The 50 largest cities and towns in Australia | Pandemic edition
This is the annual update to the popular Top 50 cities in Australia blog. Updated population data is released every year by the ABS; see what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and how COVID-19 has affected the rankings.
Our most popular series over the past 12 years of writing the .id blog has undoubtedly been our “Top 50 cities”. Everyone loves a ranking! Each year the ABS release population numbers for urban areas of Australia with more than about 10,000 people, and we look at the 50 largest centres to see how population change is altering the rankings. There’s not usually much change year-to-year, but COVID-19, border closures, lockdowns and associated population movement have shifted things around a bit for 2021.
As we’ve previously looked at, Australia’s population growth stalled in 2020-21, due primarily to border closures, and there are now vast differences between growth rates within Australia. Generally our largest cities and established urban areas have declined (particularly Sydney and Melbourne) while places where people look for lifestyle change (now popularly known as “fleechange” areas) within 2 hours drive of the capitals have tended to boom. So here is the list as of 2021.
The usual note: this is a list of “significant urban areas”; it is not the same as the Greater Capital City areas and represents primarily built up contiguously urban parts of our major centres.
|2021 Pop||5 year change||1 year change|
|Rank||Significant urban area||No.||%||No.||%||Change in rank (1 yr)
|6||Gold Coast – Tweed Heads Qld-NSW||718,772||73,061||11.3%||9,402||1.3%||0|
|7||Newcastle – Maitland NSW||505,489||29,773||6.3%||7,471||1.5%||0|
|8||Canberra – Queanbeyan ACT-NSW||462,984||23,013||5.2%||-1,841||-0.4%||0|
|9||Sunshine Coast Qld||353,906||37,001||11.7%||5,601||1.6%||0|
|10||Central Coast NSW||338,567||10,237||3.1%||1,275||0.4%||0|
|20||Albury – Wodonga NSW-Vic||97,274||6,438||7.1%||1,215||1.3%||0|
|26||Coffs Harbour NSW||73,443||3,337||4.8%||424||0.6%||0|
|28||Wagga Wagga NSW||57,004||1,204||2.2%||121||0.2%||0|
|29||Hervey Bay Qld||56,599||3,583||6.8%||623||1.1%||0|
|30||Shepparton – Mooroopna Vic||52,273||1,565||3.1%||-233||-0.4%||0|
|31||Mildura – Wentworth Vic-NSW||51,794||743||1.5%||-507||-1.0%||0|
|32||Port Macquarie NSW||50,365||3,989||8.6%||882||1.8%||0|
|33||Gladstone – Tannum Sands Qld||45,987||1,033||2.3%||58||0.1%||0|
|35||Traralgon – Morwell Vic||42,567||1,182||2.9%||139||0.3%||0|
|36||Warragul – Drouin Vic||42,115||6,592||18.6%||1,484||3.7%||+2|
|37||Bowral – Mittagong NSW||41,454||2,801||7.2%||488||1.2%||-1|
|41||Nowra – Bomaderry NSW||38,947||2,157||5.9%||631||1.6%||0|
|47||Mount Gambier SA||29,940||408||1.4%||-3||0.0%||0|
|48||Nelson Bay NSW||28,752||1,293||4.7%||259||0.9%||+2|
|49||Kalgoorlie – Boulder WA||28,565||-2,087||-6.8%||-354||-1.2%||-1|
Sydney returns to the top spot
Last year we heralded with much fanfare that Melbourne was the largest city in Australia, overtaking Sydney (using the SUA definition only). This lasted a year; with Melbourne’s population decline due to lockdowns, a loss of more than 65,000 people relegates Melbourne to the #2 spot, with Sydney once more Australia’s largest city (despite its own population fall).
Other notable changes
- Rising areas represent those fleechange locations 100km or so from our capitals. Warragul-Drouin in Victoria rises two places to #36, Nelson Bay NSW is up to #48 and (just off the list) Victor Harbor – Goolwa in SA rises 2 places to #51.
- Plenty of areas have grown or shrunk in population but maintained their position on the list. 42 of the top 50 were at the same position in 2021 as in 2020.
- These top 50 urban areas in Australia contain 21,423,279 people in 2021 – 83.2% of the total for Australia. 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%. We are still a very urbanised country.
- The effect of the pandemic is seen in the fact that 12 of the top 50 urban centres recorded population declines in 2021. The total for the top 50 was an increase of 9,702 people – just 0.05%, This was mainly due to Melbourne’s large fall.
- 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. 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).
Urban centres by state
NSW has 19 of the top 50 urban centres, with Qld next on 11.
|State/Territory||Urban Centres in the 50 largest 2021|
Figures will be adjusted post-Census
Note of course that these are pre-2021 Census figures, and will change once the Census results are out. The ABS reviews population estimates after each Census, so we’ll likely see some differences after the June 2022 release of the 2021 Census, which reveal the true extent of the shifts in population distribution.