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Dec 1, 2015

Does Melbourne really extend five times further than London?

The Age reported yesterday that a visiting London transport expert reckons Melbourne houses only half the population of London, but covers five times the area. This old canard isn't true

Melbourne density

London density
Population density of Melbourne vs London at same scale and same key (source: Charting Transport)

The managing director of planning at Transport for London, Richard de Cani, reportedly claims Melbourne is five times bigger than London even though it only has half the population.

Five times bigger? The Age has been promoting this myth for years; here it is back in 2010 asserting that “Melbourne is already the eighth largest city in the the world in geographical size”.

It might reinforce the preconceptions of many in Fairfax’s target demographic, but this old canard is seriously wrong on two counts.

Fortunately, we can refer to the estimates of population density for a range of world cities at the same scale put together recently by Chris Loader, including both London and Melbourne (I discussed Paris yesterday; see How dense are our cities compared to Paris?).

The first error is evident from the exhibit. London isn’t a mere one fifth the size of Melbourne; its urbanised footprint is at least as large.

The sizes of cities can’t be usefully compared on the basis of their administrative boundaries; borders can be drawn anywhere on a map and are often determined by local political convenience. (1)

The area of contiguous urbanisation is a much better measure (e.g. the area under streetlights), but it has limitations too; in partiular, it doesn’t capture suburbs separated by green belt or water.

For example, the satellite suburb of Melton is separated from the main urban fabric of Melbourne by 9 km of green belt (known locally as green wedge) but almost 60% of its workforce commutes to ‘mainland’ Melbourne.

It can be labelled a city, a town, or a village, but it’s as economically and socially connected to the rest of the metropolitan area as any other outer suburb.

Defining where a city ends is a difficult task, but any sensible approach should start by taking account of connections, particularly the extent to which workers in a suburb or town commute to jobs in the rest of the urban area.

After all, agglomeration economies, especially in labour, are the reason cities exist. Outlying towns that are closely connected to the continuously urbanised area should be considered part of the main city.

The second error is the claim that Melbourne’s population of 4.2 million is half that of London’s. It’s true the population within London’s green belt is circa 8 million, but there’s close to a further six million living beyond the green belt.

London is surrounded by an extensive system of ‘overspill’ or satellite towns like Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes that are economically and socially connected to London. They’re as much outer suburbs of London as Melton is of Melbourne.

London’s commuter belt covers much of the South East region and part of the East of England region, including the Home counties of Kent, Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex.

The important spatial difference between London and Melbourne isn’t geographical spread; it’s the fact London is both a lot denser and has a more decentralised form. Chris Loader estimates London’s population-weighted density (the best way of measuring density) is three times Melbourne’s.

Mr de Cani no doubt knows his stuff, but being drawn by the media into discussing places you’re visiting is fraught. The local media tends to have its own agenda. (2)


  1. When I was a child I was under the delusion that Brisbane was the third largest city in the world. Years later I learned what that really meant is the Brisbane City Council covered one of the largest administrative areas of any municipality in the world.
  2. The Age says it even managed to draw a comment from Mr de Cani on the VCAT Nightingale apartments decision I discussed last week (see Are councils dealing with the problem of inner suburban parking?); indeed, the paper made it the angle of its story i.e. Car-free housing encouraged in London, says city’s transport planning boss. The VCAT decision is such a specific and complex subject it makes me wonder if perhaps Mr de Cani was speaking more generally than The Age implies.

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12 thoughts on “Does Melbourne really extend five times further than London?

  1. Tom the first and best


    The main reason that Australia had such sprawled settlements for their population size, is that they were run by people reacting against the problems (crime and disease) of the European/English city in the 18th and 19th centuries (most of the convicts were English and Irish urban criminals) and space was seen as part of the solution.

    Australia had scarcer labour and thus ordinary people were able to afford better accommodation.

    Land tenure differences would also have played a part. In Europe they had concentrated land ownership in the hands of a small landlord class but in Australia ordinary people, particularly outside cities, could afford their own land because the blocks were sold given out or squatted individually.

  2. Smith John

    Comment on your interesting linked post ‘Why is housing in European rural villages so dense’:

    My guess is (speaking of places that are not so old that the issue of defensive walls was significant): primarily poverty and the cost of building materials; plus the convenience of density given a mostly walking lifestyle in the pre-car age; plus different cultural norms in which privacy was not so important; plus traditions of property ownership in which you walked to your fields outside town rather than trying to grows things in a backyard.

    My mother-in-law grew up in a Greek village in a peasant family of 12 in a 2-room house of about 50 square metres plus cellar and stable. I imagine life was lived outdoors as much as possible and the house was mainly the place you went to eat and sleep (similarly in 1880s rural England in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford). Having almost no possessions apart from clothes and kitchenware helps.

    What’s interesting is how quickly the English settlers of Australia, when surveying new towns, abandoned that form in favour of detached houses on large lots with absurdly wide streets. There are a few higher density mid-19th century terraces in older towns like Bathurst and Goulburn, but not many. It would be interesting to know their social history – for example, whether they were always expected to be cottages for the poor.

  3. Alan Davies

    Norman Hanscombe #9:

    Wollongong? Nah, Brisbane City Council covers double the area of the City of Wollongong in terms of administrative boundaries (see footnote 1 in the article). Geography has a far wider application that admin boundaries.

