Sydney is more densely populated than Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles but recent comparisons have painted the opposite picture by measuring Sydney the wrong way.
Australia is one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet if it is simply divided evenly by land area to give about three people each a square kilometre. But the reality is that residents of Potts Point, Ultimo and Chippendale shared the land around them with more than 15,000 people per square kilometre in 2016.
Dr Michael Grosvenor, an urban planning expert at the University of Southern Queensland, said he is sick of bad data being used to compare cities.
"If I see another global city comparison showing LA and Phoenix as being more population dense than European or Australian cities I’ll scream," Dr Grosvenor said. "This type of statistical reporting has been going on for years [but] the Sydney region boundaries include national parks and large tracts of open space, whereas North American cities do not.
"Sydney has one of the largest metro area catchments in the world, which means sprawl and associated commute time is a big issue, but where development is allowed, it is much denser overall than many other cities," he said.
One of the best methods to measure density is to divide urban areas up into one square metre blocks and then only include blocks that people live in.
This method has been used by the European Commission to produce a map called the Global Human Settlement Layer. Using this measure, Sydney had an average density of 2800 people per square kilometre in 2015 with a peak density of 14,500 people.
Sydney has developed into a multi-centred city with large commercial areas and high population density outside of the CBD in places such as Parramatta, which is relatively unique in the world, Dr Grosvenor said.
"Historically, North American cities are generally mono-centric (one CBD or downtown surrounded by sprawling residential, industrial and commercial). There are other “centres” in suburban US cities, but they are usually specialist retail villages with little commercial land use," he said.
Demographer Mark McCrindle said Sydney and Melbourne would be in the top five cities list in America for population and are each set to hit 8 million residents by 2040.
"How we respond to a densified city, compared to what they were both established as – suburban sprawls – needs to change," Mr McCrindle said. "We've got to get medium density right because a lot of people want that terrace or townhouse option, they want the neighbourly mix."
Areas such as Camden, Box Hill or Marsden Park may fill the "missing middle" in Sydney, where twice as many people live in apartments than live in townhouses or terraces, he said.
"We need the mix of options and the right infrastructure when we plan our communities so that they are livable and walkable and people have that connectivity, rather than just dormitory suburbs where people live and then they all commute to the CBD."
Sydney's development has been hampered by expanding the urban development boundaries to allow more land for developers and people wanting quarter acre blocks, Dr Grosvenor said.
"Will we ever realistically achieve a '30-minute' city if we continue to spread the geographic scope of land release?" Dr Grosvenor said.
"Department of Planning officers might be asked to consider how a new land development opportunity on disused agricultural land in the south-west might cater to the projections for new housing required to cater to Sydney’s growth, without calculating how that might impact on future commute times from providing land further away from centres of employment."
NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts said the Greater Sydney region plan does include opening up new land for development, but of the 33,893 homes built in Sydney in the year to March 2018, just 14 per cent were in these areas.
“My experience in the planning portfolio in the last 18 months is that the pressure for larger blocks is driven by councils, not by home buyers," Mr Roberts said. "The focus of the NSW Government has been on affordable homes close to transport and we’ve invested significantly in this space, and have announced our Medium Density Housing Code to try and increase the diversity of housing stock across the Sydney Basin.
"For better or worse, some councils flat out refuse to allow smaller lot sizes within their boundaries. We can’t force them to.”
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