Are Melbourne’s suburbs full of quarter acre blocks?

Sun 22 May, 2016

A lot has been said about the great Australian dream of moving to the suburbs and living on a quarter acre block. But is Melbourne suburbia actually full of quarter acre blocks? Where are they to be found? Are they disappearing? This post delves into block sizes in Melbourne.

Where are the quarter acre blocks?

A quarter-acre translates to 1011.7 square metres in modern units, but for the purposes of this post I’ll allow some leeway and count any block between 900 and 1100 square metres. For this post I’ve also filtered out blocks in planning zones that cannot include dwellings (eg industrial areas), but that does mean I’ve included blocks in mixed use zones, commercial zones, etc. So not every block counted is residential. Also some larger blocks might contain multiple small dwellings but not actually be subdivided (eg a block of flats).

First up, here is a map of Melbourne showing the prevalence of quarter acre blocks. It looks like there are lots of them, but because the blocks are so small, the total area occupied by quarter-acre blocks is significantly over-represented on this large scale map.

Melbourne quarter acre block map

There are larger concentrations in the outer north-east and outer-east, but very few blocks in the current growth areas to the west, north and south-east.

Here are the top 20 suburbs for numbers of quarter-acre blocks:

Mooroolbark 1625
Rye 1545
Ferntree Gully 1504
Boronia 1471
Croydon 1437
Mount Martha 1430
Eltham 1229
Mount Eliza 1125
Werribee 1054
Sunbury 1035
Lilydale 996
Mornington 982
Reservoir 978
Balwyn North 936
Berwick 898
Upwey 897
Pakenham 772
Langwarrin 767
Kilsyth 732
Greensborough 724

There are almost 78,000 quarter-acre blocks within Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary, which sounds like a lot, but is only 3.75% of the 1.8 million blocks in my dataset.

So what are typical block sizes in Melbourne?

For this analysis I’m considering blocks within land use zones that can include dwellings, that are also within the urban growth boundary. But I’ve excluded blocks of less than 40 square metres on the assumption these are unlikely to contain dwellings.

Here’s the frequency distribution of block sizes in Melbourne:

The most common block size is 640-660 square metres, and 34.5% of blocks are between 520 and 740 square metres. The median is 540-560 square metres. 180-200 is the most common smaller block size, and there is a small spike in block sizes of 1000-1020 square metres, which includes the quarter-acre block. But quarter-acre blocks are certainly very uncommon.

I’ve calculated the median block sizes for all suburbs within Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary.

The inner city has median block sizes under 300 square metres, and 300-500 is typical in the inner northern and western suburbs. Block sizes are larger in the middle and outer eastern suburbs, older suburbs in the south-east, and blocks along the Mornington Peninsula. But the more recent growth areas to the west, north and south-east see median block sizes of between 400 and 500 square metres (purple), reflecting higher dwelling densities encouraged by current planning policy for growth areas. Quarter-acre blocks are the median only in places like Upwey, Belgrave and Portsea.

Inner city Carlton has the lowest median of 100-120 square metres, followed by Cremorne, North Melbourne, South Melbourne at 120-140 square metres, and then Abbotsford, Fitzroy North, Port Melbourne, Richmond, West Melbourne at 140-160 square metres. Urbanised suburbs at the other end of the scale include Park Orchards at 3020, Selby at 1440, and Warrandyte at 1260.

There are two interesting outliers in the central city: Southbank (in yellow) has a median block size of 980 square metres, and Docklands (in blue) has a median of 660 square metres. Both have been redeveloped in recent decades with many medium to high-rise apartment towers on those larger blocks.

Beyond these medians, there is a lot of variation within suburbs. Let’s go for a wander around the city.

Mooroolbark has the highest count of quarter-acre blocks and a median size of 840 square metres. As well as larger blocks, you can see a lot of further subdivision, particularly close to the train line (thin black line).

You may have noticed in the suburb map above a black coloured suburb in the middle south-eastern suburbs. That suburb is Clayton, and here is how it looks:

While blocks of 700-800 square metres were probably typical in the original subdivision, further subdivided blocks now outnumber the larger blocks, with a median of 260 square metres. Clayton of course is home to a major Monash University campus, and I suspect a lot of the smaller blocks house students.

A bit further down the line in Noble Park you can see extensive further subdivision near the rail line, surrounded by almost uniform blocks of 500-600 square metres:

Heading further south, Cranbourne is an interesting mix. The inner core (old town) has larger blocks but lots of further subdivision. This is surrounded by many blocks of around 700-800 square metres, but the most recent development has much smaller bocks, most less than 500. It’s a bit like tree rings, with each ring of incremental urban growth reflecting the preferred new block size of the time.

The area around Berwick also has a wide variety of block sizes, depending on the timing of development:

Here is the Frankston area:

Again significant further subdivision in central Frankston, a variety of block sizes in different parts of Langwarrin, and lots of large blocks in Frankston South and Mount Eliza (in some of the pink areas most blocks are over 2500 square metres).

