Mine is bigger than yours!

There was a lot of talk a few weeks back about Melbourne’s population overtaking Sydney.

This is because there are two main definitions for the metropolitan areas of all the capitals, and both were updated for 2022 and released by ABS last month.

So, there are essentially two competing definitions for what constitutes an Australian capital city.

The most commonly used one is called Greater Capital City Statistical Area.  This is a stable, long-term boundary which includes the major metropolitan area and many outlying urban and rural districts surrounding our capitals.

The ABS definition is based primarily on labour markets – it’s the catchment zone for workers where a large share work within the built-up area of the city.

The second, lesser used definition is called Significant Urban Areas, and it is defined not just for our capitals, but for every urban area in Australia with at least 10,000 people.

These form a tighter boundary around the built-up area and exclude outlying rural parts of the capital city.

On the larger boundary – and for mine the more accurate measure – Sydney remains Australia’s largest city, but on the smaller Significant Urban Area boundary, Melbourne is now larger.

This happened when ABS revised the Significant Urban Area boundaries after the 2021 Census.  There were a few changes, but the primary one which affected the Melbourne population was the inclusion of several new fast-growing suburbs on the western flank of the city.

So magically Melbourne is now 37,000 people larger than Sydney.  Not worth the headlines really nor a Missive post, but peeps have asked for an explanation.

But – of course – it’s not just Melbourne and Sydney which have competing urban definitions.  The table below outlines how all the capital city populations look at June 2022, on the two main different ABS measures.

And I have included some maps of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – at the end of this post – showing the geographic differences between the two urban ABS measurements.

There is another school of thought which considers Greater Sydney to be part of a still larger urban area including Newcastle and Wollongong, which apart from natural barriers now sprawls over 250km from Raymond Terrace in the north to Kiama in the south.

By this definition the Sydney-Newcastle-Wollongong urban area holds over 6.1 million people and is well ahead of Melbourne, which would be about 5.3 million if you did the equivalent exercise and went outwards to include Geelong, Warragul, Gisborne and a few other outlying centres.

When you do the same for south-east Queensland – including the Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast and Toowoomba – you get about 3.9 million residents.

 However, in the end, the debate is fairly moot, and it’s only the old Sydney–Melbourne rivalry that keeps it going.

Probably the most truthful thing one can say is that both cities have a similar population at around 5 million and are experiencing similar issues, including increasing traffic congestion, low housing affordability, higher levels of angst, more pollution and a range of social/community tensions to name just a few.

But that won’t stop the comparing!


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