2020 Census: Sweeping Changes to Defining "Urban"

Authors: Jennifer Zanoni*, U.S. Bureau Of the Census, Michael Commons*, U.S. Bureau Of the Census
Topics: Urban Geography, Geographic Information Science and Systems, Population Geography
Keywords: Urban, Census, Urban Areas
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 29
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Over the course of a century defining “urban,” the Census Bureau has introduced conceptual and methodological changes to ensure that the urban-rural classification keeps pace with changes in settlement patterns and with changes in theoretical approaches to interpreting and understanding the growth of urban areas. Some decades, these changes are minor; in others, the changes are substantial, taking advantage of changes in technology, analytical and policy-making needs, and the variety and types of data available for use in defining urbanization and rurality. The changes proposed for delineation of urban areas based on the 2020 Census are the most sweeping since introduction of the urban cluster concept in 2000. These proposed changes include use of housing unit density as the primary criterion instead of population density; adoption of a minimum threshold of 4,000 housing units, rather than the minimum of 2,500 people that has been in place since 1910 (if adopted, this change would result in many urban areas with less than 10,000 people shifting to “rural”). Additional proposed changes include ceasing to distinguish between urbanized areas and urban clusters, and use of worker flow data to determine whether to split large urban agglomerations formed during the automated delineation process and if so, where to draw the boundary between individual urban areas. The use of housing unit density provides for the potential tracking of changes in urban extent between censuses, a process that was not possible when using population counts and density at the census block-level.

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