18 Pacific Realm:
Population Geography I

Is Urban Australia Overcrowded?


With a population density of nine people per square mile, Australia is the third least crowded country in the world, after Mongolia (4.9) and Namibia (7.5), not counting dependent territories of other countries (Greenland (Denmark) 0.08 people per square mile).  Australia is overcrowded.

What!  Australia is overcrowded? In 1997, the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggested that 25 million would be a likely leveling off point for the country’s population.  The country is there now.  Crowded? How can a population of 25-26 million people living on a whole continent, the world’s sixth largest country by area, be overcrowded?  The United States has over 300 million more people than Australia, while being 20% larger in area.  Is the United States overcrowded?  Some scholars and a noteworthy percentage of the American population suggest that, yes, America is overcrowded.  This is expressed in terms of immigration debates and of environmental concerns.

So, if America might be overcrowded with 330 million people, could Australia be overcrowded with its nearly 26 million people? As expressed in the essay on urban centralization in Australia, the country’s population is dominantly compressed into a handful of cities. So first, we should ask whether or not Australia’s cities are overcrowded or not.

Let’s take a look at Australia’s five most populated cities, ranked among cities of the world.1

Australia's Top Five Cities, as ranked worldwide

2017 Sydney Melbourne Brisbane Perth Adelaide
Approximate Population Density,
people per square km
1900 1500 1000 1000 1300
Population Density Rank,
among cities of the world
936 955 996 986 965
Population Rank, among cities of the world 104 106 250 284 442
Area Rank, among cities of the world 43 32 47 68 152
2020 Sydney Melbourne Brisbane Perth Adelaide
Density Rank, among cities of the world 935 968 1004 989 979


By worldwide standards, Australian cities are stunningly not crowded.  In the short term, at least 2017-2020, Australian cities tend to be comparatively less and less crowded.  In 2020, Sydney ranks as Australia’s most crowded city with 5499 people per square mile.  To find a match in North America, we select Winnipeg, Canada, at #939 and 5361 people per square mile.  I don’t think that there’s anyone out there who is troubled that Winnipeg is too crowded.

Naturally, cities are more crowded than rural areas, as clearly can be seen on this map — https://www.businessinsider.com.au/australia-population-density-fastest-growing-regions-2019-3

A fascinating statistical study of urban crowdedness across the world attempts to refine the statistic by measuring and analyzing population-weighted density.  This study of Australian, European, Canadian and New Zealand cities found that Australian cities ranked at the bottom of the list, as charted here — https://chartingtransport.com/2015/11/26/comparing-the-densities-of-australian-and-european-cities/#jp-carousel-2781 . Again, it appears that Australian cities are not particularly crowded urban realms.

By comparison, consider the cities of nearby New Zealand. Auckland ranks 892nd in 2020 with 6585 people per square mile.  The most similar North American city is #839 Toronto, Canada, at 7139 people per square mile.

How much population increase will be coming to Australia’s cities? Well, for the country as a whole, from 2005 to the present, net overseas migration into Australia has been greater than the country’s natural increase. The destinations for these migrants, even more so than for internal migrants, has been the capital cities. This means that capitals of the six states of Australia – Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania, plus Northern Territory, as well as the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) that is Canberra.

For now, note that by most standards of population growth or density, Australia is not at all overcrowded; rather, on worldwide comparisons, Australia is quite low on population density. Even so, there are other considerations of the contentious question about the number of people appropriate for Australia.  Could Australia’s population be inappropriately large, even though not overcrowded?  This concern is the topic of a longer answer or answers, seeking to determine how many people can be supported on a dry continent.  How well does Australia stack up when considering its carrying capacity, sustainability, or water supply?


Did You Know?

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is the disputed territory also known as Western Sahara.  At the northwestern corner of Africa, this region is claimed by Morocco, but also asserts its own autonomy.  If counted as a country, though not so in this essay, with a population density of six people per square mile, it would be less crowded than Australia.

In the Demografia statistics reported above for Australian cities, the most crowded urban area in the world is Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Separately, Bangladesh is noted to be the most crowded country in the world, not counting micro-States or city-States.

Here’s a look at Sydney traffic patterns:

Traffic flow map for Sydney, Australia.
Veitch Lister Consulting 2019, Transport Planning for the Australian Infrastructure Audit: Transport Modelling Report for Sydney, Brisbane, p 30, available via: www.infrastructureaustralia.gov.au.



Cited and additional bibliography:

1 Hunn, Patrick. 2017. “Australian Cities among the Largest and Least Densely Settled in the World.” ArchitectureAU. April 20, 2017. https://architectureau.com/articles/australian-cities-among-the-largest-and-least-densely-settled-in-the-world/.

Allen, Liz. 2017. “Australia Doesn’t Have a Population Policy – Why?” The Conversation. July 2, 2017. https://theconversation.com/australia-doesnt-have-a-population-policy-why-78183.

Bayliss, Michael. 2018. “Error.” Independentaustralia.Net. March 22, 2018. https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/the-overpopulation-of-australia-were-running-out-of-time.

Bunker, Raymond, and Glen Searle. 2018. “The Density Question: The Compact City in Australia.” Australian Quarterly 89 (3): 31–38, 44.

“Comparing the Densities of Australian, European, Canadian, and New Zealand Cities.” 2015. Charting Transport. November 26, 2015. https://chartingtransport.com/2015/11/26/comparing-the-densities-of-australian-and-european-cities/.

Cox, Wendell. 2016. “Demographia World Urban Areas.” http://demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf.

Jones, Gavin W. 1997. “An Australian Population Policy – Parliament of Australia.” Aph.Gov.Au. 1997. https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP9697/97rp17.

“The United States Is Already Overpopulated | Federation for American Immigration Reform.” 2019. Fairus.Org. June 2019. https://www.fairus.org/issue/population-environment/united-states-already-overpopulated.

Tuli, Sajeda. 2019. “Migrants Want to Live in the Big Cities, Just like the Rest of Us.” The Conversation. March 31, 2019. https://theconversation.com/migrants-want-to-live-in-the-big-cities-just-like-the-rest-of-us-113911.

“Urban Transport Crowding and Congestion The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 Supplementary Report.” 2019. https://www.infrastructureaustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-08/Urban%20Transport%20Crowding%20and%20Congestion.pdf.

White, Nic. 2017. “Australia’s Overcrowding Crisis in One Map.” Mail Online. July 10, 2017. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4680918/Australia-s-overcrowding-crisis-one-map.html.

Wikipedia Contributors. 2019. “List of Countries and Dependencies by Population Density.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. April 26, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_and_dependencies_by_population_density.


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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