Urban and Rural


Prior to Census 2000, urban referred to all territory, population, and housing units located in places with a population of 2,500 or more. With Census 2000, the definition changed.

After the 2000 census was taken, the Census Bureau’s geographers looked at every block in the nation and decided if it was or was not urban.  There are very specific criteria about whether a block could be labeled urban.  Land use patterns in American can be complicated and the rules for deciding “urban-ness” take into account many kinds of situations.  They generally have to do with density of settlement and proximity to other urban blocks.

For Census 2000, urban territory, population, and housing units belong within urbanized areas (UA) or urban clusters (UC). UA and UC boundaries consist of

  • core census block groups or blocks that have a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile, and
  • surrounding census blocks that have an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile

In addition, under certain conditions, less densely settled territory may be part of each UA or UC.

Notice that the definition of urban doesn’t have anything to do with the boundaries of incorporated places.  Some territory inside an incorporated city or town can be rural instead of urban.  In fact, urban and rural are delineated independently of any other geographic entity.  That is, cities, towns, census tracts, counties, metropolitan areas, and the territory outside metropolitan areas often are split between urban and rural territory.  The population and housing units in these geographic units often are partly classified as urban and partly classified as rural. Rural territory can be inside or outside city limits.  Urban territory can be unincorporated.

Put another way, an urban or rural classification cuts across other geographic entities.  For another example, there is generally both urban and rural territory within both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. For this reason, metro and non-metro areas cannot be used as a proxy for urban and rural.

In summary, rural is any territory that is not urban.  The Census Bureau’s use of the word rural is what is left over after urban has been defined.

The Census Bureau’s website gives a great deal more information about the definitions of these terms.  Please visit http://www.census.gov/geo/www/ua/ua_2k.html.