    Checked the meaning of canard before I published it; confirmed what I thought. And it might have been “borrowed” from French but canard is an established word in the English language, like garage.

  4. Norman Hanscombe

    Alan, you really need to try to understand what the word geographical means, don’t you. It’s zilch to do with population densities or anything else. I recall from the 1950s that Wollongong City [because of its GEOGRAPHICAL boundaries] was among the world leaders in City AREA size.
    Or is it that you just like to have provocative headlines and use French words such as canard — even if you don’t know what its meaning actually is.
    The poor Crikey subscribers are misled enough as it is, aren’t they?

  5. Jacob HSR

    You can read the Sydney Morning Herald.

    It has some stories that are not in The Age.

  6. Tom the first and best


    There are places within 20km West and North of Melbourne that are in the Green wedges.

  7. Alan Davies

    Saugoof #4, Dylan Nicholson #5:

    Agree that urban and town boundaries are much “harder” in European cities compared to our scattered fringes (e.g. see Why is housing in European rural villages so dense?). It’s an interesting topic in itself, but I don’t think it upsets the two key propositions in the article.

    Saugoof, re your first point, I’m bound to have implicit biases, although I do try to take an evidence-based approach. I certainly have a set opinion, though, about media that makes bullshit assertions.

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    Isn’t part of the problem measuring just *people* per sq km?
    Melbourne may not have a lot of people per sq km, but it has a lot of built footprint (lots of small families living in large single-storey dwellings), which is surely why a much larger percentage of it feels ‘urban’ when compared to European cities.
    Now from a transport POV people per sq km may be the more relevant statistic, but even then you need available land to build roads, railways, stations etc., and there’s really very little of it with in the boundary of greater Melbourne.

  9. Saugoof

    Alan Davies #3
    You do sometimes have a tendency to come across as someone who has a set opinion and then searches out data that can be interpreted in ways to support your point. In this case it really doesn’t wash with me precisely because I do know Melbourne as well as London or Paris so well. It feels like you’re telling me that what I’ve seen as black is in fact white.

    I do love statistics and numbers and I normally treat people who insist on “gut feeling” over clear-cut reason with deep suspicion. But I am also well aware of how numbers and statistics can mislead if applied wrong. Using density, even at sq km blocks, is a case in point because in London, like most cities in Europe, there are far more satellite towns than in Melbourne, but these satellite towns, as well as the city, have fairly sharp boundaries. When you leave London or one of the satellite towns, you really are in the country. It may only be a short hop to the next town, but you really are in what can only be described as country side. By contrast Melbourne just goes on and on and eventually morphs into country over an incredibly long distance. There may be few houses (and low density), but they’re at fairly constant intervals and run on for a mighty long stretch. I know, this is personal experience and has zero scientific credibility, but I still know it to be true because this really is something that I do have seen far more of than most people. I dare say I do travel in and out of the city in every direction more than just about anyone else who lives here.

    And in regards to the fantastic Yarra Bend park, well that’s nothing to do with whether Melbourne stretches on for longer than London, other than ironically making the city even larger due to its inclusion. Besides, as beautiful as it is, it never feels like anything other than a large city park.

  10. Alan Davies

    Saugoof #1:

    I think it’s fair to say that measuring the density of cities in one sq km blocks is a more objective approach than a personal countryside perception test. Anyway, cities like Melbourne have a lot of more parks on average than Euro cities, as Tony Morton notes. The fantastic Yarra park system starts at Yarra Bend, 3.5 km as the crow flies from FSS.

    mook schanker #2:

    Always hard to draw comparisons, but I think there’s more than enough evidence to support the case that Melbourne doesn’t have half the population of London and isn’t five times as big.

    One of the interesting questions is whether satellite cities like London’s are a better way to deal with growth (e.g. in terms of sustainability) than the incremental growth on the edge of established suburbs that characterises most of Melbourne.

  11. mook schanker

    The handy maps really show the density of Londons satellite cities which are pretty much ‘feeders’ for people commuting to London (great transport links) and they are incredibly extensive in number when compared to Melbourne. Along with Londons ‘inner’ being quite dense compared to Melbourne, it can be quite hard to compare and draw conclusions about these cities with their respective distinct characteristics….

  12. Saugoof

    This all sounds like you’re trying to make a point out of an inexact science.

    I only have personal experience to go by, so that’s no more scientifically accurate. But in my favour, I think I know Melbourne’s borders and immediate surrounds much better than most people, stemming from a good decade of trying to explore every corner of Melbourne and nearby Victoria on my bike. There is practically no road leading in and out of the city that I don’t know.

    I can compare that with cities like London and Paris that I do know very well, although obviously not as well as Melbourne, but I’ve spent a lot of time in these as well.
    From Melbourne’s CBD you basically have to cycle a good 50km in any direction before you are in what feels like country side. On the other hand in London or Paris, within about 15-20km you’re in the country. You’re still going to come through a lot of satellite towns, like you do in Melbourne, but in between that there is definite country side.

    The most striking example for me was Rome though. Rome has roughly the same population as Melbourne, but 10km out of the city and you’re among farms and grass land where in Melbourne you’d still be in inner suburbia.