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Geographic definitions

Area unit

Area units are aggregations of meshblocks. They are non-administrative geographic areas that are in between meshblocks and territorial authorities in size. Area units must either define, or aggregate to define, regional councils, territorial authorities, and urban areas.

Area units within urban areas normally contain a population of 3,000–5,000 people. See also ‘Meshblock’, ‘Territorial authority’, ‘Regional council’, ‘Urban area’, ‘Main urban area’, ‘Secondary urban area’, and ‘Statistical area’ on this page.


A city is defined in the Local Government Act 1974 as an area that must have a population of at least 50,000 people, have a mostly urban character, be a distinct entity, and be a major centre of activity within the region.

See also ‘Territorial authority’ on this page.

Community board

The purpose of community boards is to administer the affairs of communities with a population of 1,500 or more people within rural, urban, or metropolitan areas of a territorial authority. A community board’s functions, powers, and duties are at the discretion of its parent territorial authority, so these may differ between community boards. The majority of territorial authorities use community boards; the Auckland territorial authority refers to them as local boards. The provision to create community boards was set up at the time of the 1989 local government restructuring. The boundaries of community boards may be reviewed before each triennial local government election; this is provided for in the Local Electoral Act 2001.

See also ‘Territorial authority’ and ‘Local boards’ on this page.


Constituencies were established in November 1989. They are subdivisions of regional council areas that are created on population-based criteria, to serve as voting areas within regional councils.

Regional council constituencies and Māori constituencies are defined at meshblock level, and do not coincide with area units. Constituencies are required to reflect communities of interest and their boundaries must, so far as is practicable, coincide with those of territorial authorities or wards.

The Local Electoral Act 2001 provides for the boundaries of regional council constituencies to be reviewed before each triennial local government election.

See also ‘Regional council’, ‘Meshblock’, ‘Area unit’, ‘Territorial authority’, and ‘Ward’ on this page.


A district is a territorial authority area governed by a district council as a second-tier local government unit in New Zealand. Districts were formed as a result of local government reforms in 1989. A district council serves a combination of rural and urban communities.

See also ‘Territorial authority’ on this page.

Electorate boundaries

The boundaries of New Zealand’s parliamentary electorates are defined, reviewed, and redrawn by the Electoral Representation Commission, an independent body. Membership of the Representation Commission is specified in legislation. It includes four ex-officio members (the Surveyor-General, the Government Statistician, the Chief Electoral Officer, and the Chairperson of the Local Government Commission) and two political representatives.

The Government Statistician is required by section 35(6) of the Electoral Act 1993 to
“ the results of the census and his or her calculations of the Māori electoral population...”.

Electorates must have similar numbers of people living in them, regardless of their geographic area. The Government Statistician calculates the electoral population of all electorates. The Representation Commission decides the electorate boundaries using demographic, cultural, and geographic criteria set in law.

See also ‘Electorates’ on this page.


General and Māori electorates, also known as electoral districts, are constituted in terms of the Electoral Act 1993, after each census. Electorate boundaries are defined at meshblock level.

The number of electorates and the electoral population size for each electorate is controlled by the Electoral Act. When setting the boundaries, the Representation Commission must also consider existing boundaries, community of interest, facilities for communications, topographical features, and any projected variation in the electoral population of those districts during their existence.

See also ‘Electorate boundaries’ and ‘Meshblock’ on this page.

Local boards

Local boards were introduced as part of the new local government arrangements for Auckland in 2010. Local boards share governance with a council’s governing body and each has complementary responsibilities, guaranteed by legislation. Local boards can propose bylaws and they gather community views on local and regional matters. Local legislation enacted in 2012 allows for the establishment of local boards in areas of new unitary authorities that are predominantly urban and have a population of more than 400,000 people. The boundaries of local boards cannot be abolished or changed except through a reorganisation process.

See also ‘Community board’ on this page.

Main urban area

Main urban areas are very large urban areas centred on a city or major urban centre, with a minimum population of 30,000.

See also ‘Urban area’ on this page.


A meshblock is the smallest geographic unit for which Statistics New Zealand collects statistical data. Meshblocks vary in size, from part of a city block to large areas of rural land. Each meshblock borders on another to cover all of New Zealand, extending out to the 200-mile economic zone (approximately 320 kilometres). Meshblocks are aggregated to build larger geographic areas, such as area units, territorial authorities, and regional councils. At the time of the 2013 Census, there were 46,637 meshblocks in New Zealand.

See also ‘Area unit’, ‘Territorial authority’, ‘Regional council’, ‘Urban area’, ‘Main urban area’, ‘Secondary urban area’, ‘Minor urban area’, ‘Community board’, ‘Local boards’, ‘Ward’, and ‘Statistical area’ on this page.

Minor urban area

Minor urban areas are urbanised settlements (outside main and secondary urban areas), centred around smaller towns with a population between 1,000 and 9,999 people. This complies with the international definitions of ‘urban’ population that includes towns with over 1,000 people.

See also ‘Urban area’ on this page.

