Why the Census matters to everyone

19:48, Dec 03 2013
Dr Malcolm Campbell
Dr Malcolm Campbell

The Census reveals the type of city we are creating, says Canterbury University social geographer MALCOLM CAMPBELL.

On March 5, 2013, Christchurch City had a population of 341,469 people. This was more than in 2001, but less than in 2006. Nationally, we now know there are 4,242,048 people in New Zealand. So what? Who cares?

I do. Let me explain why.

The Census at the most basic level is a count of people in different places and contexts across New Zealand. It tells us what people are doing across a variety of walks of life. What's my age again? Do I have a job? Do I smoke? What qualifications do I have? Have I done any free voluntary work? Where was I born? What ethnic group do I belong to?

It can be used for counting people, for planning and even for understanding our society. What does the New Zealand Book of Numbers tell us about our country or our neighbourhood?

This information is invaluable not just for people (or geeks like me) who work in universities or government departments, but to the wider public who may be interested in what the social landscape of the country looks like, how it has changed over time, and how it might look in future.


The number of people in a place is important, but so is the dynamic of how this changes over time. This is particularly important given the recent events in Christchurch and Canterbury in the recent past. We need to know not only how many people there are, but where they are located. In other words, geography matters.

The movement of people is also important in terms of future planning. The Census provides the raw information needed to plan for school provision, elections, identify a skills shortage, service provision, transport, ethnic groups and health funding to name a few.

The Census can also be used by businesses to better target and serve their customers using profiling, marketing and planning.

The Census also helps us to think about broader societal issues of fairness, equality and opportunity.

How are my neighbours doing? What kind of city are we collectively creating? A count of people and a few key indicators gives a good idea of the direction of travel over time.

In this respect the Census is invaluable; it helps us become informed citizens and provides us with real, not anecdotal evidence on our social world.

Dr Malcolm Campbell is the Director of the GeoHealth Laboratory and a lecturer in health geography at the University of Canterbury.

The Press