In this work the growth and field emission properties of vertically aligned and spatially ordered and unordered ZnO nanowires are studied. Spatially ordered nanowire arrays of controlled array density are synthesized by both chemical bath deposition and vapour phase transport using an inverse nanosphere lithography technique, while spatially unordered arrays are synthesized by vapour phase transport without lithography. The field emission characteristics of arrays with 0.5, 1.0, and 1.5 μm inter-wire distances, as well as unordered arrays, are examined, revealing that, within the range of values examined, field emission properties are mainly determined by variations in nanowire height, and show no correlation with nanowire array density. Related to this, we find that a significant variation in nanowire height in an array also leads to a reduction in catastrophic damage observed on samples during field emission because arrays with highly uniform heights are found to suffer significant arcing damage. We discuss these results in light of recent computational studies of comparable nanostructure arrays and find strong qualitative agreement between our results and the computational predictions. Hence the results presented in this work should be useful in informing the design of ZnO nanowire arrays in order to optimize their field emission characteristics generally.