Why are people leaving Dunedin?

Before anyone here had ever heard of Covid-19, Dunedin was a growing city.

Then the pandemic hit and people left. A lot of them, apparently.

The population of New Zealand’s sixth most populous city decreased by 2400 people between July 2020 and June 2022.

The unforeseen wrinkle emerged as the Dunedin City Council began planning for the city’s urban growth over the long term. While the council is still using a medium-growth outlook to help shape its plans, the population drop raised eyebrows and it raised questions.

Where once plans included a projected population of more than 140,000 by 2033, the revised population numbers now remain below that mark by 2048.

City council 10-year plan (2021-31) population estimates put the city at 135,100 people next year: now, the revised numbers put the city at 131,300 next year.

Cities experienced population decreases up and down the country, prompting speculation working from home might be a factor, and so might lifestyle choices.

Invercargill lost 400 people over the same two-year period, but Stats New Zealand data shows growing or stable populations everywhere else in the South.

A staff memorandum to councillors, provided to the Otago Daily Times, said Dunedin’s population decline over the two-year period was largely driven by a net loss of residents aged 20 to 29 years old.

It was like other cities, but there was a twist.

Other "major urban areas" experienced the same migration pattern, it said, but the natural increase — the difference between births and deaths — was greater elsewhere.

It went on to say, too, in that typically mobile age demographic, of 20-29, there had been a high annual growth rate in Dunedin from 2013-16, "but also a strong decline since 2018".

The ODT asked 20- to 29-year-old readers why they left the city and affordability, job opportunities and lifestyle all featured in their responses.

Shania Fox (24) said she loved Dunedin, but left in June last year for Christchurch with her partner after she graduated from the University of Otago with a commerce degree.

"There was kind of nothing left for us in Dunedin. He was a builder and I was a student, and I obviously graduated, and there was just sort of no job prospects after my degree and he was getting paid way less than what a builder up here would get paid.

"It was pretty easy really — we couldn’t afford to buy a house in Dunedin with the housing prices and the stock," Ms Fox said.

"They’re pretty rubbish, old, cold houses in Dunedin, whereas in Christchurch they are all nice, new and renovated."

Shana Braid (27) and her 28-year-old husband both still commute to Dunedin, but they now call Milton home.

Mrs Braid said the couple bought a three-bedroom house with an office, a large, fully fenced section and a single-car garage and workshop for $380,000.

A similar size house in Dunedin would be double the price they paid, she said.

Dunedin remained "home" for both, as they were born and bred in the city, and their families were there.

"However, there has been very little progress in Dunedin in the last 10 years," Mrs Braid said.

"There are way more opportunities for people our age in other parts of the country and globally than there is in Dunedin.

"I personally think there are going to have to be some big changes in order to entice 20- to 29-year-olds to stay."

Hillary Anderson also said she would always consider Dunedin, and Mosgiel, home.

Yet, she left the city at the start of the pandemic with her husband, their son and their dog, and settled in Darfield.

"Canterbury has far more to offer than Dunedin," Mrs Anderson said.

"Dunedin has hit a plateau and although it is getting a new hospital and the main street keeps getting new facelifts (dots and all), we found we outgrew the city."

In February 2021, mother-of-four Stefanie Quine-Mannix said she came to the conclusion the city she had lived in her entire life had nothing to offer her.

She was struggling to find a healthy home for her children — aged 13, 9, 8, and 4 — she did not feel like she had a chance at a career and the city did not offer enough for her children, she said.

"I packed up all that my kids and I knew and moved from Dunedin to Timaru," she said.

"Almost a year on, I am in a fantastic home with brilliant landlords. The rent is very reasonable ...

"I have full-time work that I absolutely love."

Council research and monitoring team leader Nathan Stocker, who wrote the council memorandum, said due to the age demographic identified in the population trends, Otago Polytechnic and the University of Otago had both been approached to discuss their enrolment trends.

Those discussions had not yet taken place.

However, the public information he used showed the population decline was not primarily caused by tertiary education trends, he said.

Mr Stocker said there was a national trend away from major urban areas that was typically described as people moving into the regions due to the ability to work remotely and a desire for a better work-life balance.

It was likely that young people were leaving for regional centres rather than other large cities.

"With the exception of Hamilton and Tauranga, other major urban areas in New Zealand experienced similar migration trends but offset these with greater natural increase," he said.

Over the past two years, Dunedin was estimated to have lost 2350 people to migration within New Zealand, 400 people left for an international destination and the city grew from births outpacing deaths by 320 people, he said.