What is Rural?

While there is no one agreed-upon definition for what constitutes "rural," most methods of classifying territory along an urban-rural continuum make reference to population size and density, level of urbanization, and/or the relationship to urbanized areas in terms of economic activity, commuting patterns, and so on.  Adequately representing the economic, social and demographic diversity of rural areas in the United States remains a substantial challenge in developing criteria for determining what areas are rural.  However, the various definitions used have real consequences for people and public policy.

The following links offer varied definitions and understandings as to what, exactly, rural is. These definitions range from purely quantifiable measures, to subjective discussions of self perception and provide only a sampling of answers to the question, "What is Rural?"


What is Rural?
The Rural Health Information Hub (2018)
RHIhub's topic and state guides bring together key resources and information. This guide focuses on identifying and describing the various federal definitions and classification schemes for rural in current use, and to help users find the appropriate rural definition for program planning, policymaking, and research.

Rural Health Grant Eligibility Analyzer
The Rural Health Information Hub (2018)
Developed by the Rural Health Information Hub, this tool will help determine whether a specific location is considered rural based on various definitions of rural, including definitions that are used as eligibility criteria for federal programs.

Rural Pennsylvania: Where is it Anyway?
Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health (2014)
The Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health provides an excellent summary of how rural is defined, with a particular emphasis on what this means for Pennsylvanian people and communities.

What is Rural?
United States Department of Agriculture (2016)
This article, provided by the National Agricultural Library's Rural Information Center, provides a wealth of research and documentation attempting to define exactly what "rural" is. While the primary focus is on Federal definitions of rural, links are provided to other points of view as well.

Rural Classifications: Rural Overview
Rural Classifications Overview (2018)
This page highlights the ERS key county classifications that measure rurality and assess the economic and social diversity of rural America beyond the metro/nonmetro dichotomy. The Rural-Urban Continuum Codes and Urban Influence Codes are part of a suite of data products for rural analysis available in this topic.

Defining Rural at the U.S. Census Bureau
U.S. Census Bureau (2016)
This brief highlights the history of delineating rural at the Census Bureau, the current delineations of urban/ rural areas, and the relationship that exists between decennial censuses, the American Community Survey (ACS), and geography. Additionally, the brief categorizes counties based on three types of rurality and highlights the availability of ACS estimates.

Census 2010: The Urban and Rural Classifications
U.S. Census Bureau
In Census 2010, the Census Bureau classifies as "urban" all territory, population and housing units located within an urbanized area (UA) or an urban cluster (UC). These are must have a core (one or more contiguous census block groups or BGs) with a total land area less than two square miles and a population density of 1,000 persons per square mile and surrounding census blocks that have an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile. The Census Bureau's classification of "rural" consists of all territory, population, and housing units located outside of UAs and UCs.

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