Media Botch

Apr 4, 2017

Is Sydney the new New York?

The Sydney Morning Herald's comparison of small parts of Sydney with leading world metropolises might grab the attention of readers, but it's rubbish

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Population density of inner city SA2s relative to their area, Sydney – City and Inner South SA4, 2016 (source data: ABS)

The Sydney Morning Herald informed its readers yesterday that the Homebush Bay-Silverwater precinct in Sydney’s west has more in common with gritty, bustling New York than meets the eye.

With 1773 people a square kilometre, Homebush Bay-Silverwater has the closest matching population density to the New York urban area.

Sydney’s parallels with the world’s great and glamorous cities don’t end there:

On the other side of the city, surfside Maroubra, with a density of 5591 people a sq km, most closely matches London’s density of 5600 people a sq km. A few suburbs away, Paddington-Moore Park (4394 people a sq km) most closely resembles the Tokyo-Yokohama urban area (4400 people a sq km), while the Concord-Mortlake-Cabarita precinct (3706 people a sq km) in the inner west is the closest match to Paris (3700 people a sq km).

What are Herald readers to make of these comparisons? Do they confirm the fears of those who complain high levels of immigration are turning Sydney into an ultra-dense city with all the associated problems of reduced amenity, inadequate infrastructure, and poor housing affordability? Or do they indicate Sydney is turning into an exciting, walkable city up there with the world’s leading destinations?

None of that; the claims are rubbish. This is a misleading comparison. Consider that ABS statistics show the Homebush-Silverwater Statistical Area (SA2) cited by the paper covers an area of just 11.3 sq km and has a population of only 19,965 persons. But the New York urbanised area the Herald compares it with is in another universe; it covers a whopping 11,642 sq km and has a population of over 20 million persons.

The same sprite melon versus watermelon problem applies to the other comparisons:

  • The Maroubra SA2’s 33,120 residents live in an area of 5.9 sq km; London’s 10,350,000 residents occupy 1,738 sq km.
  • The Paddington-Moore Park SA2’s 16,366 residents take up 3.7 sq km; Tokyo-Yokohama accommodates 37.75 million people on 8,574 sq km.
  • The Concord-Mortlake-Cabarita SA2’s 23,440 residents occupy 6.3 sq km; Paris’s 10.87 million live on 2,845 sq km.

Homebush-Silverwater’s density of 1,773 persons per sq km looks much less impressive when compared to the smaller City of New York, which has a population density of 10,947 per sq km. NYC is a lot smaller than the urbanised area but it’s still big; it covers 781 sq km and has 8.55 million residents. Manhattan is smaller again – 1.64 million residents occupying 59 sq km, so it’s still much bigger than Homebush-Silverwater – but its density is a staggering 27,826 persons per sq km.

A fairer comparison might be between Manhattan and the Sydney-City and Inner South SA4, made up of 19 inner city SA2s (see exhibit). At 64 sq km it’s much the same area as Manhattan but it has a population of 322,556, giving a density of 4,923 persons per hectare. That’s about one fifth of Manhattan’s density.

Or compare Australia’s densest SA2, Ultimo-Pyrmont, with the neighbourhood of Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. With 22,881 residents occupying 1.5 sq km, Ultimo-Pyrmont’s density is 15,346 persons per sq km. Yorkville is similar in area – 1.3 sq km – but has around 80,000 inhabitants, giving it a density of just over 60,000 persons per sq km.

Comparing small populations/areas with larger ones is fraught, but surprisingly common (see More overreach on the problem of high-rise towers?). The problem is small units show a lot of variability; this tends to be averaged out as the population size/area increases. For example, tiny Surry Hills houses 18,021 people within 1.3 sq km at an average density of 13,685 per sq km, whereas the five million residents of Greater Sydney cover 12,368 sq km (incidentally, similar to urban New York) at a density of just 405 persons per sq km.

The silliness of extrapolating from small areas to make a point about large areas is shown by a simple example; a single tower with 500 residents on a one hectare site is equivalent to a density of 50,000 persons per sq km. Australia’s capital cities have many individual residential towers that far exceed the urbanised area population densities of New York, London, Tokyo, and Paris. Quite a few exceed the density of Manhattan or central Paris. But these can’t be sensibly compared to larger areas containing many buildings of various sizes as well as supporting infrastructure and amenities such as parks and streams.

