Hundreds of urban areas in the United States are becoming rural, but not because residents are moving away, but because the Census Bureau is changing the definition of an urban area. According to the new criteria, more than 1,300 small towns, settlements and villages that were marked as “urban areas” after the census a decade ago, will be considered “rural” in the future.
This is important because urban and rural areas qualify for different types of federal funding. Some communities that are becoming rural are worried that they could be left without health clinics, and they are also worried about financing transportation and education from federal programs.
But others don’t mind the change: “We’re a village anyway and we feel like a village,” said Randy Reeg, president of Mauston, Wisconsin, with 4,347 residents.
In order to determine what is urban and what is rural, the Census Bureau moves from the number of inhabitants as a basis, to “housing units”. Bureau officials say the change will make it easier to update the U.S. population in the ten-year period between the two censuses.
They also claim that it is necessary because the new method of privacy protection created errors in the 2020 census in small geographical areas, which is a consequence of protecting the identity of the enumerated people. On the other hand, the number of “housing units” gives accurate data, and protects the identity of those listed as required by this method.
So far, the settlement had to have at least 2,500 people in order to be urban according to the old criteria that lasted for more than a century. It will now need at least 2,000 housing units for that, which is equivalent to about 5,000 people.
The revised list of urban areas will be published at the end of this year, but a third of the areas that were considered urban will be placed in the category of rural areas according to the new criteria.
Places with 50,000 or more inhabitants have so far been considered “urbanized areas,” while “urban clusters” have been places with between 2,500 and 49,999 inhabitants. But those differences will be eliminated and all this will be called “urban areas” according to the new definition.
Some communities worry that the move to “housing units” will cause an underestimation of the size of some areas if the Census Bureau uses the U.S. average of 2.6 people per household for its calculations. For example, Madeira County in California has 3.3 people per household, and categorizing that county as new “would not reflect that community,” Patricia Taylor, executive director of the District Transportation Board, told the Bureau last year.
Although the Census Bureau says the new definition should only be used for statistical purposes, it is important which urban areas are because they form the core of both the larger “metro” and “micro” areas, and these definitions are the basis for how others public services classify urban and rural areas in determining eligibility for federal funding.
The Bureau revises the definitions every 10 years, after each census. The U.S. urban population grew from about 45 percent of the total in 1910, to more than 80 percent a decade ago.
Although federal funding programs vary and some communities in the same, urban or rural category qualify for some but not others, the changes will “have significant consequences for many,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New York. Hampshire who studies rural issues.
In addition, “if many areas that are now urban are redefined as rural, competition for limited funding for rural areas will increase,” Johnson said.
A coalition of associations representing cities, counties, planners and transport groups opposed the proposed changes last year, saying the shift from population to “housing units” to “housing units” would not take into account realistically different patterns of land development and use.
The Census Bureau tried to answer these problems with three levels of definitions of urban areas for “census blocks”, which are the smallest geographical unit in the United States. “Census blocks” will be urban if they have 425 housing units per square mile, which is equivalent to 1,105 people. Prior to the change, “census blocks” were considered urban if they had at least 500 people per square mile.
The change in definitions thus gives the Bureau a way to distinguish between the “urban core” and less densely populated areas, usually on the outskirts of cities.
Bill Keyrouze, executive director of the Association of Urban Planners’ Organizations, said the changes introduced by the Census Bureau, adding different levels of urban areas based on housing density, were “an adequate compromise”.
For the small town of DeMotte in Indiana, which will no longer qualify as an urban area, it doesn’t really matter from the point of view of “status”, said the city’s manager Michael Cain.
“You are what you are. The number of people doesn’t matter. The community spirit is important: is the city a cohesive group of people who care about each other,” Kane said.