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Home » Australia and Pacific, Cultural Geography, Historical Geography, Population Geography

Australia’s Empty Countryside—and the Melbourne/Sydney Rivalry

Submitted by on December 10, 2012 – 11:26 pm 14 Comments |  
Australia is well known for its low population density. With roughly 23 million people living in 2.9 million sq mi (7.7 million sq km) of land, it ranks sixth from bottom in this regard, following Mongolia, Namibia, Iceland, Suriname, and Mauritania. Australia is also known for its high degree of urbanization, although its 89.2 percent official urbanization figure places only in the world’s 16th position. Such a ranking is misleading, however, as many of the more urbanized countries are microstates or city-states, such as Nauru, San Marino, Monaco, and Singapore. Australia is also unusual in the degree to which its top metropolitan areas tower over its smaller cities. More than half of Australians live in greater Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

As a result of such intense metropolitanization in a low-density framework, maps of Australian population density can be misleading. A quick glance at a typical map in this genre shows the vast Outback as sparsely populated indeed, but also seemingly indicates moderately high populations densities in the climatically favored eastern, southeastern, and southwestern reaches of the country. But the brown areas on the map to the right, with only 1.1-10 residents per square kilometer, are still sparsely settled by global standards. On the map of Europe posted here, all such areas would fall into the lowest population density category.

The scarcity of rural population even in the relatively thickly settled Australian southeast was recently impressed upon me while driving on back roads from Sydney to Canberra.  The trip took my family and me through the administrative districts of Lithgow, Oberon, Upper Lachland, and Yass Valley, an area highlighted in blue on the map to the left. Part of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, this low-elevation (2,000-3,000 feet [600-900 meters]) hilly plateau is devoted largely to livestock production. I found the scenery delightful, with tree-dotted pastoral landscapes alternating with woodlands and the occasional pine plantation. Human habitations were few and far between, and the miniscule hamlets that dot similar areas in the American West were absent. The small towns that I did pass through, such as Oberon proper (population 2,500), struck me as economically healthy and relatively well-nucleated, without the sloppy sprawl that characterizes most towns of a similar size in the western United States.

Although such claims are based merely on casual observation over a single transect of the Australian countryside, the basic demographic realities can easily be gleaned from census records. Lithgow, Oberon, Upper Lachland, and Yass Valley together cover 7,457 square miles (19,300 square kilometers), an area about the size of Wales, Slovenia, or New Jersey. The region’s total population, however, is a mere 48,000. One way to appreciate the low density of the region is to contrast it to California, where a similar scarcity of settlement is encountered only in the most remote counties in the far north and the desert east. Siskiyou County makes a good analogue, with 45,000 people living in 6,347 sq mi (16,440 km2) of land. But Siskiyou is a remote, rugged, and partly desert county, whereas the Lithgow to Yass Valley corridor is a gentle pastoral land situated in the Australian national core zone.







The area in question has registered moderate population gains over the past decade, as can be seen in the map to the left. The same map, however, shows population decreases in most rural areas of New South Wales, along with a major expansion in greater Sydney, which has registered three-quarters of the state’s total population growth during this period. Similar patterns are evident in most parts of the country. Such trends indicate an intensification of Australia’s already stark urban/rural divide. While the pastoral Outback and the main agricultural regions continue to lose population, Australia’s major metropolitan areas are all expanding, especially along their suburban fringes. As a recent press release puts it:

Population growth in Australia between June 2001 and June 2011 was strongest in the outer suburbs, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The five areas with the largest growth in the country were all on the outskirts of Melbourne, with the largest increase in South Morang (up 32,200 people). Point Cook, Caroline Springs and Tarneit in Melbourne’s west followed, each with growth of more than 20,000 people.

If present trends continue, greater Melbourne will surpass greater Sydney before too long to become, once again, Australia’s largest urban area. Considering the deep rivalry between the two cities, such trends are significant. But as a recent article in The Punch (“Australia’s Best Conversation”) argues, the actual differences between Sydney and Melbourne are insignificant:

Melbourne is the city in the world most similar to Sydney. Well, it is. Forget the differences. …Sydney and Melbourne have much, much more in common than either of them ever care to admit. Truth is, the brashness of Sydney (as seen through Melbourne eyes) and the bleakness of Melbourne (as seen through Sydney eyes) are just two examples of differences between the cities which are wildly overblown.

