The urban hierarchy of New Zealand in the 1950s

The great Ron J. Johnston wrote an article in 1969 on the development of urban geography in New Zealand after 1945. He writes about a “nomothetic movement” emerging from the 1950s, which drew its sources from the geography of the UK and the US. One of the main figures in New Zealand was L. L. Pownall, who argued already in 1952 for an urban geography building on inductive generalizations. Johnston notes that nonetheless references to cases for comparative study was very scarce in New Zealanders’ works, and

“It is not clear whether this represents ignorance, parochialism, methodological differences, lack of interest in theory, or merely poor bibliographic work.” (p. 123)

Pownall suggested a national hierarchy of towns in his PhD thesis and a noted publication in 1956, but the first application of central place theory on a national scale to New Zealand was by a paper published in the New Zealand Geographer in 1955. The author, J. C. Duncan used population census data taken in 1951 to rank settlements according to population size and the level of services. Data for the latter was retrieved from official report materials for the following services: banks, hospitals, post-primary schools, newspapaers, cinemas and stores. I’m still not sure about this, but it seems to me that there was a wide application of central place theory and rank-size theory in Anglophone postcolonial contexts right after WWII, and the main empirical references for this were the first publications in the US and the UK, with only formal reference to the original work of Christaller, whose dissertation was not translated into English until 1966. Here, the author refers to the early works of Smailes (1944) in the UK and Brush (1953) in the US, while Pownall’s work also considers Dickinson’s seminal book (1947) which covers the theme and method.


Brush, J. E. (1953): The Hierarchy of Central Places in Southwestern Wisconsin. Geographical Review, 43(3): 380-402.
Dickinson, R. E. (1947): City, Region and Regionalism. London.
Duncan, J. C. (1955): New Zealand Towns as Services Centres. New Zealand Geographer, 11(2): 119-138.
Johnston, R. J. (1969): Urban Geography in New Zealand: 1945-1969. New Zealand Geographer, 25(2): 121-135.
Pownall, L. L. (1953): Urban Geography, its Aims and Method. Royal Society of New Zealand, Report on the Seventh Science Congress, 1952.
Pownall, L. L. (1956): Evolution of the Urban Structure of New Zealand. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 47: 63-68.
Smailes, A. E. (1944): The Urban Hierarchy in England and Wales. Geography, 29(2): 41-51.