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In 2007, KPMG demographer Bernard Salt attracted significant media attention when he claimed that if Melbourne continued to grow at the same rate it did over the period 2001-06, it would overtake Sydney as Australia’s largest city by 2028. This claim was embraced by the then Victorian premier, John Brumby, and it reignited the decades old feud between the two cities as to who was bigger and better. Ironically, Salt (and Brumby) miss the point – talking about numbers may grab the headlines, but from a demographic and spatial perspective, Sydney and Melbourne are growing very differently. Over the period 2006-2011, Melbourne did record faster and higher growth than Sydney, but the spatial pattern of growth differed significantly between the two cities. The bulk of Melbourne’s growth occurred on the urban fringe, and some areas recorded very high rates of population growth. In contrast, the fastest growing areas in Sydney tend to be in the established areas, particularly to the west of the CBD. While greenfield growth is occurring in Sydney, it is not at the rate and volume recorded in Melbourne. In addition, there are significant differences in the density mix of new dwellings, with far more high density dwellings constructed in Sydney.

This paper goes beyond the headline numbers to examine spatial patterns of population and housing change in Sydney and Melbourne. These aspects as far less understood and receive far less attention, yet they are important in understanding the nature of urban change and how this might inform decision making and policy implementation. This is true at both the metropolitan and local government level. The first part of this paper uses data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to examine population trends over the period 2006-2011. This is followed by an analysis of dwelling data from the Census of Population and Housing, concentrating on the location of new dwellings and the prevalence of high density housing in the metropolitan context. The paper then draws upon other literature to discuss the possible influences on these population and housing outcomes. The role of metropolitan planning is particularly relevant to this discussion, particularly in light of specific policies to curb urban sprawl and increase housing densities in established area.

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