19 Pacific Realm: Urban Geography I – Centralized Australia

Among the world’s countries, there are many that are very highly urbanized.  Some of these very urban locations are thus by definition. Monaco as a city-State is 100% urban. The same is true for Singapore. There are small islands that are all or nearly entirely urban – Malta is 94% urban. Other lands are small with few choices – Kuwait as a desert land is 100% urban.

Consider the most populated cities of Australia.

Top Ten Cities of Australia

Rank City Population in millions Coastal? Which side?
1 Sydney 5.2 yes eastern
2 Melbourne 4.9 yes eastern
3 Brisbane 2.4 yes eastern
4 Perth 2.0 yes western
5 Adelaide 1.3 yes southern
6 Gold Coast 0.6 yes eastern
7 New Castle-Maitland 0.4 yes eastern
8 Canberra 0.4 almost eastern
9 Sunshine Coast 0.3 yes eastern
10 Woolongong 0.3 yes eastern

Notice that this makes Sydney the residence of 20% of Australia’s population.  With 85% of Australia’s population being urban, Sydney has about 25% of all of the country’s urban dwellers. Commonly, if a city possesses 20% or more of a country’s urban population, then it likely is a primate city – that is, a city that dominates its country in all urban ways.  However, Melbourne is nearly as large as Sydney; thus, not being dominated by Sydney in simple numbers.  Canberra, though over ten times smaller than Sydney in population, is the political focus, as the planned national capital city.


Aerial photography of Sydney, Australia, and its harbor.
Sydney. Photo by Jamie Davies on Unsplash.

While we may not say that Sydney dominates the Australian urban life, we can argue that eastern Australia dominates all urban Australia.  Adelaide sits on the southern shore, but slightly on the eastern half of the Australian continent.  Melbourne is positioned on the southeastern corner of the landmass.  Perth with two million people anchors the western side of Australia.  Modest-sized Darwin holds port on the northern edge, but only with 150,000 residents. The interior of Australia holds a scattering of towns, such as Alice Springs of about 25,000.  The lion’s share of the national population is on the eastern coastline.

Too much so?  At the turn of the century, Australia had the most centralized population of any country in the world.  Seven out of every ten Australians lived in a city of at least 750,000.  Less than two decades later in 2018, 74% of Australian urban dwellers lived in the five largest cities alone.

Let’s evaluate this measurement of centralized population. As noted above, this is not the same as a primate city.  There are a number of countries in the world where one city dominates and has a high share of the urban population.  For instance, Montevideo in Uruguay has over 50% of the country’s urban residents living in that one city.  Here though I am taking centralized population to mean something else. I am looking for countries that have several highly populated cities – at least five cities of at least one million citizens each.  Compare the sum of the population of those five cities to the total urban population of the country.

Country population share per five largest cities

Country Urban population in five cities, in millions % of all urbanites in those five cities
Australia 16 74%
Pakistan 39 50%
South Korea 21 50%
Turkey 27 44%
Russia 23 21%
Japan 24 21%
Nigeria 18 18%
Mexico 17 17%
Brazil 25 14%
Indonesia 19 13%
India 56 12%
China 79 10%
USA 20 7%


Thirteen countries qualify by these measures.  Australia is far and away the highest on this standard.  These are countries that have considerable urban development, but broadly geographic.  It is understandable that hugely populated countries like China and India will have numerous cities of at least one million people each.  Yet, their extraordinary population size means that the people are distributed very widely.  Countries with small areas like South Korea often have a primate city; in fact, Seoul with about ten million people may be a primate city.  For many countries, having a primate city will mean that there are not enough other cities over a million people, so that such a country does not qualify for the centralized population category.  Here we see that only South Korea and Japan fit this small area focus.  All the other countries on the list above have large to huge areas, so that we would expect a wide range of cities by population and by distribution over space.  Thus, it is difficult for large area countries to have only a few cities tally a big share of the nation’s urban population.

Yet, Australia does. Three-fourths of urban Australians live in just five cities.  Historically and geographically, we do find explanation.  Since the arrival of British sea captain James Cook to the eastern shores of Australia in 1770, the focus of European population was on the eastern Australia.  Cook’s exploration and detailed examination of the eastern side of Australia revealed a number of attractive locations for settlement.  The coastal plains there offered flat lands for development, agriculture, and population.  Moving westward from these plains soon there are the main mountains of Australia – the Great Dividing Range.  On worldwide standards these mountains are rather low, at best a bit over 7000 feet (Mt. Kosciusko), but they do cause orographic precipitation to fall on their eastern slopes – that is, into the coastal plains.  Given the dry continent of Australia, Cook’s discovery of coastal plains with regular precipitation was like finding treasure.  Additionally, Cook’s sails revealed several useful harbors along the eastern shores.  Given Britain’s interest in colonization and trade around the world, access to useful ports also was coveted.  These advantages propelled the east coast of Australia to develop several port locations into towns that evolved into several of the main cities of the land. This gives us Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane of Australia’s top five cities.  Adelaide is the key southern port, while Perth is the dominant west coast city.  The east has the best settings, but having Adelaide and Perth as well led to Britain claiming all of Australia.

The physical geography of Australia provides additional cause for the country’s centralized urban pattern.  With the famed Outback as the best-known means of referring to Australia’s desert and near-desert settings, the rugged environment of the interior yields few locations for large urban settlements.  The Australian center has territory for sheep and cattle ranches, but the livestock far outnumber the human population.  The interior has substantial natural resources ranging from key industrial elements such as iron ore to specialized materials such as opals. These raw materials bring miners to the resource sites, but the harsh environment does not encourage many other people to settle there as well.

The five cities that got their impetus from early British colonization developed into appealing urban realms with jobs, culture, and beaches.  However, some argue that these cities now have become overcrowded; for instance, they could use better transportation infrastructure to reduce traffic woes.  In any case, these urban patterns of Australia give it this distinctive centralization, the most so in the world.


Did You Know?

Note that this is not the same as the Rank-Size Rule.  The United States follows the rank-size rule, but its top five cities together only account for 7% of America’s urban population.

Maps can be funky.  Examine the cartograms at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4680918/Australia-s-overcrowding-crisis-one-map.html


Cited and additional bibliography:

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.

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/.

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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