The Herald’s report does eventually acknowledge “there are limits to the comparisons that can be drawn between small neighbourhoods and large urban areas”, but that’s not until after 223 words and two exhibits. Anyway, there’s no indication for the layperson of what those limits are, or how important they are. In characteristic fashion, Fairfax’s sub-editor runs the click-catching but misleading headline and then puts the arse-covering but meaningless qualifier well into the article.

This isn’t just another media botch; it goes to having a well-informed public understanding of key urban issues like density.

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6 thoughts on “Is Sydney the new New York?

  1. Questioning

    That area for Sydney you quoted, the 12,368 km2, is an administrative area, and not the urban area, and that does affect the figures posited.

    I understand the figure is derived from the ABS, however upon closure inspection, it reveals that it is made up of large, largely uninhabited and uninhabitable regions such as Holsworthy (with a population of 0), the Royal National Park (with a population of 18), areas of the Blue Mountains National Park (with populations of 7 and 27) etc. Large areas of bushland that are uninhabited.

    That doesn’t drastically change your argument, but using this administrative boundary instead of an urban one gives you that population density figure of 405 persons per km2.

    That’s not an accurate reflection of Sydney’s urban population density, which in fact is probably closer to 3,500 persons per km2.
    Still a long way from New York, but a lot more than the 405 you get when counting every national park around Sydney.

    The same would go for every other city in Australia.

    1. Alan Davies

      I used the same data source (ABS) for all the Sydney figures, because that’s what the Herald used (and my comparison of Greater Sydney was with Surry Hills). You’re right of course that Greater Sydney (GCCSA) includes lots of undeveloped space – it’s a definition of Sydney based on the labour catchment. If I use the Demographia data on urbanised areas the Herald relied on for all overseas cities, the figure for urban Sydney is 1,900 persons per sq km; that’s higher than Demographia’s figure of 1,800 persons per sq km for New York!

  2. Teddy

    You are right about the Herald’s clickbait motivation. Though this time with a front page aerial photo of the densest bit of the city (Elizabeth Bay) they had on file (or as the credit shows a cut-price online photo library), it was aimed at print buyers of the paper, who are now (mostly) the elderly who live in the relatively low density inner ring suburbs and north shore. There was a strap line reading “How dense is your suburb? Explore the data online” – an attempt to get them to sit down at their computers and start fuming – get outraged at immigration/migrants /foreign house buyers/ government incompetence/developers/social and economic change in general and pen an angry letter or comment agreeing with Dick Smith or some other conservative anti-immigration grump.

    Alan, your take-down was excellent but totally unnecessary. I don’t know much about the media in Melbourne, but anyone interested in the future of Sydney has LONG given up taking anything written about it in the Herald seriously. Now we’ll wait for the weekend edition, when star urban affairs columnist Elizabeth Farrelly takes her cue from the story, and once again churns out some near-unreadable verbiage telling us how truly horrid and nasty our city has become.

    I’ll give that a miss… I buy the paper for Domian – its now glossy real estate section which (ironically) is the only thing keeping its parent publication afloat.

  3. Jacob HSR

    Manhattan seems to have a lot of cycleways – if I see some Casey Neistat videos. I doubt Sydney has even 1 decent one.

    A new cycleway has been proposed for Melbourne:

    1. Saugoof

      Hopefully that cycleway turns out as good as it sounds, we’ve had some great promises in the past that turned into half-backed solutions. But this one is sorely needed. Going along the cycle path on Footscray road during rush hour has become quite intense, often there are too many bikes to allow all of them to cross intersections during a green light. It’s almost like driving a car in peak-hour now. There are also many dangerous and really inconvenient road crossings on that bike path. So an upgrade is definitely welcome.

    2. Questioning

      You doubt?
      Do you know? There’s a difference.
      Sydney has plenty of cycle ways and cycle paths, with many councils in the inner and outer suburbs building or upkeeping them.

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