Punching above their weight – small cities that show us how

It has occurred to me over the years that there are many good examples around the world of small cities (say from around 100-500K population) that really punch above their weight in terms of providing a great urban lifestyle and most things big cities do. A number of factors contribute to this – their role in the nation or region, their age, the facilities they have, their setting, their history. However they get there, these cities seem to provide many aspects of big city lifestyle without some of the big city issues, particularly congestion and mobility.

Thought I’d review a few examples I’ve thought of, and see if anyone would like to add others examples. So here goes:

Wellington NZ


Billing itself as the NZ Capital of Cool, this city of a few hundred thousand people is maybe most famous for its bad weather. But it is the nation’s capital, which brings public servants and a fair number of people on good incomes and the unique Beehive parliament building. It has a major university, which brings the “colour and movement” of its student population and adds vitality day and night.

It also has a spectacular setting, with a wonderful natural harbour and a great waterfront. Sure it is on a fault line and so earthquake prone, but this has given it the spectacular hills around the harbour and the distinctive timber housing – the closest thing I’ve seen to traditional Queenslander housing outside Queensland:


Add in major museums like Te Papa and a film industry, courtesy of Peter Jackson, and you get a quite a place.



The capital of Scotland needs little introduction. Chock full of history, with its castle, Royal Mile, old town and new town, and a great setting with the Castle on high, Arthur’s Seat and the Firth of Forth to the north (see what I did there?!), this is still a city of under half a million people.

It has four universities, world famous festivals like the Military Tattoo (anyone else find this excruciating?) and the Fringe, and a secure world identity and reputation. It struck me as a great place.



Tasmania’s capital is a hidden gem that is progressively being discovered by the world, recently making Lonely Planet’s list of the top 10 places to visit. It is small, around 220,000 people, set on a spectacular harbour on the Derwent River estuary, surrounded by big hills and overlooked by Mount Wellington with its year round snow capped top, that takes on different moods over the course of a day and the seasons, and pops up into views from all over the city.

It has a rich history in Australian terms, with its tough convict past, which has left a heritage of suburbs like Battery Point and Salamanca. But it is its cultural life marked by many festivals, and food culture that has really out it on the map recently. With the opening of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and its abundant seafood, fresh produce and brewing tradition (some of Australia’s best beers, nice wines and now winning awards for its whisky!), it has some kick arse dining options.

I spent some time there over the last couple of years, and the place has a real vibe. It has a stable population, affordable housing and a great lifestyle, and you can easily head to its big sister Melbourne if you want more hipster, culture, shopping and sport. All in all, a winning combination!

And some smaller regional Australian cities – Bendigo, Newcastle, Toowoomba, Townsville

These are smaller cities in regional Australia that have moved on from there historical roles to reinvent themselves into places that are really winning the hearts and minds of residents and visitors alike.


Bendigo, a former gold rush town which gave it a fine building stock and structure, is reinventing itself as a cultural centre with a strong focus on its urban design and sense of place.


Newcastle, which could have become an Australia rust belt city, instead has capitalised on its beaches and traditional city structure to develop a hipster and seaside vibe attracting creative people.


Townsville, for a long time the daggy staid poor cousin of the North, is reinventing itself with a strong, broad based economy and tropical climate, and starting to get it in terms of investing in the quality of its places as an economic and social capital investment strategy. I wrote about it a while ago here.


Similarly, Toowoomba is building on its traditional role as the capital of the Darling Downs and riding the gas boom to become a place that offers a great lifestyle less than two hours drive from Brisbane and the Gold Coast. It has major health and education sectors, and an emerging cultural role. As I observed a while ago, it has the built form DNA, climate and emerging lane way culture to become a potential “mini Melbourne“.

So there are a few for starters. I’m sure there are many more and would be interested to hear about them. I also look forward to your thoughts about the idea that, in this age of unprecedented urbanisation, smaller cities can thrive too!


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  1. Luke says:

    Toowoomba as a mini-Melbourne. Now that’s an idea that could gather some momentum. I like it.

    • vanndemon says:

      Thanks for the comment Luke – I’ve been saying it for a while, including to the council, so will be interesting to see if it gets some traction!