In the middle northern suburbs you can see suburbs from an era when new block sizes were relatively large, and they’ve since had extensive subdivision. Here is Pascoe Vale:

Here is Reservoir. You can see smaller blocks in the surrounding suburbs:

The large block area to the west of the train line was apparently developed around the 1960s.

And to the west St Albans is another suburb with larger blocks being subdivided:

And further east there is a lot of further subdivision in Boronia and Bayswater, particularly near the rail stations:

The north-west corner of Templestowe has not too many larger blocks yet to be subdivided. But to the south-east you can see areas with blocks larger than 1200 square metres (light pink).

The area around Eltham has many large blocks, including many larger than quarter-acres. There has been quite a bit of subdivision around the rail stations however.

Another area with many large blocks is around Upwey/Belgrave:

A significant proportion of blocks are larger than a quarter-acre, with a median of 1060 in Belgrave, 1120 in Upwey, 1000 in Tecoma, and 980 in Upper Ferntree Gully.

If you want a quarter-acre block relatively close to the city, then Balwyn North has quite a few (many with swimming pools). Good luck saving a deposit for those.

But if a quarter-acre block isn’t big enough and you can afford the real estate, then you might want to try Canterbury or Deepdene, also relatively close to the city:

Or of course Toorak with plenty of very large blocks even closer to the city (although many will contain apartment buildings).

Essendon also has some larger blocks, including some quarter-acres:

There has been plenty of further subdivision, but there is also a stripe of green that is mostly in tact (a restrictive covenant applied perhaps?). You can also see the recent Valley Lake development in purple in Niddrie.

Most of the growth areas have small blocks, but here are some exceptions in eastern Doreen:

So there is plenty of variation in block sizes across Melbourne, but not that many quarter-acre blocks. Perhaps we should talk more about the one-seventh-acre block.

Data acknowledgement

This analysis was made possible with data available from under a creative commons license. The data is Copyright © The State of Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning 2016.

I have used November 2015 property boundary data and May 2016 planning zones (sorry, not quite aligned, but this post has been a while in the making and the differences are unlikely to be significant).

How do Australian and European cities compare for population and area?

Sun 6 December, 2015

Following on from my previous post comparing the density of Australian and European cities, there has been some interest in the relative size of Australian and European cities. This post takes a quick look.

To make comparisons, I’ve taken the square kilometre population grid data for Europe and Australia, and summed the population and number of cells within the urban area/centre boundaries (as discussed in last post) that have at least 100 residents (ie 1 person per hectare or more) for each city. I’ve included this (arbitrary) threshold as some urban area boundaries seem to include some non-urban land. It means that I’m approximately measuring the populated areas of cities, and large parks, industrial areas, airports, etc may therefore be excluded in this analysis.

Here’s a chart of population versus populated area (click to enlarge):


So Melbourne is about the same size as London and Paris but has less than half the population. Brisbane is a similar size to Milan, with half the population. Perth is larger than Berlin, but has around half the population. Adelaide has a similar population to Seville and Sofia, which are about a third the size. Sydney has a similar population as Barcelona but is almost four times larger.

Because I couldn’t label all the cities in the chart above, here is a data table (smaller values in red, larger values in blue):

AU EU city data table
I’m hoping to add Canadian and US cities to my analysis soon.

Comparing the densities of Australian, European, Canadian, and New Zealand cities

Thu 26 November, 2015

[updated March 2016 to add Canadian and New Zealand cities]

Just how much denser are European cities compared to Australian cities? What about Canadian and New Zealand cities? And does Australian style suburbia exist in European cities?

This post calculates the population-weighted density of 53 Australian, European, and Canadian cities with a population over 1 million, plus the three largest New Zealand cities (only Auckland is over 1 million population). It also shows a breakdown of the densities at which these cities’ residents live, and includes a set of density maps with identical scale and density shading.

Why Population Weighted Density?

As discussed in previous posts, population-weighted density attempts to measure the density at which the average city resident lives. Rather than divide the total population of a city by the entire city area (which usually includes large amounts of sparsely populated land), population weighted density is a weighted average of population density of all the parcels that make up the city. As I’ve shown previously, the size of the parcels used makes a big difference in the calculation of population-weighted density, which makes comparing cities difficult internationally.

To overcome the issue of different parcel sizes, I’ve used kilometre grid population data that is now available for both Europe and Australia. I’ve also generated my own kilometre population grids for Canadian and New Zealand cities by proportionally summing populations of the smallest census parcels available.

Some measures of density exclude all non-residential land, but the square kilometre grid approach means that partially populated grid parcels are counted, and many of these parcels will include non-residential land, and possibly even large amounts of water. It’s not perfect, particularly for cities with small footprints. For example, here is a density map around Sydney harbour (where light green is lower density, dark green is medium density and red is higher density):

Sydney harbour

You can see that many of the grid cells that include significant amounts of water show a lower density, when it fact the population of those cells are contained within the non-water parts of the grid cell. The more watery cells, the lower the calculated density. This is could count against a city like Sydney with a large harbour.

