Core Confusing Words: Rural and Metro

Some interesting data from Wendell Cox by way of the New Geography blog… We think of metropolitan areas as being urbanized, whether at inner-city densities or “suburban” (post-World War II development-pattern densities) but, in fact, they contain a lot of “rural” area. A majority of “rural” residents in the United States, observes Cox, actually reside in metropolitan areas.

The use of “rural” is confusing, the demographer says. (Shades of former contributor EM Risse, who often wrote about “core confusing words” — including “rural” — in the context of land use.) Cox uses the Census Bureau definition, which applies density criteria at a census-block level.

By contrast, metropolitan regions are not defined by population density but commuting patterns. If a quarter of the workforce of a particular census block commutes to work in a nearby urban area, it is included in the metropolitan area.

Here is the breakdown of the three metropolitan regions in Virginia’s Golden Crescent:


More than three quarters of the land mass in Virginia’s Big 3 metros is rural (very low density) and nearly one-tenth the population is rural. By the Census Bureau definitions, the Richmond metro is particularly rural in orientation.

To avoid confusion, I will do my best to stick with these carefully defined definitions in my writing. Readers should be mindful of the definitions as well.


Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


6 responses to “Core Confusing Words: Rural and Metro”

  1. the one map.. I think DJ posted it – show more granular density , perhaps census block or even low – carrier routes…

    but the point was/is that density is not monolithic in urban regions except places like NYC or the core-core of Chicago.

    so you really have a patchwork of densities with some of them meeting thresholds necessary for new urban and some not…

    and perhaps a good (arguable) comparison would be when wildlife people talk about contiguous habitat.

    for some kinds of wildlife – it’s not that you might have “pods” of habitat – it’s if those pods are connected in a way that they comprise a large enough scale region to support a given type of animal.

    In a similar way, (I’d argue) – new urban or whatever you want to call it .. will not ‘work’ in patches.. there has to be enough contiguous connected areas for it to “work” .. and that’s why IMHO we sometimes speak about “corridors” or TOD.

    and it’s also why you see areas like Tysons which has the density for “pods” but not the entire connected area….

    so there is the concept (I assert) of “false” or “artificial” density where you have the density strictly speaking, but you don’t have the rest that would make it truly new urban.

    I miss Ed Risse but don’t blame him for leaving.. many of us gave him a rash at times…but then again – he seemed to have only one way of thinking about these issue… and was hard to convince to reassess.

  2. DJRippert Avatar


    So, the suburbs no longer exist? Just rural and urban? Would you rewrite your Bye Bye Burbie article to be Bye Bye Rural?

    Meanwhile, you write a lot about urban cores. How do you define them?

    I think we need a three tier definition – urban, suburban and rural. There is a big difference between Park Ridge, IL (outside Chicago) and the Loop (inside Chicago).

    1. The Census Bureau distinguishes only between “rural” and “urban.” It does not distinguish between different degrees of urbanness (urbanity?). That’s a fact, and it does not represent any thought on my part that “suburbs no longer exist.”

      I agree that it would be useful to distinguish between different patterns of development, of which density is a particularly telling factor. But it’s not the only one. The existence of mixed use is another factor. The existence of grid streets. Walkability measures and access to mass transit are others.

      By urban core, I refer to human settlement patterns include higher relative density, some mixed-use development, walkable streetscapes and grid streets. These attributes typically exist only in urban areas that were developed before World War II, hence, they tend to be located in the center of the metropolitan areas of which they are a part.

      1. but you should be able to build a map (using census data) that shows density for the geography….

        and what that would show almost surely is that urban scale density in many areas like NoVa is a patchwork rather than a large monolithic area like you might see in NYC or Chicago.

        the other thing that you could get from the Census is commuting info which if you could combine in the same map as you show density probably might be worth a thousands words or more!

  3. The latest commercials for New York tout certain “tax free” enterprise zone (for 10 years!).

    and GUESS where they are:

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Is “Boomergedon” a “confusing core word?”

Leave a Reply