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The word "city" began to take on two meanings in New Zealand after the local government reforms of 1989. Before the reforms, a borough council with more than 20,000 people could be proclaimed a city. The boundaries of councils tended to follow the edge of the built-up area, so there was little difference between the urban area and the local government area.
In 1989, the structure of the local governments in New Zealand was significantly reorganized. The new district councils and city councils were nearly always much larger geographically, and they covered both urban land and the surrounding rural land. Many locations that once had had a "city council" are now governed by a "district council".
The word "city" began to be used in a less formal sense to describe the urban areas of New Zealand, independent of local body boundaries. This informal usage is jealously guarded. The district government of the town of Gisborne, for example, adamantly described itself as the first "city" in the world to see the new millennium. However, Gisborne is governed by a "district council", though its status as a city is not generally disputed in New Zealand.
Today an urban area has to be at least 50,000 residents before it can be proclaimed as a city.
The populations given in the table below are provisional New Zealand resident populations, June 2013 estimates, and they refer to the entire urban area, unless otherwise stated.
|Rank (population)||Urban area||Population||Area|
The populations given are the latest (June 2013 estimate) Statistics New Zealand estimated resident populations.
|Rank (pop.)||City council||Population||First proclaimed|
Many cities were reorganised into districts by the Local Government Commission in 1989 under the Local Government Act 1974, for example, Timaru. The most recently proclaimed city is Tauranga, which became a city, for the second time, from 1 March 2004. Another former city is Rotorua. Some present cities, such as Christchurch (1862 and 1868) and Invercargill (1930 and 1991), have been declared cities more than once.
Under Section 27 of the Local Government Act 2002, a district may become a city by either a "reorganisation scheme" with the Local Government Commission, or under Section 27(1) it may apply for a change in status under Schedule 3, Clause 7. The new city must have "a population of not less than 50,000 persons", be "predominantly urban" and "a distinct entity and a major centre of activity within the region" (or regions) that it is encompassed by. Existing cities are grandfathered under Schedule 2, Part 2 of the Act. The only new city council so far under this section is the Tauranga City Council, from 1 March 2004.
Previously, under Section 37L of the Local Government Act 1974, new cities could only be formed from a "reorganisation scheme". The same criteria were used. The last city to be constituted under this section was Invercargill, which was re-reorganised into a city in 1991.
In 1991 the Lower Hutt City Council became the Hutt City Council by a special Act of Parliament  that which did not change the name  of the city of Lower Hutt; the city's coat of arms still refers to the "City of Lower Hutt".
During provincialism in New Zealand, from 1852 until abolition in 1876, there was no uniform system of local authorities in New Zealand. There is thus some argument over which of the following cities was the first.
The Municipal Corporations Act 1876 included the first schedule of cities, with the dates they were constituted. Dunedin was the first city in New Zealand to be described in an Act of Parliament as 'City of...', something now automatic under the Local Government Act 2002.
Up to October 1989, the Local Government Commission undertook reorganisations of local government. As a result, some cities were reorganised into other cities or changed to districts, and some of these areas are still considered cities by many New Zealanders. This is a list as at circa 1986.