Is Melbourne really bigger than Los Angeles?Posted: May 1, 2010
Deirdre Macken makes the point in today’s AFR (gated) that a large proportion of Australia’s population is located in a very small number of primate cities, unlike the US where there are very many smaller cities.
She argues that if you want an urban lifestyle in Australia you either live in a large capital city or you camp out, whereas in the US you are spoilt for choice. Instead of making our capital cities larger, she asks, why don’t we build up our smaller cities?
Good question and if I weren’t about to go to the Zombie Shuffle I might well have something to say about it. Perhaps another day.
However for the moment let me just respond to her claim that “if Sydney were transported to the US, it would rank as the second-biggest city after New York. If Melbourne were transported to the US, it too would be the second biggest city, just pipping Los Angeles’s 3.8 million”.
A mere 3.8 million people in LA? I’ve got a lot of sympathy for journalists but this seems a bit too obvious. Perhaps Deirdre doesn’t do much travelling. She’s also got form when it comes to playing fast and loose with the numbers.
Sydney’s population is currently around 4.5 million and Melbourne’s is 4.0 million. Los Angeles had a population in 2009 of 12.9 million. In fact there are ten US cities that are larger than Sydney and fourteen larger than Melbourne (see here and here).
She also claims that Zurich’s population is a mere 375,000. I’ll grant that it’s small, but it’s actually closer to 850,000 (I’ve seen some estimates that put it over a million).
All of which is a pity because the point she is trying to make is an important one.
There’s also an interesting technical angle to this issue. The size distribution of cities in Australia is unusual because it doesn’t accord with Zipf’s law. This law is observed in lots of natural phenomena. In relation to cities, it says that the second largest city in a nation is half the size of the biggest, the third largest is one third the size of the biggest, and so on. See for example this article by eminent Harvard Professor, Edward Glaeser.