Defining cities

The second challenge with these calculations is a definition of the city limits. For Australia I’ve used Urban Centre boundaries, which attempt to include contiguous urbanised areas (read the full definition). For Europe I’ve used 2011 Morphological Urban Areas, which have fairly similar rules for boundaries. For Canada I’ve used Population Centre, and for New Zealand I’ve used Urban Areas.

These methodologies tend to exclude satellite towns of cities (less so in New Zealand and Canada). While these boundaries are not determined in the exactly the same way, one good thing about population-weighted density is that parcels of land that have very little population don’t have much impact on the overall result (because their low population has little weighting).

For each city, I’ve included every grid cell where the centroid of that cell is within the defined boundaries of the city. Yes that’s slightly arbitrary and not ideal for cities with dense cores on coastlines, but at least I’ve been consistent. It also means some of the cells around the boundary are excluded from the calculation, which to some extent offsets the coastline issues. It also means the values for Australian cities are slightly different to a previous post.

All source data is dated 2011, except for France which is 2010, and New Zealand which is 2013.

Comparing population-weighted density of Australian, European, Canadian and New Zealand cities

AU EU CA NZ Population Weighted Density

You can see the five Australian cities are all at the bottom, most UK cities are in the bottom third, and the four large Spanish cities are within the top seven.

Sydney is not far below Glasgow and Helsinki. Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane are nothing like the European cities when it comes to (average) population-weighted density.

Three Canadian cities (Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal) are mid-range, while the other three are more comparable with Australia. Of the New Zealand cities, Auckland is surprisingly more dense than Melbourne. Wellington is more dense that Vancouver (both topographically constrained cities).

But these figures are only averages, which makes we wonder…

How much diversity is there in urban density?

The following chart shows the proportion of each city’s population that lives at various urban density ranges:

AU EU CA NZ urban density distribution

Because of the massive variations in density, I had to break the scale interval sizes at 100 persons per hectare, and even then, the low density Australian cities are almost entirely composed of the bottom two intervals. You can see a lot of density diversity across European cities, and very little in Australian cities, except perhaps for Sydney.

You can also see that only 10% of Barcelona has an urban density similar to Perth or Adelaide. Which makes me wonder…

Do many people in European cities live at typical Australian suburban densities?

Do many Europeans living in cities live in detached dwellings with backyards, as is so common in Australian cities?

To try to answer this question, I’ve calculated the percentage of the population of each city that lives at between 10 and 30 people per hectare, which is a generous interpretation of typical Australian “suburbia”.

AU EU CA NZ cities percent at 10 to 30 per hectare

It’s a minority of the population in all European cities (and even for Sydney). But it does exist. Here are examples of Australian-style suburbia in outer Hamburg, Berlin, LondonMilan, and even Barcelona (though I hate to think what some of the property prices might be!)

How different is population-weighted density from regular density?

Now that I’ve got a large sample of cities, I can compare regular density with population weighted densities (PWD):

PWD v regular density 2

The correlation is relatively high, but there are plenty of outliers, and rankings are very different. Rome has a regular density of 18, but a PWD of 89, while London has a regular density of 41 and PWD of 80. Dublin’s regular density of 31 is relatively close to its PWD of 47.

Wellington’s regular density is 17, but it’s PWD is 49 (though the New Zealand cities regular density values are impacted by larger inclusions of non-urbanised land within definitions of Urban Areas).

So what does the density of these cities look like on a map?

The following maps are all at the same scale both geographically and for density shading. The blue outlines are urban area boundaries, and the black lines represent rail lines (passenger or otherwise, and including some tramways). The density values are in persons per square kilometre (1000 persons per square kilometre = 10 persons per hectare). (Apologies for not having coastlines and for some of the blue labels being difficult to read).

Here’s Barcelona (and several neighbouring towns), Europe’s densest large city, hemmed in by hills and a coastline:


At the other extreme, here is Perth, a sea of low density and the only city that doesn’t fit on one tile at the same scale as the other cities (Mandurah is cut off in the south):



Here is Paris, where you can see the small high density inner core matches the high density Metro railway area:


Similarly the dense inner core of London correlates with the inner area covered by a mesh of radial and orbital railways, with relatively lower density outer London more dominated by radial railways:


There are many more interesting patterns in other cities.

What does this mean for transport?

Few people would disagree that higher population densities increase the viability of high frequency public transport services, and enable higher non-car mode shares – all other things being equal. But many (notably including the late Paul Mees) would argue that “density is not destiny” – and that careful design of public and active transport systems is critical to transport outcomes.

