(Image: AAP/David Crosling)

Is Sydney’s golden age as Australia’s premier city over?

It took me less than 24 hours into a Melbourne/Naarm holiday to realise I had to move here.

I’d tagged along with my sister at Edinburgh Gardens, and it remains one of the most delightful days of my life. Friendly, hip 20-somethings were chatting about their arts/media jobs and playing pub footy in dopey unicorn costumes. The weather was warm without choking you in humidity. Of course, Brisbane/Turrbal had all of those things (minus the weather), if in much smaller quantities. Still, something snapped that day, and three months later, I’d moved.

My journey was a carbon copy of hundreds of frustrated young creatives, a form of internal migration that, if World Population Review is to believed, helped Melbourne eclipse Sydney as Australia’s largest city in late January.

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Sorting the stats

Let’s get the figures sorted. World Population Review has Melbourne at 4.87 million, compared to 4.85 million. But those population figures, based on UN World Urbanization Prospects, differ significantly from the ABS’ recent estimates for June 30 2018. The latter put Melbourne at 4.96 million and Sydney (which also includes the Central Coast) at 5.23 million.

Going off the ABS’ latest figures and growth rates, Melbourne won’t officially become Australia’s largest city until 2026.

But regardless of where you draw the line — the ABS also excludes Geelong from the Greater Melbourne Area — Melbourne has been on track to overtake Sydney since the early 2000s, and an exponential growth rate over the past decade has meant it arguably got there 10 years early.

Professor of Demography at Macquarie University Nick Parr argues that Sydney would still be considered larger with or without the Central Coast but, with a growth rate of 1.8% compared to Melbourne’s 2.5%, has suffered from an exodus of retirees and families.

Melbourne, on the other hand, saw a net internal gain of 5971 from 2017 to 2018, while experiencing Australia’s largest international migration gain (77,624) and the second highest natural increase (35,826).

“In the mid-1990s, Melbourne was actually losing people elsewhere, while in the 20th century they’ve turned that around,” says Parr. He argues that an improved economy, job prospects, relative housing prices to Sydney, and the end of Western Australia’s mining boom have drawn people from other states. International migration, he says, has benefited from the Victorian government’s being “far more proactive” with Australia’s skilled migration programs.

Sydney still hit Australia’s total highest birth rate and second-highest international migration gain, but saw a net loss of 27,300 people to other states in 2017-18. Parr believes they mostly left over housing prices or to retire in Queensland (Brisbane, either due to housing or that aforementioned heat, hit Australia’s highest internal migration rates).

ABS’ components of population change across Australian capital cities 2017-18.

The other capitals tell their own stories, of course. Darwin’s net exodus of 2800 people more than offset its natural increase of 1800 and net overseas gain of 640 for a total loss of 360 people. While obviously complicated, Charles Darwin University’s Northern Institute found last year that work and family issues dominated reasons for leaving the Territory.

Demographers speaking to the ABC early this month also found Hobart’s net internal migration gain a surprise considering its unemployment levels, while anecdotally conceding that culture and housing prices are likely drawing people to the state.

Population pressure

The question now becomes how Sydney and Melbourne cope with these changes going forward. Demographers note that, without geographical barriers, Melbourne will continue to sprawl, while the Sydney Basin — formed in part by the Blue Mountains — will necessitate a rise in vertical communities.

While more houses are easier to build than skyscrapers, Melbourne’s horizontal growth will create challenges with commutes. Initiatives like that $50 billion suburban rail loop, announced last August, are designed to connect outer suburbs’ commercial, educational and residential hubs.

Parr notes more will have to be done in both cities to foster suburban hubs, where transport to the city centre is not as vital for work or lifestyle, but save for some “bravado” on urban planning governments have failed to follow through on planning research.

Finally, he notes that, with “the number of lower house seats allocated to state populations, more members of parliament drawn from Melbourne will foster some electoral consequences”. These would presumably relate to both federal spending and, as many artsy Melburnians would have it, culture.

This change has been a long time coming, but are both cities ready to deal with the consequences?

Crikey will be publishing stories all week on the Sydney/Melbourne rivalry: the facts, the figures and the fallout. NEXT: What makes a successful global city?