Is Auckland as low density as they say it is?

Auckland’s urban limits have been much in the news recently. On the one hand, there is pressure to free up ‘greenfields’ land on the outskirts for more housing. For example, the Productivity Commission’s 2012 Housing Affordability Enquiry highlighted the central role of land value in the price of a new home, and asserted that the easing of restrictions on housing developments at the metropolitan urban limit will go a long way towards solving Auckland’s housing crisis. On the other hand, planners at the Auckland Council are proposing increased density in existing suburbs to keep Auckland within the metropolitan urban limit.

Many New Zealanders will perhaps have heard the claim that Auckland is a spread out city, occupying almost as much area as say London or Los Angeles. And many will be familiar with the adage that ‘there’s no need to move to Auckland, all you have to do is wait, and Auckland will come to you.’

So how spread out is Auckland, compared to say, Sydney? The Demographia World Urban Areas handbook (2013 edition) 1 cites the Auckland urban area as covering 544 sq km (as at 2008)  with a population of 1,310,000 (2013), and an average density of 2,400 per sq km. In contrast, the Sydney urban area is measured as 2,037 sq km (2011) with a population of 3,956,000 (2013) and an average urban density of 1,900 per sq km. Auckland is therefore rated as having a higher population density than Sydney. Demographia’s figures were used in a 2010 blog to counter claims from John Banks that Auckland was too thinly spread out to justify public transport investment.

The Wikipedia article on Auckland stated the urban area is 482.9 sq km, the population is 1,397,000 (2012) and the density is 2,900 per sq km.2 The Wikipedia article on Sydney states that its population density is 2,037 per sq km.3

Figure 1 below shows the Auckland urban zone as defined by Statistics New Zealand in 2006, stretching from Hatfields Beach in the north, to Papakura in the south, a distance of roughly 65 kms. The urban zone covers an area of 1,085 sq kms. The usually resident population of this area was 1,208,094 in the 2006 census, with a density of 1,113 per sq km.4


Below is a map of the Greater Sydney metropolitan area. The Greater Sydney area is 12,145 sq km, containing 4,627,000 people (2010), and with a population density of only 381 per sq km. The Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of the Sydney urban area (cited in the Wikipedia article referred to above) is considerably less than the area of Greater Sydney, measured as 1,788 per sq km (2006), and with a population of 3,641,421 (2006), rendering a population density of 2,037 per sq km. If we further restrict our definition Sydney to just the 25 local government areas closest to the Sydney central business district, that is with the outermost areas being Manly, Willoughby, Ryde, Parramatta, Bankstown, Hurstville and Kogarah, the aggregate of these 25 areas amounts to 575 sq km, with a distance from north to south of approximately 20 kms. It contains a population of 1,772,088 (2006), or an average density of 3,081.1 per sq km.


Now, if we remove areas in Figure 1 with a population density of less than 400 per sq km (the areas shaded yellow), the population density rises from 1,113 to 2,039 per sq km. The demarcation of 400 per sq km was chosen because this is stated to be an internationally recognised threshold density for an urban area.5 This density of 2,039 is almost exactly the same as the official figure for Sydney in the same year (2,037) and a lot less than the density figure arrived at by Demographia.

Given, among other things, that there is a five-year discrepancy between the population as numerator and square kilometres as denominator of the density figure in Demographia’s estimate, it is not clear that Auckland’s population density is greater than Sydney’s.




  2. Wikipedia Auckland accessed 20 November 2013. The density figure appears to be the quotient of 1,397,300 / 482.9 = 2,893.6. 

  3. Wikipedia Geography of Sydney accessed 20 November 2013. 

  4. Statistics New Zealand (2007), Demographic Trends 2006, Table 6.03. 

  5. Demographia (2013) Demographia World Urban Areas (World Agglomerations) 9th annual edition, p. 2. 

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