Zurich is a city often lauded for the high quality of it’s public transport system, and it’s population weighted density is 51 persons/ha (calculated on the kilometre grid data for a population of 768,000 people) – which is quite low relative to larger European cities.

In a future post I’ll look at the relationship between population-weighted density and transport mode shares in European cities.

All the density maps

Finally, here is a gallery of grid density maps of all the cities for your perusing pleasure (plus Zurich, plus many smaller neighbouring cities that fit onto the maps). All maps have the same scale and density shading colours.

Please note that the New Zealand and Canada maps do not include all nearby urbanised areas. Apologies that the formats are not all identical.

Are Australian cities becoming denser?

Tue 5 November, 2013

[Updated and fully revised June 2015 with June 2014 population data and 2011 density calculations using square kilometre grid population data. First published November 2013]

While Australian cities have been growing outwards with new suburbia, they have also been getting denser in established areas, and the new areas on the fringe are often more dense than growth areas used to be (see last post). So what’s the net effect – are Australian cities getting more or less dense?

This post also explores measures of population-weighted density for Australian cities large and small over time. It also tries to resolve some of the issues in the calculation methodology by using square kilometre geometry, looks at longer term trends for Australian cities, and then compares multiple density measures for Melbourne over time.

Measuring density

Under the traditional measure of density, you’d simply divide the population of a city by the metropolitan area’s area (in hectares). As the boundary of the metropolitan areas seldom change, the average density would simply increase in line with population with this measure. But that density value would also be way below the density at which the average resident lives because of the inclusion of vast swaths of unpopulated land within “metropolitan areas”, and so be not very meaningful.

Enter population-weighted density (which I’ve looked at previously here and here). Population-weighted density takes a weighted average of the density of all parcels of land that make up a city, with each parcel weighted by its population. One way to think about it is the residential density in which the “average resident” lives.

So the large low-density parcels of rural land outside the urbanised area but inside the “metropolitan area” count very little in the weighted average because of their small population relative to the urbanised areas. This means population-weighted density goes a long way to overcoming having to worry about the boundaries of the “urban area” of a city. Indeed, in a previous post I found that removing low density parcels of land had very little impact on calculations of population-weighted density for Australian cities. However, the size of the parcels of land used in a population-weighted density calculation will have an impact, as we will see shortly.

Calculations of population-weighted density can answer the question about whether the “average density” of a city has been increasing or decreasing. But as we will see below, using geographic regions put together by statisticians based on historical boundaries is not always a fair way to compare different cities.

Population-weighted density of Australian cities over time

Firstly, here is a look at population-weighted density of the five largest Australian cities (as defined by ABS Significant Urban Areas), measured at SA2 level (the smallest geography for which there exists a good consistent set of time-series estimates). SA2s roughly equate to suburbs.

SA2 pop weighted density large cities time series

According to this data, most cities bottomed out in density in the mid 1990s. Sydney, Melbourne and Perth have shown the fastest rates of densification in the last three years.

What about smaller Australian cities? (120,000+ residents in 2014):

SA2 pop weighted density smaller cities time series

Darwin comes out as the third most dense city in Australia on this measure, with Perth rising quickly in recent years to be equal to Brisbane. Most cities have shown densification in recent times, with the exceptions being Geelong, Hobart, and Townsville.

However, we need to sanity test these values. Old-school suburban areas of Australian cities typically have a density of around 15 persons per hectare, so the values for Geelong, Newcastle, Darwin, Townsville, and Hobart all seem a bit too low for anyone who has visited them. I’d suggest the results may well be an artefact of the arbitrary geographic boundaries used – and this effect would be greater for smaller cities because they would have more SA2s on the interface between urban and rural areas (indeed all of those cities are less than 210,000 in population).

For reference, here are the June 2014 populations of all the above cities:

Australian cities population 2014

The following map shows Hobart, with meshblock boundaries in black (very small blocks indicate urban areas), SA2s in pink, and the Significant Urban Area (SUA) boundary in green.  You can see that many of the SA2s within the Hobart SAU have pockets of dense urban settlement, together with large areas that are non-urban – ie SA2s on the urban/rural interface. The density of these pockets will be washed out because of the size of the SA2s.

Hobart SUA image



Reducing the impact of arbitrary geographic boundaries

As we saw above, the population-weighted density results for smaller cities were very low, and probably not reflective of the actual typical densities, which might be caused by arbitrary geographic boundaries.

Thankfully ABS have followed Europe and released of a square kilometre grid density for Australia which ensures that geographic zones are all the same size. While it is still somewhat arbitrary where exactly this grid falls on any given city, it is arguably less arbitrary than geographic zones that follow traditional notions of area boundaries.

Using that data, I’ve been able to calculate population weighted density for the larger cities of Australia. The following chart shows those values compared to values calculated on SA2 geography:

pop weighted density 2011 grid and SA2 australian cities

You’ll see that the five smaller cities (Newcastle, Hobart, Geelong, Townsville and Cairns) that had very low results at SA2 level get more realistic values on the kilometre grid.

