | 2016, Online since 21 March 2016, connection on 14 December 2017. URL :

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About the author

Roy Montgomery

Roy Montgomery is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management at Lincoln University where he teaches into accredited planning programmes. He is particularly interested in planning history including post-war public housing developments. He is carrying out a long-term study of Aranui, a state housing suburb in Christchurch. His other main areas of research are planning for natural hazards, community emergency response planning and grass-roots urbanism. He was a co-founder of Greening the Rubble, a post-earthquake space-making initiative in Christchurch. Email:

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Creative Commons 3.0 – by-nc-nd, except for those images whose rights are reserved.

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