The term “rural” refers to describing an area outside of a city or town. In the United States, there is no one-size-fits-all definition of a rural area. The Census Bureau’s urban and rural definitions rely on population density, while other federal agencies use land area or population thresholds.
Sometimes, rural areas are defined as those places that are not “urban.” Here, I will explore the various definitions of rural and urban areas in the United States for you in this first blog post from Rural Area Life. (This blog will be about living in rural areas, the advantages and disadvantages with tips for rural living.)
You may find there is no easy answer as to what is “a rural area.”
Rural Definition by Population Density
One common way to define a rural area is by population density. The Census Bureau defines three categories of density: urbanized areas, urban clusters, and rural areas.
- An urbanized area must have a population of at least 50,000 people. As well as the population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile.
- An urban cluster must have a population of at least 2,500 people but fewer than 50,000 people.
- A rural area is any territory that is not part of an urbanized area or urban cluster.
Rural Land Area
Another common way to define a rural area is by land area. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines two types of rural areas: open countryside and small towns. Open countryside is any territory that has less than 1,000 people per square mile AND more than one-third of the territory is non-urban land (e.g., farms, forests, or ranches).
Small towns are any territory that has less than 2,500 people AND more than 50 percent of the territory is non-urban land.
The term “urban” often means dense areas of the population with high levels of development. However, there is no formal definition of an urban area in the United States.
Sometimes, federal agencies use terms like “metropolitan” or “micropolitan” to describe densely populated areas.
Metropolitan areas have at least one city with a population of 50,000 or more people AND they contain surrounding county territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with that city.
Micropolitan areas have at least one city with a population between 10,000 and 50,000 people AND they contain surrounding county territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with that city.
Rural Definition vs. Urban Area
It’s important to note that the definitions of rural and urban areas can vary depending on the source. For example, the Census Bureau includes places like prisons and military bases in their definition of an urbanized area. This is how they do it even though those places are not as “urban” by most people’s standards.
So, when you’re looking at data about rural and urban areas, make sure you’re aware of how the data was collected and what definition was used.
Conclusion of Rural Area Definition
In short, there is no definitive answer to the question “What is considered a rural area in the United States?” Federal agencies like the Census Bureau and the USDA use different criteria to define rural areas.
However, it’s important to know how the data you’re looking at is collected before drawing any conclusions from it.
Generally speaking, however, we can say that rural areas are usually defined as being less densely populated than urban areas. Often they have more land devoted to agriculture or other forms of natural habitat than developed land devoted to buildings or roads.
What other rural definition would you add to these rural definitions above?