You’ll notice that most cities (except big Melbourne and Sydney) are in the 15 to 18 persons per hectare range, which is around typical Australian suburban density.

While the Hobart figure is higher using the grid geography, it’s still quite low (indeed the lowest of all the cities). You’ll notice on the map above that urban Hobart hugs the quite wide and windy Derwent River, and as such a larger portion of Hobart’s grid squares are likely to contain both urban and water portions – with the water portions washing out the density (pardon the pun!). While most other cities also have some coastline, much more of Hobart’s urban settlement is near to a coastline.

But stepping back, every city has urban/rural and/or urban/water boundaries and the boundary has to be drawn somewhere. So smaller cities are always going to have a higher proportion of their land parcels being on the interface – and this is even more the case if you are using larger parcel sizes. There is also the issue of what “satellite” urban settlements to include within a city which ultimately becomes arbitrary at some point. Perhaps there is some way of adjusting for this interface effect depending on the size of the city, but I’m not going to attempt to resolve it in this post.

International comparisons of population-weighted density

So now that I have calculated population weighted density of Australian cities using a kilometre grid – I invite other analysts to do the same calculations for other cities of the world – and then we might have a much fairer comparison of city densities (although still not perfect).

Changes in density of larger Australian cities since 1981

We can also calculate population-weighted density back to 1981 using the larger SA3 geography. An SA3 is roughly similar to a local government area (in Melbourne at least), so getting quite large and including more non-urban land. Also, as Significant Urban Areas are defined only at the SA2 level, I need to resort to Greater Capital City Statistical Areas for the next chart:

SA3 cities pop weighted density time series 2

This shows that most cities were getting less dense in the 1980s (Melbourne quite dramatically), with the notable exception of Perth. I expect these trends could be related to changes in housing/planning policy over time. This calculation has Adelaide ahead of the other smaller cities – which is different ordering to the SA2 calculations above.

When measured at SA2 level, the four smaller cities had almost the same density in 2011, but at SA3 level, there is more separating them. My guess is that the arbitrary nature of geographic boundaries is having an impact here. Also, the share of SA3s in a city that are on the urban/rural interface is likely to be higher, which again will have more impact for smaller cities. Indeed the trend for the ACT at SA3 level is very different to Canberra at SA2 level.

Melbourne’s population-weighted density over time

I’ve taken a more detailed look at my home city Melbourne, using all available ABS population figures for the geographic units ranging from mesh blocks to SA3s inside “Greater Melbourne” (as defined in 2011) or inside the Melbourne Significant Urban Area (SUA, where marked), to produce the following chart:

Melb pop weighted density time series 2

Note: I’ve calculated population-weighted density at the SA2 level for both the Greater Capital City Statistical Area (ie “Greater Melbourne”, which includes Bacchus Marsh, Gisborne and Wallan) and the Melbourne Significant Urban Area (slightly smaller), which yield slightly different values.

All of the time series data suggests 1994 was the turning point in Melbourne where the population-weighted density started increasing (not that 1994 was a particularly momentous year – the population-weighted density increased by a whopping 0.0559 persons per hectare in the year to June 1995 (measured at SA2 level for Greater Melbourne)).

You’ll also note that the density values are very different when measured on different geographic units. That’s because larger units include more of a mix of residential and non-residential land. The highest density values are calculated using mesh blocks (MB), which often separate out even small pockets of non-residential land (eg local parks). Indeed 25% of mesh blocks in Australia had zero population, while only 2% of SA1s had zero population (at the 2011 census). At the other end of the scale, SA3s are roughly the size of local councils and include parklands, employment land, rural land, airports, freeways, etc which dilutes their average density.

In the case of SA2 and SA3 units, the same geographic areas have been used in the data for all years. On the other hand, Census Collector Districts (CD) often changed between each five-yearly census, but I am assuming the guidelines for their creation would not have changed significantly.

Now why is a transport blog so interested in density again? There is a suggested relationship between (potential) public transport efficiency and urban density – ie there will be more potential customers per route kilometre in a denser area. In reality longer distance public transport services are going to be mostly serving the larger urban blob that is a city – and these vehicles need to pass large parklands, industrial areas, water bodies, etc to connect urban origins and destinations. The relevant density measure to consider for such services might best be based on larger geographic areas – eg SA3. Buses are more likely to be serving only urbanised areas, and so are perhaps more dependent on residential density – best calculated on a smaller geographic scale, probably km grid (somewhere between SA1 and SA2).

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The growth of Melbourne 1986-2011, animated

Tue 29 October, 2013

Following on from my recent post about the changing socio-economic landscape of Melbourne, this post simply looks at the changing shape and density of urban Melbourne using 5-yearly census data at collector district (1986-2006) and SA1 level (2011).

