Which Australian city is sprawling the most?

[Updated April 2017 with 2015-16 population estimates]

For a while now, I’ve been tracking urban sprawl and consolidation in Melbourne, but some interesting recent research prompted me to compare Melbourne to the other large Australian cities.

My question for this post: How do Australian cities compare for growing out versus up? (and by growth I’m talking about population)

Firstly, I need to define “outer” growth.

To do this, I’ve mapped the 2001, 2006, and 2011 ABS urban centre boundaries of each city. I’ve then looked at Statistical Area 3 regions within each Greater Capital City area that either saw substantial urban growth between 2001 and 2011, or were located on the fringe of the main urban area.

Here’s a map of Melbourne, with my designated “outer” areas shaded in a transparent blue:

The area in the middle is mostly shaded green – land considered by the ABS to be urban since at least 2001. There are a few yellow and orange areas (developed 2001-06 and 2006-11 respectively) that are not part the blue shaded “outer” area. The larger orange section visible in the south is mostly green wedge or industrial land, so does not represent growth of residential areas (maps for other cities below). The other yellow and orange areas are relatively small, and many have non-residential land uses.

I’ve done a similar process for Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, and the conurbation of South East Queensland (ie Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Sunshine Coast combined). See the end of this post for equivalent maps of these cities.

With an outer area defined for each city, I have calculated the annual population growth of these outer areas (based on 30 June estimates for each year), and compared it to growth of the city as a whole:

As you can see Perth is shifting to almost all population growth happening in the outer suburbs, while it’s about half in Melbourne and South East Queensland, and around a third in Sydney and Adelaide.

For reference, here are annual population growth rates for the five cities:

Perth saw dramatic growth between 2007 and 2013, but much less growth in the last few years, but most of that happening in outer areas.

The SA3 population data goes back to 1991, which creates some interesting results in the early nineties (even though my defined “outer” areas are trying to measure growth from 2000 onwards). In Adelaide in 1993 the outer areas had “156%” of the city’s population growth – which actually means that the outer areas grew (by 4509 people) while the inner areas had population decline (by 1617 people). At the same time in Melbourne, “103%” of population growth occurred in the outer areas as there was a net reduction of 393 people in the inner areas of Melbourne.

This reflects a previous trend for cities to grow mostly outwards until the mid 1990s, when urban densification took off. Indeed in another post, we saw the population-weighted density of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane bottom out in the mid 1990s:

So is Perth the most sprawling large city in Australia? Well, yes in terms of percentage of population growth, but not in terms of absolute population growth in outer areas:

On my definitions of outer areas, Melbourne is charging ahead, with over 55,000 residents moving into growth areas in 2015-16. Perth almost matched Melbourne’s growth in 2012, but has fallen back since and in 2015 is closer to Sydney and SEQ. Adelaide just hasn’t seen a lot of population growth in recent decades.

Population growth in outer Sydney slowed dramatically between 2002 and 2006. The chart below shows there was also a slow down in non-outer areas, although it was a little less dramatic. Around this time Sydney also transitioned from around 50% of growth being in outer areas, down to around 30%.

Here is the annual population growth in the non-outer areas of each city:

Around 2007 there was an acceleration of population growth in non-outer areas in most cities (although there was a subsequent lull around 2010-2012). In 2015-16 in Perth, the population of the non-outer areas only increased by an estimated 2076 people).

A couple of things to note:

  • The outer areas will have some combination of urban growth and urban densification. My guess is that most population growth will be from urban sprawl, as urban consolidation is more likely to happen in the inner and middle suburbs. But my method doesn’t attempt to remove urban consolidation in outer areas.
  • You might be wondering about the inclusion of outer areas that are not experiencing urban growth. These areas are unlikely to have much population growth at all, so will have little impact on the calculations of percentage of growth in outer areas.

Finally, here are maps showing my defined “outer” areas of the other cities:



I’ve used the full Greater Capital City area, which includes the Central Coast (Gosford / Wyong). This is arguably part of a conurbation with Newcastle but I’ve kept to the Greater Sydney boundary.  The large orange and yellow non-outer area to the west is mostly parkland or industrial, while the orange area to the south is mostly the Holsworth Military area which was defined as urban from 2011.

South East Queensland


I’ve included all of Greater Brisbane, as well as the Gold Coast (as far as the border with NSW) and the Sunshine Coast. The conurbation population includes the established areas of the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast as non-outer areas. The orange areas on the Sunshine Coast mostly contain National Parks and the airport, although it also includes the relatively new suburb of Peregian Springs, so not a perfect definition.



The non-outer area is fairly well-defined as almost entirely urban in 2001. The entire of the City of Joondalup (on the northern coast, mostly surrounded by Wanneroo) counts as urban in 2001, although the suburb of Iluka in the north-western corner has developed more recently, so the calculation won’t be perfect.



The two large orange areas in the non-outer area are non-residential, so there will be little fringe growth outside the blue area.


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