The 200 comments posted on the article, however, indicate that the rivalry is taken seriously indeed, especially by Melbournians. Intriguingly, one of the commentators (“TheBrad”) argued that the distinctive cultures of two cities are most clearly evident in one media segment: “you can tell a lot about a state by their morning radio breakfast shows – Sydney is in your face & Melbourne is a yawn…” The comment seems tragically prescient, considering the fact that the antics of two Sydney radio “shock jocks”  has been linked to the suicide of a duped British nurse, Jacintha Saldanha.

Although Sydneysiders may tend to view Melbourne as bleak and stuffy, many knowledgeably observers think that it has a more vibrant music and arts scene than its rival. Emblematic of the cultural differences between the two cities, some argue, is the fact that the Kiwi (New Zealander) singer-songwriter Kimbra—“the mesmerizing trans-Tasman pop sensation”—recently decided to relocate to Melbourne, not Sydney.


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  • As a neutral outsider, I would say there is a big difference between Sydney and Melbourne. Melbourne is the culture and sports capital, while Sydney is the business capital.

    • Interesting points. I thought of mentioning sports, as there is a big difference, at least in the winter: Rugby in Sydney and Australian Rule Football in Melbourne, no? What little I know about Australian rules football indicates that it is an interesting game that deserves more international attention.

      Why do you think that Melbourne is growing more quickly than Sydney?

      • Sydney and Melbourne are on different sides of the Barassi Line, which denotes the rugby and Australian Rules parts of the country.

        • Thanks for brining up the Barassi line — a most interesting geographical feature. It strikes me as unusual that Australia would have two different “sports” culture (at least as far as the main winter sport is concerned). I do wonder how the rugby/Australian rules football difference plays out in practice. Australians move fairly often from one major city to another, which makes it seem that the sports cultures would become more uniform over time.

          • As I understand it, the Barassi Line indeed is becoming more permeable, albeit in one direction: Australian rules football is increasingly popular to the east of the line, but rugby hasn’t made much headway to the west.

          • It should be noted that there are two rugbies: the 13-a-side rugby league (Aus working class and middle class) and the 15-a-side rugby union (Aussie middle and upper classes: but all classes in the case of NZ). Both ‘codes’ have Melbourne based teams. And the Sydney-based Aussie Rules team has won the national competition several times . . .

    • Alan

      The claim that Melbourne is the cultural capital is probably not true. It’s more a case of Melbourne propaganda. Repeat a lie often enough & many believe it to be true. Arts magazine Limelight recently (May 2012) sought to settle the matter based upon merit rather than self-proclamation. It concluded that Sydney was indeed the cultural capital. Another interesting blog from Lindy Hume

  • Guest

    Sydney – especially it’s City and East areas – is significantly more cosmopolitan and global than any part of Melbourne, which, for all its delights, feels quintessentially Australian in a somewhat bland suburban way. Sydney over Melbourne is without contest – the actually interesting competition for me is between Sydney and Brisbane.

    Side note: I’m a bit disappointed you would unambiguously assert “the antics of two Sydney radio “shock jocks” recently led to the suicide of a duped British nurse” when we know literally nothing about the causality of that event, beyond what blood-thirsty British tabloids have concocted. Is there no scientific scepticism to be had?

    • Many thanks for the insightful comments. You are right about my unambiguous assertion — I will edit it later today. I would like to know more about the Sydney/Brisbane competition. In briefly looking over the issue, I found more comments on the Melbourne/Adelaide contrast (such as “We Sydneysiders spend as much time thinking about Melbourne as Melbournians spend thinking about Adelaide.”

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  • James

    Melbourne even has a monument to Sydney-Melbourne rivalry. See:

  • Thanks for providing this link. Very interesting.

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  • Pete Repeat

    For whatever reason we denizens of Melbourne are known as Melburnians, not Melbournians.
    Sydney is undoubtedly a beautiful, beautiful city but I wouldn’t live anywhere in Australia except my beloved Melbourne