Straight to it: here is map of Melbourne residential density, click to enlarge and animate:

Melb CD SA1 density

You can see the sprawl of Melbourne over the years, including changes that suggest shifts in the urban growth boundary after development previously seemed to have stopped against a line (particularly evident on the western edge of the City of Brimbank).

Here is another animated map showing the inner city area, with a density scale ranging from 10 to 100 persons/ha, so you can distinguish higher densities than the map above. Click to enlarge and animate.

Melb inner density

You can see a lot more going on in established areas on this map, including densification in the CBD, St Kilda, St Kilda Road (conversion from office space), Parkville, Port Melbourne around Bay Street, Kensington Banks, Brunswick, Fitzroy, Southbank, South Melbourne, Elwood, Maribyrnong, Carlton, and many more.

A few things to note:

  • The size of the districts changes each year, particularly around the fringe. You’ll often see a large red patch where a larger block is only partly inhabited in one year, only to be replaced by smaller denser patches in future years. Patches of green that disappear might be the enlargement of a district causing a blending out of a small pocket of high density, rather than an actual drop in density.
  • Shades of pink indicate densities between 5 and 10 per hectare on the large map, and between 10 and 20 per hectare on the inner map. Lower densities are shown as white.
  • In 2011 the ABS changed their statistical geography. I have used SA1s from 2011 as the most comparable area unit to a census collector district, however they are generally smaller and so densities may appear to jump slightly in 2011 in some areas.

See also earlier posts for:

A detailed look at changes in Melbourne residential density 2006-2011

Mon 8 July, 2013

Since my first post looking at 2011 Melbourne residential density, there’s been a heap of new 2011 census data released. This post includes new maps showing Melbourne’s population density in maximum detail, as well as some more calculations of Melbourne’s urban/residential density for the density nerds.

Melbourne’s residential density in extremely high resolution

2011 population figures are now available for mesh blocks – the smallest ABS geographic unit. This allows a fine-grained look at 2011 residential density, and comparisons with 2006 as we now have a time series.

Here’s a very large animated map (4.7MB, 6825 x 4799 pixels) showing residential density at mesh block level for 2006 and 2011. You’ll need to click on it to download and see the animation (I’d suggest a new tab or window). Use your browser to zoom in and scroll around to areas of interest.

Melbourne mesh block density


[update 10 July: It has been brought to my attention that some people are unable to view this map because they are restricted to using certain versions of Internet Explorer. If you cannot see the large map above, I have also created a smaller animated map showing only the inner areas of Melbourne]

You can see that new growth areas on the fringe actually have relatively high densities, contrary to conventional wisdom. I also note a relatively high and increasing density in the Springvale/Keysborough/Noble Park area, quite some distance from the CBD. If you look carefully you will also spot infill developments like Waverley Park, Parkville (ex-Commonwealth Games village), Gresswell Hill in Macleod, Docklands, Maidstone, Edgewater estate in Maribyrnong, along St Kilda Road, Waterways, and no doubt many more.

More values for the urban/residential density of Melbourne

Okay, you might want to stop reading here unless you have a deep interest in density calculation methodology.

Along with mesh blocks, the recently released census data provides boundaries for urban centres and localities, which each representing a relatively continuous urban area (including residential and non-residential land). There is an urban centre of “Melbourne” defined, which excludes the satellite urban centres of Pakenham, Melton, Sunbury, Healesville and towns along the Warburton Highway, but includes the major urban regions along the Mornington Peninsula to Portsea and Hastings.

All this new data enables calculation of yet more values of the urban/residential density of Melbourne, adding to my previous list (some of which I have repeated for comparison purposes). The areas covered by each calculation are shown on the map below.

Geography Area 
Population Average density 
Areas on map below
“Greater Melbourne” Greater Capital City Statistical Area 9990.5 3,999,982 4.0 white + yellow + green
SA1s within Greater Melbourne with population density > 1 person/ha 2211.4 3,903,450 17.7  (not shown exactly, slightly less than yellow + green)
Mesh blocks within Greater Melbourne, with population density > 1 person/ha 1713.1 3,913,215 22.8  yellow + green
Mesh blocks within Greater Melbourne, with population density > 5 person/ha 1348.5 3,824,999 28.4 green
Melbourne urban centre 2543.2 3,707,530 14.6 all within blue boundary
Mesh blocks within Melbourne urban centre, with population density > 1 person/ha 1443.8 3,696,316 25.6 yellow + green within blue boundary
Mesh blocks within Melbourne urban centre, with population density > 5 person/ha 1238.3 3,642,685 29.4 green within blue boundary

I note that the Melbourne urban centre is approximately a quarter of the area of “Greater Melbourne”.

Here’s a reference map of Melbourne showing the Greater Capital City Statistical Area, Statistical Division and Urban Centre boundaries of “Melbourne”, together with mesh blocks of above 1 and 5 persons/ha.

