Special from Sydney: Misunderstanding Paris

Reporters, columnists and even consultants often misunderstand urban areas and urban terms. The result can be absurd statements that compare the area in which the writer lives to somewhere else where the grass is inevitably greener, bringing to mind an expensive competitiveness report that suggested St. Louis should look to Cleveland as a model. Sometimes this is the result of just not understanding and other times it results from listening to itinerant missionaries from idealized areas who have no sense of the reality.

A most recent example is from the Sydney Morning Herald, one of Australia's largest and most respected newspapers.

Columnist Elizabeth Farrelly told her readers that Paris covers one-quarter the land area (urban footprint) of Sydney and has a population of 5.5 million. In fact, the urban footprint of Paris is at least five times larger and the population nearly double.

According to the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE), the statistics bureau of France, the urban footprint of Paris was 2,723 square kilometers in 1999 and the population in that area was 10,143,000 in 2006 (both figures are the latest data available).

In contrast, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the statistics bureau of Australia, the urban footprint of Sydney was 1,788 square kilometers in 2006. However, even the 50 percent larger urban footprint of Paris may actually understate the difference, because ABS uses a lower population density threshold than INSEE for urban versus rural classification. The difference between the two urban footprints is shown in the figure below.

Ms. Farrelly also decried the continuing sprawl that she perceives in Sydney, despite the fact that no urban area in the new world, except perhaps Vancouver, has shut down home construction on its fringe to a greater degree (nor even has Paris). The effect of Sydney's development Berlin Wall is housing affordability so bad that it is second only behind Vancouver out of nearly 275 metropolitan areas in the 6 nations we cover in the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.

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