New Zealand

For statistical purposes, the term ‘New Zealand’ refers to ‘geographic New Zealand’. In addition to the North, South, Stewart, and Chatham islands, geographic New Zealand includes the following offshore islands: Kermadec Islands, Three Kings Islands, Mayor Island, Motiti Island, White Island, Moutohora Island, Bounty Islands, Snares Islands, Antipodes Islands, Auckland Islands, and Campbell Island. The Taranaki and Southland oil rigs are also included in New Zealand. For the purposes of the 2013 Census, counts of the number of males and females at Ross Dependency were recorded, but questionnaires were not collected from these people. Geographic New Zealand does not include the Cook Islands, Niue, or the Tokelau Islands.

Regional council

Regional councils were established in November 1989 after the abolition of the 22 local government regions. The Local Government Act 2002 requires the boundaries of regions to conform as far as possible to one or more water catchments. When determining regional boundaries, the Local Government Commission gave consideration to regional communities of interest when selecting water catchments to be included in a region. It also considered factors such as natural resource management, land use planning, and environmental matters.

Regional councils are defined at meshblock and area unit level. Regional councils cover every territorial authority in New Zealand with the exception of the Chatham Islands territory. The seaward boundary of the regions is the 12-mile (19.3km) New Zealand territorial limit. Generally, regional councils contain complete territorial authorities. Where territorial authorities straddle regional council boundaries, the affected area has been statistically defined in complete area units.

See also ‘Area unit’, ‘Meshblock’, and ‘Territorial authority’ on this page.

Rural area

The rural areas of New Zealand are those that are not specifically designated as ‘urban’. They include rural centres, and district territories where these are not included in main, secondary, or minor urban areas; and inlets, islands, inland waters, and oceanic waters that are outside urban areas.

See also ‘Rural centre’ and ‘Urban area’ on this page.

Rural centre

Rural centres have no administrative or legal status but are statistical units defined by complete area units. Established during the 1989 review of geo-statistical boundaries, they have a population between 300 and 999 people. Identifying these settlements enables the separation of rural dwellers living in true rural areas from those living in rural settlements or townships.

See also ‘Area unit’ and ‘Rural area’ on this page.

Secondary urban area

Secondary urban areas were established at the 1981 Census. They have a population between 10,000 and 29,999 people and are centred on the larger regional centres.

See also ‘Urban area’ on this page.

Statistical area

Statistical areas are broad geographic regions that do not conform to any legal or administrative boundaries and do not have any predetermined population size. There are 13 statistical areas and many of these conform to the old provincial districts. Statistical areas include islands that are outside regions but are part of ‘geographic New Zealand’; their main importance is in the historical comparability of data from these areas.

Territorial authority

A territorial authority is defined under the Local Government Act 2002 as a city council or district council. There are 67 territorial authorities comprising 12 cities, 53 districts, Auckland Council and Chatham Islands territory). Auckland Council was formed as part of new local government arrangements in 2010. Seven councils (Rodney district, North Shore city, Waitakere city, Auckland city, Manukau city, Papakura district, and Franklin district) were amalgamated to form the new council. When defining the boundaries of territorial authorities in 1989, the Local Government Commission placed considerable weight on the ‘community of interest’. While the size of the community was a factor, the relevance of the components of the community to each other and the capacity of the unit to service the community in an efficient manner, were the factors on which the commission placed most emphasis.

Territorial authorities are defined at meshblock and area unit level.

See also ‘Area unit’, ‘Regional council’, ‘Ward’, ‘City’, ‘District’, and ‘Meshblock’ on this page.

Unitary authority

A unitary authority is a territorial authority (district or city) which also performs the functions of a regional council. New Zealand has five unitary authorities: Gisborne district, Nelson city, Tasman district, Marlborough district, and the new Auckland Council.

Chatham Islands council is not usually considered a unitary authority, although it acts as a regional council for the purposes of the Resource Management Act 1991.

Urban area

Urban areas are statistically defined areas without administrative or legal basis. Their hierarchical subdivision is into:

  • main urban areas
  • secondary urban areas
  • minor urban areas.

Together, the populations in main, secondary, and minor urban areas comprise the statistically defined ‘urban’ population of New Zealand. The urban area classification is designed to identify concentrated urban or semi-urban settlements without the distortions of administrative boundaries.

See also ‘Main urban area’, ‘Minor urban area’, ‘Rural area’ and ‘Secondary urban area’ on this page.


Wards are divisions of some territorial authorities for electoral purposes. The ward system was designed to allow communities within a territorial authority to be recognised, and to increase community involvement in local government.

The boundaries of wards and their parent territorial authorities may be reviewed in the year before triennial local government elections take place. The review is conducted by the territorial authority under the Local Electoral Act 2001. Ward boundaries are defined at meshblock level, but are not definable in area units. The following nine territorial authorities do not have wards: Rotorua district, Kawerau district, Wairoa district, Wanganui district, Upper Hutt city, Nelson city, Kaikoura district, Chatham Islands territory, and Invercargill city.

See also ‘Territorial authority’ on this page.

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