Monday, September 12, 2011

The Quandary of Defining Rural

By Kathy Miller, RUPRI Program Director

What is rural? It sounds like a simple question, but ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 answers. Worse, ask 10 policymakers and you’re likely to get 20 answers. What makes this such a contentious and difficult dilemma? Largely, it falls to where the funds are – everyone wants a piece of an ever diminishing source of public funds for rural development.

Common rural definitions & their challenges

There are lots of ways that rural is defined for data-related purposes. The Census Bureau makes the official definitions of the words “urban” and “rural.” These are based on the population density of census blocks and block groups. Under these guidelines, urban areas have populations of 2,500 and higher, and anything not defined as urban is rural.

While the Census definitions are the official designations of rural and urban places, these pose significant problems for the purposes of targeting resources to rural areas. Many people argue that some “urban” places – such as small towns with as few as 2,500 people – are really more rural in character. But how do we agree on the appropriate threshold? Also, these areas are drawn for the purposes of statistical tabulations – there is no governmental jurisdiction that operates these census-defined areas. Furthermore, these are boundaries that are delineated only once per decade.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), recognizing these challenges, created the Core Based Statistical Area classification, designed to represent “functional regions” around urban areas. Counties are used as the basis of these areas. Counties are classified as:

·         Metropolitan, a county with a core urban area of population 50,000 or more plus surrounding counties linked through commuting ties;
·         Micropolitan, a county with a core urban area of population 10,000 to 49,999 plus surrounding counties linked through commuting ties; and
·         Noncore counties, the residual set of counties that don’t meet the criteria for metropolitan or micropolitan.

These OMB definitions are popular designations, and do indeed have strong merit. However, counties create a difficult geography to classify, particularly in the west where counties can be expansive. It is very difficult to classify a county as one thing – counties are not urban or rural, they are urban and rural. In fact, over half of all rural people actually reside in counties that are classified as metropolitan. And an image of the Grand Canyon, located in a metropolitan county, is often used to illustrate this challenge.

Thinking regionally

While it is absurd to call the Grand Canyon an urban area, this classification does have significant merit when considering more regional approaches to economic development. OMB does not intend for these designations to be utilized as strict delineations, but rather as functional regions. By definition, these areas contain a broad spectrum of territory, from the most urban to remote rural places.

Micropolitan areas in particular represent small cities and towns that act as important regional growth hubs for broad rural territory that surround them. We should not dismiss these designations because they are county based, but we should embrace these designations for their purpose, representing how regions interact and functions.

Most would agree that we rarely cross an invisible line where urban territory becomes rural territory – a drive outward from a central city will present a gradual change. Thus represents the problem. Rural and urban are a continuum – not discrete concepts. We are forcing a line in the sand when we create a firm definition of rural. The truth is, there will always be some place left just beyond the arbitrary line we draw.

The answer, then? Ultimately, there isn’t one – nor will there ever be. But in an area of declining public resources and monumental challenges, we need to worry less about who is rural and who isn’t – for these places are no more isolated in reality than the definitions try to make them. Communities need to recognize, and welcome, the interrelationships with surrounding areas and learn to function as regions.

How do you define “rural”? What is your community's experience with various qualifying criteria for rural programs? How do you define the region where you live? 

Kathy Miller is the Program Director for RUPRI. When she’s not wrestling with rural data issues, she raises chickens, turkeys, and cows with the help of her two girls and husband in Blackwater, Missouri. Contact her at

Visit the Rural Futures Lab at our website.

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