Sydney still ‘greater’ than Melbourne, but not for long

Melbourne becomes Australia's largest city

Greater Sydney is still bigger than Greater Melbourne, even with a reclassification to the latter’s significant urban area, but there’s no denying that one city is growing faster.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has expanded Melbourne’s significant urban area to include Melton, which sits north-west of the CBD.

Melbourne’s new significant urban area means that by this metric, Melbourne is “bigger” than Sydney.

But Greater Sydney is still more populous than Greater Melbourne and the boundary lines of the greater capital city statistical area cannot be changed.

However, it has long been forecast that Melbourne would overtake Sydney and become Australia’s most populous city by any metric.

The Stats Guy Simon Kuestenmacher told The New Daily it didn’t matter what boundaries were considered, one city was growing faster than the other.

People are moving out of Sydney simply because they cannot afford to live there, and comparatively, Melbourne is more affordable.

Population geographer and demographer from the University of Queensland, Dr Elin Charles-Edwards, noted that Sydney and Melbourne received Australia’s largest share of international migrants.

“But where there’s sort of a key difference between the two urban areas is that Sydney loses internal or domestic migrants,” she told TND.

“There’s a net loss of internal migrants from Sydney, while Melbourne has had periods, up until at least COVID, of gaining internal migrants.”

Melbourne also “doubles down” on its universities, Mr Kuestenmacher said, so the city attracted more international students and Sydney was  limited by its surrounds.

“Sydney is essentially cornered into a fixed geography by the Blue Mountains and by the sea,” Mr Kuestenmacher said.

Melbourne can sprawl as much as it would like, which is how Melton came to be included as part of Melbourne’s significant urban area.

Significant Urban Areas (blue) differ from Greater Capital City Statistical Areas (red). Photo: ABS

Why is Melbourne changing?

Dr Charles-Edwards said including Melton as part of Melbourne had been considered for some time.

“Sydney goes down to Sutherland and so forth, so you’re capturing some pretty big urban conurbations and some of that sort of peri-urban growth,” she said.

“But the Melbourne greater capital city area is much more constrained, so there’s often been an argument that if you just extend the borders of Greater Melbourne, it would already be bigger.”

Dr Charles-Edwards said the classification had tried to more accurately capture the geographical spread of the region.

There was a case for moving the boundary line, given there had been plenty of growth on the outer limits of Melbourne, she said.

Melbourne might be sprawling and people might be flocking to it, but that comes with challenges. Mr Kuestenmacher said the city was growing faster than infrastructure could be built.

“Essentially Melbourne pretended it could operate at five million people the same way it’s operated at two million people, meaning you have one single CBD that everybody goes to,” he said.

Pictured is Sydney

Greater Sydney, which includes the Central Coast, is still bigger than Greater Melbourne. Photo: Getty

The future of our cities

The headlines about Melbourne being bigger than Sydney will inevitably lead to the debate on which city is better.

The better question, according to Mr Kuestenmacher and Dr Liz Allen, a demographer from ANU, was: What should our cities look like in the future?

Dr Allen said Australia tended to fear high- or medium-density living. Instead of building up, we build out and this can be a problem.

“As we push the city limits out to the fringes and beyond, there doesn’t necessarily tend to be the infrastructure required to enable people to make the trip into the central business district, where the jobs tend to concentrate [and] where education tends to concentrate,” she said.

There was excitement about a technicality [on Melbourne’s size] but a discussion was needed in a time of “great uncertainty”, during a housing affordability shortage, about how cities are built.

Postcodes determined health outcomes, life expectancy, access to health services, even rates of mental illness and mental wellbeing, Dr Allen said.

Overall, wellbeing tended to dwindle the further populations were from the CBD.

Australia was also weird in that it is so densely populated in certain pockets, unlike every other country on Earth, Mr Kuestenmacher said.

“We have two-thirds of the population living in just five cities. That is insane. We have half of the population living in the top three cities. That’s too much,” he said.

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