This rivalry is as old as British settlement. The two cities have always competed for the loyalty of their citizens and the admiration of visitors.
One has a port. The other has lanes. One has world-class beaches, and the other has a world-class live music scene. One is breathtakingly amazing, and the other is… huge.
Sydney has been Australia’s largest city for more than a century, until this week, when Melbourne wrested the legacy – thanks to a technicality.
Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS]The council, which is put in charge of measuring the size of the country’s towns and cities, announced boundary changes at the last census, which have seen Melbourne’s population jump from Sydney’s by 18,700 to 4,875,40.
The ABS changed the boundary of Melbourne’s Significant Urban Area, a little-known geographic classification, to include the Melton district, which is located on the city’s northwestern edge.
For years Melbourne’s population has been expected to outpace that of its northern rival. Commentators present this as the ultimate deciding factor in which city reigns supreme. But for such a lightning rod moment, there was not much excitement on the streets.
A laneway in the Court District of Melbourne’s CBD is the popular Café Patricia, where staff wear leather aprons and drip-pour coffee is served in whiskey glasses.
Manager Eli Bruin is quintessential Melbourne. She’s made a career in coffee, sports a mullet, wears a pair of black Crocs and lives in the trendy Inner North.
“I didn’t know it even happened, nobody was talking about it,” Bruin said.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’m very picky about who gives a fuck – Sydney is Sydney, Melbourne is Melbourne. They’re two very different cities.
For most of the last century, this indifference was not the norm.
The two cities fought so fiercely for supremacy that in a deal to keep the peace, neither was allowed to become the capital and Canberra was built into a sheep pen between the two. Under the terms of the agreement, the capital would be slightly closer to Sydney, but Melbourne would host the parliament until it was formed.
Even as colonies, the two struck a very different chord. In the 1850s, Sydney encouraged free trade, levying duties only on tobacco, alcohol, sugar, tea and coffee. Victoria was struggling to prevent its population from leaving after the gold rush, so it protected its manufacturing industry by imposing import duties on everything from clothing to glassware.
This led to the character of the cities – Sydney for finance and media, Melbourne for manufacturing and culture, and Canberra for politics.
Designer Josh Coughlan grew up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, moved to Melbourne and then back to Sydney to escape two years of lockdown. He is now back working in Melbourne.
“Melbourne is a better city to live in,” says Coughlan.
“I think Melbourne and Sydney are two sisters. Sydney is the prettiest sister who has always been admired all her life. She won a beauty pageant with the Olympics in 2000, but she has no personality.
“While Melbourne is full of personality, she’s quirky. She’s the sister you want to have a drink with.
There is a popular belief among Sydneysiders that only Melbourne people care about the rivalry. They have better beaches, better weather, harbor bridges and opera houses – what do they have to worry about?
“It’s the perfect launch,” says Coughlan. “It’s the opposite. Obviously, when the conversation comes up, people will defend it, but we don’t bring up the conversation.
Across town from Patricia is the town’s town hall, where Mayor Sally Capp is taking no prisoners.
“Who needs an opera house when your whole city is a stage?” Cap says.
“The beauty of Melbourne lies in its discovery; It is not flashy and superficial like Sydney. You can look down a laneway and find a little bar that becomes your own little secret, or take refuge from the hustle and bustle of our many parks and gardens.
When asked if there is anything that makes Melbourne people jealous, she replies with a resounding “no”.
“Time and time again, we have been ranked the best – we are Australia’s most liveable city, the friendliest city in the world, we are the event capital, the capital of sport, the capital of arts and culture. Let’s just say it, we Capital cities are capital cities.
“And our coffee is better.”
In Sydney, Lord Mayor Clover Moore refused to weigh in and was then weighed.
A spokesperson said, “The Lord Mayor does not engage in the Sydney v Melbourne debate.”
“She thinks Melbourne is wonderful, but her focus is on Australia being the only global city and the best place to live, work and visit, not concern herself with comparisons.”
Liz Allen, a demographer at the Australian National University, says part of Melbourne’s pull isn’t just that it’s more affordable – there’s also “something bottomless”.
In 2000 the then NSW Premier, Bob Carr, declared Sydney “full” as he argued for controlling its population. Sent a message internationally, Allen says.
“Melbourne, on the other hand, was going, ‘What a wonderful place to live, come to Melbourne’. And that’s what they did.
“We have this kind of pull factor to the world that Melbourne is the place to be.”
However, at the heart of this story is urban planning. Allen says Australians “fear” medium to high density living – hence its cities spread out in all directions.
Allen says, “When it comes to housing planning and development we have accepted that we will continue to do this as usual, and we are going to get bigger rather than get bigger.”
This gives Melbourne a long-term population advantage with its relatively flat and uninterrupted surroundings, while Sydney’s expansion is constrained by rivers to the north and south, mountains to the west and sea to the east.
But Allen says the numbers are beside the point – if they keep spreading, both Sydney and Melbourne are locking their residents into increasingly unsustainable lifestyles.
“While our two major global cities are fighting this invisible war, our cities are changing in a way where we are not thinking strategically about the future.”