U.S. Census Bureau Redefines Meaning of “Urban” America

More than 1,100 cities, towns and villages in the United States lost their urban area status on Thursday as the U.S. Census Bureau released a new list of urban areas based on revised criteria.

Some 4.2 million inhabitants of the 1,140 small cities, hamlets, towns and villages that lost their city designation are classified as rural. The new standard raises the population threshold from 2,500 to 5,000 and adds housing units to the definition.

The change is important because rural and urban areas typically qualify for different types of federal funding for transportation, housing, health care, education and agriculture. The federal government does not have a standard definition of urban or rural, but the Census Bureau’s definition usually provides a baseline.

“It’s all about money, both urban and rural,” said Mary Craig, director of the Montana Research and Information Service. “Places that qualify for cities qualify for transportation subsidies that rural areas don’t, and then rural areas qualify for Subsidies that don’t exist in urban areas.”

The Census Bureau this year made the biggest change to the definition of an urban area in decades. The bureau adjusts the definition every ten years after the census to respond to any changes or needs of policymakers and researchers. The bureau said this was done for statistical purposes and that it had no control over how government agencies use the definitions to allocate funds.

The new list, released Thursday, includes 2,646 urban areas in the continental United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. islands. Among them, there are more than 30 new urban areas that were rural areas a decade ago.

“This definition change is significant and a significant change to the Census Bureau’s longstanding procedures,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire. “It has significant implications for policy and for researchers.”

By old standards, an urbanized area needs to have at least 50,000 inhabitants. Urban agglomerations are defined as having at least 2,500 people, a threshold that has existed since 1910. By this definition, nearly 81 percent of the United States was urban and 19 percent rural in the past decade.

Under the new definition finalized after the 2020 census, the minimum population required for an area to be considered a city has doubled to 5,000. Originally, the Census Bureau proposed raising the threshold to 10,000, but canceled it amid opposition. The new standard for urban areas slightly adjusts the urban-rural ratios to 79.6 percent and 20.4 percent, respectively.

In 1910, a town of 2,500 residents had far more goods and services than a town of its size today, “and these new definitions acknowledge that,” said North Carolina demographer Michael Klein.

With the new standard, the distinction between urbanized areas and urban agglomerations is eliminated, as the Census Bureau determines that there is little difference in economic activity between communities with more than 50,000 residents.

Of the 50 states, California is the most urbanized state, with 94.2 percent of its population living in urban areas. Vermont is the most rural, with almost 65 percent of the population living in rural areas.

For the first time, the Census Bureau added housing units to the definition of an urban area. A place can be considered a city if it has at least 2,000 housing units, based on the average household having 2.5 people.

Beneficiaries of using housing instead of people include resort towns that are ski or beach destinations, or other places with a lot of vacation homes, since they can become cities based on the number of homes rather than full-time residents.

“North Carolina has many seasonal communities, and this change in the definition of a housing unit could help recognize that these areas have roads, housing, and host thousands of people for at least part of the year,” Klein said. Say.

Housing, rather than population, will also be used for density measurements at the census block level, which often have hundreds of people and is the bedrock of urban areas. Using housing units instead of populations will allow it to update fast-growing areas between the decennial censuses, the Census Bureau said.

But there’s another reason for the shift to housing units rather than populations: the Census Bureau’s controversial new tool to protect the privacy of participants in its counting and surveys. The method deliberately adds errors to the data to obscure the identity of any given participant, and is most pronounced in the smallest geographic areas, such as census tracts.

“Block-level data isn’t really reliable, and that presents an opportunity for them to choose a density threshold that’s on par with the population,” said Eric Guthrie, senior demographer at the Minnesota Population Center.


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP