Front page of yesterday’s issue of The Age (iPad version) claiming the “…CBD’s density surpasses New York City”

The Age returned to one of its familiar themes on Monday, informing readers in an “EXCLUSIVE” report that due to all those tall towers the population density of Melbourne’s CBD now “surpasses New York City” (Population pressure a fast-growing concern for Victorian voters).

“Surpasses” New York City? Seems a strange word (it usually implies “better than”?) as it’s clearly meant to convey something that concerns voters. But is it a real worry? Or is it a case once again of The Age framing the news in a way likely to press its readers’ buttons i.e. playing to their preconceptions and prejudices?

Well, at first glance it might look like The Age is right. The population density of Melbourne’s CBD (SA2) is 197 persons per hectare. The density of New York City is 110 persons per hectare.

Big difference, right? Not really. It’s a silly and highly selective comparison. Melbourne’s CBD covers only 2.6 sq km whereas New York City’s land area is a whopping 784 sq km. The CBD is the tiny centre of the decidedly expansive urban area of Melbourne, whereas the comparison is with all of NYC.

There are small parts of all cities that are much denser than the average for the city as a whole. For example, Manhattan’s land area is 59 sq km, but its population density is 282 persons per hectare. That’s much higher than the density of NYC; and considerably denser than Melbourne’s CBD even though it’s twenty-five times larger in area.

At 4.6 sq km, the area covered by Manhattan Community Board 3, which includes the Lower East Side and Chinatown, is much closer in size to Melbourne’s CBD; its population density though is 361 persons per hectare. The neighbourhood of Yorkville on Manhattan’s East Side covers 1.3 sq km and has a density of 603 persons per hectare.

This isn’t the first time Fairfax has indulged this sort of rubbish. Early last year the Sydney Morning Herald told readers that Maroubra is as dense as London, Paddington-Moore Park is as dense as Tokyo-Yokohama, and Concord-Mortlake is as dense as Paris (see Is Sydney the new New York?)!

The Age also over-sells the idea that Australians are seriously worried about population growth.

Greater Melbourne grew by 2.7 per cent last year, faster than any major city in the US. Just as Melbourne’s population growth rate has accelerated in recent years, so too has concern in the community that it might be happening too fast, a survey of Victorian voters has found.

Ipsos Public Affairs has been monitoring Victorians’ attitudes about issues for a decade, surveying 750 people each quarter. At the 2014 election, just 7 per cent of Melburnians, and 6 per cent statewide, said they were concerned about population growth.

In the most recent Ipsos survey this month, 20 per cent of respondents in Melbourne said they were concerned about population growth. The figure was 16 per cent for all Victorians.

Sound bad? I’ve graphed the results of the survey to give some context to the way The Age’s framed the story. The Age graphed them too but left out the crucial data on population, even though its the focus of the article. It’s certainly worth noting that concern about population growth has shot up over the last four years, but the graph shows the big story from the Ipsos survey is the top issues that currently worry Victorians are crime, housing, cost of living, transport and health care. Concern about the first two also shot up over the period.

Key issues nominated by Victorian voters (source data: Ipsos via The Age)
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