Nearly 1,000 US cities, towns and villages lost their urban area status on Thursday as the US Census Bureau released a new list of places considered urban under revised criteria.
About 3.5 million people living in small towns, hamlets, towns and villages that have lost their urban designation are 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 is important because rural and urban areas are often eligible for different types of federal funding for transportation, housing, health care, education, and agriculture. The federal government does not have standard definitions of urban or rural, but the Census Bureau’s definitions often provide a baseline.
“Everything urban and rural is about money,” said Mary Craigle, chief of Montana’s Bureau of Research and Information Services. “Places that qualify as urban qualify for transportation dollars that rural areas don’t, and then rural areas qualify for dollars that urban areas don’t.”
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The Census Bureau this year made the biggest modification in decades to its definition of an urban area. The Bureau adjusts the definitions every decade after the census to address any changes or needs of policy makers and researchers. The bureau said it was doing this for statistical purposes and had no control over how government agencies use the definitions to distribute funds.
There are 2,646 urban areas in the US mainland, Puerto Rico, and US islands on the new list released Thursday.
“This definition change is a big deal and a substantial change from the Census Bureau’s old procedures,” said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire. “This has significant implications for both policy and for researchers.”
Under the old criteria, urban areas had to have at least 50,000 residents. An urban cluster is defined as having at least 2,500 people, a threshold that has existed since 1910. Under this definition, 81% of the US is urban and 19% rural over the last decade.
Under the new definition, drawn up after the 2020 census, the minimum population required for an area to be considered urban doubles to 5,000 people. Initially, the Census Bureau proposed raising the threshold to 10,000 people but withdrew amid opposition. The new criteria for urban areas slightly shift the urban-rural ratio, to 79.6% and 20.4%, respectively.
In 1910, a city of 2,500 residents had more goods and services than a city of its size today, “and this new definition recognizes that,” says Michael Cline, a North Carolina state demographer.
Under the new criteria, the distinction between urban areas and urban clusters has been eliminated since the Census Bureau determined that there is little difference in economic activity between communities larger and smaller than 50,000 residents.
For the first time, the Census Bureau added housing units to its definition of an urban area. A place can be considered urban if it has at least 2,000 housing units, based on calculations 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 many vacation homes, as they may qualify as cities based on number of homes instead of full-time residents.
“There are many seasonal communities in North Carolina and this change in the definition of a housing unit can be helpful in recognizing that these areas are built up with roads, housing, and at least one section a year, housing thousands of people,” Klein said.
Housing, in addition to population, will also be used for density measurement at the census block level, which usually has a population of several hundred people and is an urban building block. The Census Bureau says using housing units instead of population will allow it to make updates in fast-growing areas between once-in-a-decade censuses.
But there’s another reason to turn to housing units over population: the Census Bureau’s controversial new tool to protect the privacy of participants in its enumerations and surveys. This method adds intentional errors to the data to obscure the identity of any participant, and it is most visible in the smallest geographic areas, such as census blocks.
“Block-level data isn’t really reliable and it gives them an opportunity for their chosen density threshold to be on par with the population,” said Eric Guthrie, a senior demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center.