Swanston St (just north of Bourke) last Saturday afternoon
Something is happening here… Swanston St Melbourne last saturday afternoon, looking north toward the state library from Little Bourke street

I’ve lived in both and I love ‘em both, but it has to be said: Sydney’s CBD is dreary compared to Melbourne’s. The emerald city’s got the harbour, the bridge, the Opera House, the beach, the sun and maybe even the moon and stars, but there’s only a feeble beat at its very heart.

Visitors from Sydney notice it when they’re in Melbourne and I feel it when I’m in the global city. Whatever it is – vibrance, life, joie de vivre – Melbourne’s got a lot more of it than Sydney. A big part of it is the difference in the sheer number of people out and about in the CBD at night and on weekends, but it’s more than that; despite having the somewhat pedestrian Robert Doyle as Lord Mayor rather than the somewhat athletic Clover Moore, Melbourne has a sophistication and hipness that makes Sydney look like something Mike Baird created in Second Life.

Why is it so? The dinosaur part of the brain might immediately pounce on Sydney’s lock-out laws as the explanation. But that’s unconvincing; 1:30 am lockouts and 3:00 am last drinks don’t explain the absence of life on a Saturday afternoon (and adding half an hour won’t change that).

Or maybe it’s Melbourne’s dumb luck to be blessed with laneways that finally, after more than 150 years, are showing their real value. Or perhaps sun-starved Melburnians haven’t got much else to do; with footy matches now centralised maybe it’s no wonder they spend all their time in the city centre.

I don’t think anyone knows the correct answer, but I’ve got a theory; Sydney’s success as a global city – its premier role as Australia’s financial capital and main tourist drawcard – has had the unintentional effect of crowding the life out of the centre. These uses have increased the cost of accommodation in the CBD, making it harder to support the diversity of after-hours uses commonly found in Melbourne.

Back in the day when I was a student I lived in another financial centre – San Francisco – for a period. Having just come from Melbourne’s crowded lunchtime footpaths, I was surprised by the paucity of activity on downtown streets. Coming back years later it’s much the same; take away the tourists and there’s still not much street life downtown.

Melbourne bled finance jobs in the 80s and 90s following financial deregulation but eventually it got something back. It left room for an ecosystem of “low rent” activities to flourish in the CBD, pushed along by other structural changes like liquor licensing reform, the influx of overseas students, and repopulation of the city centre (see also What revitalised central Melbourne?).

All that was aided by having a relatively elastic CBD that expanded into Docklands and Southbank. The ability of Sydney’s CBD to expand is arguably more constrained by the harbour and the Gardens (and it’s clear Barangaroo isn’t doing much to promote vibrance). Sydney’s restrictive planning system has helped to keep the number of CBD residents well behind Melbourne’s and NSW’s apartment amenity standards help keep the riff-raff out. Comparable apartments cost around $100,000 more than they do in Melbourne; those of more limited means can’t buy one of those new “dogbox” apartments so common in Melbourne’s CBD.

It’s not that Sydney doesn’t have life. There’s plenty in the inner city and the system of suburban centres is considerably stronger than Melbourne’s. In fact a higher proportion of the metropolitan population probably live in somewhat more exciting neighbourhoods than their southern counterparts. It’s just that whatever life is around isn’t in the CBD.

It’s not clear if the City of Sydney really gets it (Sydney CBD plan to curb new apartment towers). The key thing is the attractiveness of a city centre for residents and businesses, as distinct from tourists, is increasingly defined by its cosmopolitanism and urbanity rather than its physical assets.