Density area scope map mesh blocks2

Finally, for the density nerds who are still reading this post, I have calculated the 2011 population-weighted density of Greater Melbourne using mesh blocks to be 42.8 persons/ha, which is much higher than the population-weighted density using SA1 geography of 31.8 persons/ha. It’s higher because more non-residential land parcels have been excluded from the overall calculation. If I restrict myself to mesh blocks within the Melbourne urban centre, the population-weighted density is only slightly higher at 45.1 persons/ha.

So if you want to compare population-weighted densities of different cities, you’ll need to make sure you are using equivalent geographic units, which I suspect would be very difficult for international comparisons. An attempt at Australian and Canadian city comparisons was made in the comments section of a previous post.

There you go. Next time someone claims to know the urban density of Melbourne, you can now argue with them for hours about whether you agree with their number and how it should be measured.

Comparing the residential densities of Australian cities (2011)

Fri 19 October, 2012

I’ve looked at Melbourne residential density in detail, so what about other Australian cities?  Is population weighted density a useful measure? Does population weighted density help explain differences in public transport mode shares?

For this exercise, I’ve looked at 2011 census data at the Statistical Area Level 1 (SA1) geography (currently the smallest geography for which population data is available) for Greater Capital City Statistical Areas (which include large tracts of rural hinterland). I’ve sometimes applied an arbitrary threshold of 3 persons per hectare to define urban residential areas.

Measures of overall density

Population weighted density is a weighted average of the density of all the parcels of land in the city, with the population of each parcel of land providing the weighting. This provides a figure indicative of the residential density of the “average person”, although that’s still a little abstract. A city where a large proportion of people live in dense areas will have a much higher weighted population density than average population density.

Average density is simply the total population divided by the area of the city (or if you like, the average density weighted by the areas of each parcel of land). In calculating average residential density (which I’m doing in this post), the area would only include residential areas (I’ve arbitrarily used a threshold of SA1s with at least 3 persons per hectare).

Another measure is urban density, which considers all the land that makes up the urban city, including non-residential areas, but excluding the rural land that makes up large parts of most metropolitan areas when defined by administrative boundaries. I have not attempted to measure ‘urban’ density in this post.

Firstly here’s a table of data for the six largest Australian cities with three different measures of 2011 residential density:

Greater Capital City Statistical Area Pop Pop (>3/ha) Area, square km (>3/ha) Pop-weighted density, persons/ ha (all SA1s) Pop-weighted density, persons/ ha (SA1s >3/ha) Average residential density, persons/ ha (SA1s >3/ha)
Greater Sydney 4391578 4225278 1530 50.2 52.1 27.6
Greater Melbourne 3999924 3832366 1812 31.8 33.1 21.1
Greater Brisbane 2066134 1866794 1127 22.6 24.8 16.6
Greater Perth 1728567 1639849 963 21.6 22.7 17.0
Greater Adelaide 1225136 1161668 644 21.2 22.3 18.0
Australian Capital Territory 356563 350917 221 20.5 20.8 15.9

You’ll notice that Melbourne has a lower population than Sydney, but the total land area above 3 persons/ha is much larger.

Here are those densities in chart form:

You can see Sydney has around double the population weighted density of most other cities, but its average density is only about 60% higher. These figures show Sydney has a very different density pattern compared other Australian cities.

You can also see very little difference in weighted density whether you exclude low density land parcels or not (the blue and red bars). The density is brought down only slightly by the relatively small number of people living in very low density areas (below 3 persons/ha) within the statistical geography. Thus weighted average density is a good way to get around arguments about the boundary of the “urban” area. But then we are only measuring residential density here – and the large unoccupied spaces between residents of a city are very important when it comes to transport issues.

Can you compare population weighted density of Australian cities with international cities? Yes, but only if the parcels of land used are of a similar size and created in a similar fashion. The more fine-grained the geography (ie smaller the parcels of land), the more non-residential pockets of land will be excluded from the calculation. Anyone doing an international comparison should compare how the ABS create their geography at SA1 level with approaches of other statistical agencies. And please comment below if you get a set of comparable figures.

Density by distance from the CBD

The differences in density can be seen a little more clearly when you look at weighted average density by distance from the city centre:

(note: I’ve chopped the vertical scale at 100 persons/ha so parts of central Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are off the scale).

For Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra (ACT) you can see a weighted average density in the mid to low 20s for large areas of the city, indicating large tracts of what you might describe as traditional Australian suburbia. In Canberra this kicks in at just 2 km from the CBD, and in Adelaide it kicks in 3 km from the city.

In Melbourne the weighted average density doesn’t get below 30 until 9 kms from the CBD indicating a larger denser inner area, and in Sydney it doesn’t drop below 30 until you are 39 km from the CBD!

Distribution of population at different densities

Here’s a frequency distribution of densities in the cities:

I’m using an interval of 1 person/ha, and the figures are rounded down to form the values on the X axis (ie: the value you see at 20 persons/ha is the proportion of the population living between 20 and 21 persons/ha).

