Nearly 1,000 cities and towns across the US lost their status as urban areas on Thursday when the US Census Bureau released a new list of places considered urban based on revised criteria.
Some 3.5 million residents living in the small towns, hamlets, towns and villages that lost their urban designation were pushed into the rural category. The new criteria raised the population threshold from 2,500 to 5,000 people and included residential units in 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 a standard definition of “urban” or “rural,” but the Census Bureau’s definition often provides a basis.
“City and country is all about money,” said Mary Craigle, office manager for Montana Research and Information Services. “Places that qualify as urban are eligible for transportation funds that rural areas are not, and then rural areas are eligible for dollars that urban areas are not.”
The Census Bureau this year has the biggest modification in decades to define an urban area. The office adjusts the definition every ten years after a census to reflect changes or needs from policymakers and researchers. The office says this is for statistical purposes and it has no control over how government agencies use the definitions to allocate funds.
There were 2,646 urban areas in the United States mainland, Puerto Rico, and the US Islands on the new list published Thursday.
“This change in definition is a big deal and a significant change from the Census Bureau’s longstanding practice,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire. “It has significant implications for both policymakers and researchers.”
According to the old criteria, an urbanized area had to have at least 50,000 inhabitants. An urban cluster was defined as having at least 2,500 residents, a threshold that had existed since 1910. By this definition, over the past decade, 81% of the US was urban and 19% was rural.
Under the new definition, crafted after the 2020 census, the minimum population required for an area to be considered urban doubled 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 people had many more goods and services than a city of that size today, “and these new definitions recognize that,” said Michael Cline, demographer for the state of North Carolina.
The new criteria eliminated the distinction between an urbanized area and an urban cluster, as the Census Bureau found that there was little difference in economic activity between communities with more and less than 50,000 residents.
For the first time, the Census Bureau adds housing units to the definition of an urban area. A place is considered urban if it has at least 2,000 housing units, based on the calculation that the average household has 2.5 people.
Beneficiaries of the use of apartments instead of people include resorts in ski or beach destinations or other locations with many vacation homes, as they can qualify as urban based on the number of apartments instead of full-time residents.
“There are many seasonal communities in North Carolina, and this change in the definition of housing units may be helpful in recognizing that these areas are built up with streets and housing and are home to many thousands of people for at least a portion of the year,” Cline said.
Housing rather than population is also used for density measurements at the level of census blocks, which typically have several hundred inhabitants 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 between censuses that take place once a decade.
But there’s another reason for switching to housing units instead of population: that of the Census Bureau controversial new tool to protect the privacy of participants in its headcounts and surveys. The method intentionally adds errors to data to obscure the identity of a particular participant and is most noticeable in the smallest regions, such as B. census blocks.
“The block-level data isn’t really reliable, and this gives them an opportunity that whatever density threshold they choose is consistent with the population,” said Eric Guthrie, a senior demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
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