US Census Bureau redefines meaning of ‘urban’ America

Dec 29, 2022, 6:00 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2022, 7:29 am
The skyline of downtown is shrouded after a winter storm swept over the country packing snow combin...

The skyline of downtown is shrouded after a winter storm swept over the country packing snow combined with Arctic cold, which created chaos for people trying to reach their destinations before the Christmas holiday, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Denver. Forecasters predict that warmer weather will be on tap for the week ahead. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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

Around 4.2 million residents living in 1,140 small cities, hamlets, towns and villages that lost their urban designation were bumped into the rural category. The new criteria raised the population threshold from 2,500 to 5,000 people and housing units were added to the definition.

The change matters because rural and urban areas often qualify for different types of federal funding for transportation, housing, health care, education and agriculture. The federal government doesn’t have a standard definition of urban or rural, but the Census Bureau’s definition often provides a baseline.

“The whole thing about urban and rural is all about money,” said Mary Craigle, bureau chief for Montana’s Research and Information Services. “Places that qualify as urban are eligible for transportation dollars that rural areas aren’t, and then rural areas are eligible for dollars that urban areas are not.”

The Census Bureau this year made the biggest modification in decades to the definition of an urban area. The bureau adjusts the definition every decade after a census to address any changes or needs of policymakers and researchers. The bureau says it is done for statistical purposes and it has no control over how government agencies use the definitions to distribute funding.

There were 2,646 urban areas in the mainland U.S., Puerto Rico and U.S. islands on the new list released Thursday. Among them were three dozen new urban areas that were rural a decade ago.

“This change in definition is a big deal and a substantial change from the Census Bureau’s long-standing procedures,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire. “It has significant implications both for policy and for researchers.”

Under the old criteria, an urbanized area needed to have at least 50,000 residents. An urban cluster was defined as having at least 2,500 people, a threshold that had been around since 1910. Under this definition, almost 81% of the U.S. was urban and 19% was rural over the past decade.

Under the new definition, hammered out after the 2020 census, the minimum population required for an area to be considered urban doubled to 5,000 people. Originally, the Census Bureau proposed raising the threshold to 10,000 people but pulled back amid opposition. The new criteria for urban areas shift the urban-rural ratio slightly, to 79.6% and 20.4%, respectively.

In 1910, a town with 2,500 residents had a lot more goods and services than a town that size does today, “and these new definitions acknowledge that,” said Michael Cline, North Carolina’s state demographer.

With the new criteria, the distinction between an urbanized area and an urban cluster has been eliminated since the Census Bureau determined there was little difference in economic activities between communities larger and smaller than 50,000 residents.

Of the 50 states, California was the most urban, with 94.2% of its population living in an urban area. Vermont was the most rural, with almost 65% of its population residing in rural areas.

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

Among the beneficiaries of using housing instead of people are resort towns in ski or beach destinations, or other places with lots of vacation homes, since they can qualify as urban based on the number of homes instead of full-time residents.

“There are many seasonal communities in North Carolina and this change in definition to housing units may be helpful in acknowledging that these areas are built up with roads, housing, and for at least one part of the year, host many thousands of people,” Cline said.

Housing, instead of population, is also going to be used for density measures at the level of census blocks, which typically have several hundred people and are the building blocks of urban areas. The Census Bureau said using housing units instead of population will allow it to make updates in fast-growing areas in between the once-a-decade censuses.

But there’s another reason for switching to housing units instead of population: the Census Bureau’s controversial new tool for protecting the privacy of participants in its head counts and surveys. The method adds intentional errors to data to obscure the identity of any given participant, and it is most noticeable in the smallest geographies, such as census blocks.

“The block level data aren’t really reliable and this provides them an opportunity for the density threshold they picked to be on par with the population,” said Eric Guthrie, a senior demographer in the Minnesota State Demographic Center.


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

United States News

Demonstrators block traffic protesting the death of Tyre Nichols on January 27, 2023 in Memphis, Te...
Associated Press

Memphis police chief disbands unit responsible in beating of Tyre Nichols

The unit is composed of three teams of about 30 officers and had been inactive since Tyre Nichols' Jan. 7 arrest.
1 day ago
The image from video released on Jan. 27, 2023, by the City of Memphis, shows Tyre Nichols on the g...
Associated Press

Memphis authorities release video in Tyre Nichols’ death

Video showing Memphis officers beating a Black man was made public Friday after they were charged with murder in the death of Tyre Nichols.
2 days ago
Demonstrators stage a rally in front of the White House to celebrate President Joe Biden's plan to ...
Kevin Stone

Lawsuits keeping over 300,000 Arizonans from getting student loan relief

Lawsuits are preventing more than 300,000 Arizonans from having some or all of their student debt dismissed, the Biden administration said Friday.
2 days ago
FILE -  A Goodyear tire sits on display at a tire shop on Feb. 12, 2014, in South Euclid, Ohio. A f...
Associated Press

Arizona lawyer subpoenaed in criminal investigation of Goodyear tires

A federal grand jury in Los Angeles is gathering evidence in a criminal investigation of Goodyear recreational vehicle tires.
3 days ago
Following days of rain, floodwaters cover streets in the Planada community of Merced County, Calif....
Associated Press

Atmospheric rivers in California boost water allocation for cities

Public water agencies in California will be getting more water from the state because of recent heavy rain.
3 days ago
(Brian Munoz/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, File)...
Associated Press

FDA declines to regulate CBD; calls on Congress for fix

The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday there are too many unknowns about CBD products to regulate them as foods or supplements under the agency’s current structure and called on Congress to create new rules for the massive and growing market. The marijuana-derived products have become increasingly popular in lotions, tinctures and foods, while their […]
3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet can improve everyday life

Quantum Fiber supplies unlimited data with speeds up to 940 mbps, enough to share 4K videos with coworkers 20 times faster than a cable.
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
US Census Bureau redefines meaning of ‘urban’ America