You can see Sydney has the flattest distribution of all – indicating it has the widest range of densities of any city. Melbourne is not far behind, whereas Canberra has a lot of people living in areas between 12 and 24 persons/ha.

Note that many cities have a significant proportion of the population living at rural densities (0 to 1 person per hectare), particularly Greater Brisbane.

Another way to look at this data is a cumulative frequency distribution:

You can read off the median densities for the cities: Sydney 33, Melbourne 28, Brisbane 22, Perth 22, Adelaide 22, Canberra 19.

You can also see that 30% of people in Sydney live in densities of 44 persons/ha or more – compared to only 12% of Melburnians, 5% of Brisbanites, and less than 2% of people in the other cities.

If 15-30 persons per hectare is what you define as suburbia, then that’s 26% of Sydney, 37% of Melbourne, 44% of Brisbane, 55% of Perth, 57% of Canberra and 62% of Adelaide.

Spatial distribution of density

For the purest view of density you cannot get past a map. The following maps show a simple density calculation at the SA1 geography.

Update 22 Oct 2012: maps now include railway lines using OpenStreetMap data provided by Maps Without Borders. The data is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0, copyright OpenStreetMap and contributors.


You can see vast areas of darker green (40+/ha), particularly between Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. There are also quite a few green areas in the western suburbs, while the northern north shore has the lowest density. There are many concentrations of density around the passenger rail lines.

Melbourne (and Geelong)

You can see areas of dark green around the inner city, with large tracts of yellow and green in the suburbs (25-35 persons/ha). There are however areas of moderate green (30-40) in some of the newer outer growth areas to the west and north, reflecting recent planning. There’s a not a strong relationship to train lines, but this might reflect higher densities equally attracted to tram lines (not shown on the map).

Note this map is slightly different to that in a recent post where I masked out non-residential mesh blocks.


You can see dark green patches around the river/CBD, but then mostly medium to low densities in the suburbs. There’s very little evidence of higher densities in fringe growth areas. There are some denser areas around railway lines (note the map does not show Brisbane’s busway network).


You can see green patches around the city, but also in some fringe growth areas where new planning controls are presumably forcing up densities. There are however vast tracts of orange (15-25 persons/ha), and little evidence of higher density around the rail lines (note: a lot of the lines are freight only and the north-south passenger line has very broad station spacing and limited walking catchment as most of it is within a freeway median).


Adelaide some inner city blocks of high density, but once you get outside the green belt surrounding the city blocks, you fairly quickly head into suburban densities. There are only a few pockets of high density in the middle and outer suburbs, and very little relationship evident between density and the rail lines.

Canberra (and Queanbeyan)

Canberra has vast areas at low density, and only a few pockets with dark green. There are however green patches on the fringes (particularly in the far north and far south), perhaps again reflecting planning policies forcing up densities.

Sydney is really quite a different city compared to the rest of Australia, with a much larger share of the population living in high density residential areas (more than I had expected). Melbourne has a much lower population weighted density (still quite a few people living in high density areas, but much less so than Sydney), followed by four cities that aren’t that different when it comes to density: Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra.

What about density and public transport use?

Here’s a comparison of density (measured as both average and population weighted) and the most recent estimate of public transport mode share of motorised passenger kms for Australian cities:

Population weighted density certainly shows a stronger relationship with public transport use than average density (r-squared of 0.89 versus 0.82 on a linear regression).

If you believe that higher population density will lead to higher public transport use (for a given level of public transport service), then you would expect Sydney to be well placed to have a higher public transport mode share. Which indeed it does, but does it have the same level of public transport supply as other cities, and are all other factors equal? That’s a very difficult question to answer.

You could measure public transport service kilometres per capita, but different modes have different speeds, stopping frequencies and capacities, public transport supply will vary greatly across the city, and some cities might have more effective service network designs that others.

If all cities had the same levels of public transport supply and all other things were equal, you might expect a straight line relationship (or perhaps an exponential relationship). But Brisbane and Melbourne (and to a small extent Perth) seem to be bucking what otherwise might be a linear pattern. Are these cities doing much better with quality and quantity of public transport supply? Or is it something else about those cities?

Car ownership rates do vary between Australian cities, but this might be more a product of public transport viability for particular residents:

Also, we know that car ownership doesn’t have a strong relationship with car use.

When working population census data comes out I would like to look at the distribution of employment within cities. We know that public transport use is highest for journeys to work in the CBD (as it usually competes strongly against the car), so the proportion of a city’s jobs that are in the CBD is likely to impact the public transport mode share (at least for journeys to work). Moreover, a higher average employment density in general might be easier to serve with competitive public transport, and thus lead to a higher public transport mode share. It will hopefully also be possible to calculate weighted density of employment (at least at the SA2 level).

Finally, I’d like thank Alan Davies (The Urbanist) for inspiring this post.

Other posts about density: