Sydney regains the top spot as Australia’s largest city for 2021, but Melbourne is close on its heels.

There are just 57,000 people separating Sydney from Melbourne – 4.959 million compared to 4.901 million – according to the latest ABS data.

Last year it was Melbourne which wore the crown for the highest population, but thanks to the Covid-19 lockdowns which saw the city’s population dip (of a huge 65,000 people over the year), Sydney once again has stepped to the top of the annual list of urban area populations put together by id.com.au demographers using ABS data.

And that’s not the only change.

Covid-19 border closures, lockdowns, and associated population movement have shifted things around throughout the whole of the country.

The data shows that our largest cities and established urban areas have declined (particularly Sydney and Melbourne with a population fall of 0.1% and 1.3% year-on-year respectively) while places, where people look for lifestyle change within 2 hours’ drive of the capitals, have tended to boom. 

This is unsurprising given we already know that seachange and tree change markets have seen immense price growth over 2021, as the prevalence of remote work amid the pandemic, the relative affordability of regions and the potential for retirement decisions being brought amid labour market disruptions contributed to elevated levels of migration to regional Australia through 2021.

Plenty of areas have grown or shrunk in population but surprisingly, the majority have maintained their position on the list.

In fact, 42 out of the 50 places are unchanged from 2020.

The data shows that 12 of the top 50 urban centres recorded a population drop in 2021. 

The total for the top 50 was an increase of 9,702 people – just 0.05%, although this was mainly due to Melbourne’s large 65,000 population fall.

Areas that have climbed the list represent ‘fleechange’ locations around 100km or so from our capitals.

For example, Warragul-Drouin in Victoria rose two places to position 36, Nelson Bay NSW is up to position 48  and (just off the list) Victor Harbor – Goolwa in SA rises 2 places to number 51.

Here’s the full list:

Rank Significant urban area 2021 population 5 year change No. 5 year change % 1 year change No. 1 year change % Change in rank (1 yr)
1 Sydney NSW 4,959,107 321,671 6.90% -7,103 -0.10% 1
2 Melbourne Vic 4,901,863 355,270 7.80% -65,115 -1.30% -1
3 Brisbane Qld 2,495,825 213,066 9.30% 20,724 0.80% 0
4 Perth WA 2,099,530 117,260 5.90% 15,339 0.70% 0
5 Adelaide SA 1,359,087 53,561 4.10% 1,664 0.10% 0
6 Gold Coast – Tweed Heads Qld-NSW 718,772 73,061 11.30% 9,402 1.30% 0
7 Newcastle – Maitland NSW 505,489 29,773 6.30% 7,471 1.50% 0
8 Canberra – Queanbeyan ACT-NSW 462,984 23,013 5.20% -1,841 -0.40% 0
9 Sunshine Coast Qld 353,906 37,001 11.70% 5,601 1.60% 0
10 Central Coast NSW 338,567 10,237 3.10% 1,275 0.40% 0
11 Wollongong NSW 312,167 17,383 5.90% 2,823 0.90% 0
12 Geelong Vic 287,704 33,408 13.10% 5,385 1.90% 0
13 Hobart Tas 218,386 10,990 5.30% -568 -0.30% 0
14 Townsville Qld 184,271 6,027 3.40% 978 0.50% 0
15 Cairns Qld 155,529 6,347 4.30% 224 0.10% 0
16 Toowoomba Qld 140,303 6,649 5.00% 797 0.60% 0
17 Darwin NT 132,921 -177 -0.10% -424 -0.30% 0
18 Ballarat Vic 111,348 9,670 9.50% 1,851 1.70% 0
19 Bendigo Vic 103,575 7,641 8.00% 1,112 1.10% 0
20 Albury – Wodonga NSW-Vic 97,274 6,438 7.10% 1,215 1.30% 0
21 Launceston Tas 88,884 3,152 3.70% -249 -0.30% 0
22 Mackay Qld 81,262 851 1.10% 351 0.40% 0
23 Rockhampton Qld 79,967 1,369 1.70% 374 0.50% 0
24 Melton Vic 77,392 15,432 24.90% 1,923 2.50% 0
25 Bunbury WA 75,440 1,762 2.40% 271 0.40% 0
26 Coffs Harbour NSW 73,443 3,337 4.80% 424 0.60% 0
27 Bundaberg Qld 71,796 1,617 2.30% 248 0.30% 0
28 Wagga Wagga NSW 57,004 1,204 2.20% 121 0.20% 0
29 Hervey Bay Qld 56,599 3,583 6.80% 623 1.10% 0
30 Shepparton – Mooroopna Vic 52,273 1,565 3.10% -233 -0.40% 0
31 Mildura – Wentworth Vic-NSW 51,794 743 1.50% -507 -1.00% 0
32 Port Macquarie Vic 50,365 3,989 8.60% 882 1.80% 0
33 Gladstone – Tannum Sands Qld 45,987 1,033 2.30% 58 0.10% 0
34 Tamworth NSW 43,330 1,344 3.20% 81 0.20% 0
35 Traralgon – Morwell Vic 42,567 1,182 2.90% 139 0.30% 0
36 Warragul – Drouin Vic 42,115 6,592 18.60% 1,484 3.70% 2
37 Bowral – Mittagong NSW 41,454 2,801 7.20% 488 1.20% -1
38 Orange NSW 41,162 1,576 4.00% 274 0.70% -1
39 Busselton WA 41,034 3,344 8.90% 700 1.70% 0
40 Dubbo NSW 39,363 2,245 6.00% 311 0.80% 0
41 Nowra – Bomaderry NSW 38,947 2,157 5.90% 631 1.60% 0
42 Bathurst NSW 38,087 2,209 6.20% 543 1.40% 0
43 Geraldton WA 37,228 -1,141 -3.00% -35 -0.10% 0
44 Warrnambool Vic 35,957 1,342 3.90% 79 0.20% 0
45 Albany WA 34,612 828 2.50% 18 0.10% 0
46 Devonport Tas 30,883 983 3.30% 18 0.10% 0
47 Mount Gambier SA 29,940 408 1.40% -3 0.00% 0
48 Nelson Bay NSW 28,752 1,293 4.70% 259 0.90% 2
49 Kalgoorlie – Boulder WA 28,565 -2,087 -6.80% -354 -1.20% -1
50 Lismore NSW 28,469 -547 -1.90% -27 -0.10% -1

Source: Id.com.au using ABS data

Australia is still an urbanised country

Id.com.au’s list of top 50 urban areas in Australia contains 21,423,279 people in 2021 – which is 83.2% of the country’s total. 

The top 100 urban areas make up 86.9%. 

Of course, the top 5 alone – the only cities with over 1 million – make up 61%, which shows that Australia is still a very urbanised country.

The data also shows that more than two-thirds of Australia’s population growth occurred in the “Not in a significant urban area” category. 

This makes up only 13.1% of Australia’s population, but increased by almost 31,000 people for the year, representing a 0.9% increase, the demographers found.

This is by far the largest growth in this category since records began in the 1980s. 

These include all rural areas outside of major centres, as well as smaller towns of less than 10,000 population (and not near the outskirts of a larger urban area).

Australia’s population is expected to surge

While the country’s population temporarily stalled or even fell, during the Covid-19 pandemic, now our borders have reopened and migration has resumed, we can expect Australia’s population to begin rising strongly again.

Australia’s population is projected to reach between 37.4 and 49.2 million people by 2066 and then grow to over 50 million people by 2101.

Brett Warren
About Brett Warren
Brett Warren is Director of Metropole Properties Brisbane and uses his two decades of property investment experience to advise clients how to grow, protect and pass on their build their wealth through property.
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