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Historical Background

The Country Life Commission

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What Is Rural?

Changing Demographics
of the West

Historical Background

What is Rural?

Data Visualization

Western U.S. Demographics




By Rebecca LaGrandeur and Michael De Alessi

map For all of the idyllic, pastoral images of barns1, row-crops, and wide open spaces full of grounded, tightly-knit communities that “rural” America evokes, life in the country also harbors a host of concerns, from depopulation and a rural “brain drain” to access to health care and educational facilities, land ownership and debt, falling crop prices and farm labor issues, and inferior communication and transportation infrastructure. These concerns echo the “deficiencies” raised in the 1909 Report of the Country Life Commission (see accompanying essay2), a landmark effort that spurred broad interest in improving country life, but few concrete results.

The Country Life Commission did not define what it meant by “rural,” using the term interchangeably with “farmer” and “country,” and that tradition of inexactitude continues today, despite (or because of) the existence of numerous competing definitions of “rural.” In 1880, the Census Bureau first quantitatively defined rural by classifying its counterpart – urban – as cities or towns with populations over 8,000.3  Since then, the Census Bureau has slowly but surely shifted its unit of measurement from the county level to the census tract, a finer gradation that finally covered the nation in the 1990 Census.

To this day, all of the major definitions still define “rural” by defining everything that is not rural. That is, each defines terms from “urban” to “metropolitan” and “micropolitan” leaving what is left as either “rural” or “nonmetropolitan.”  “Nonmetropolitan” is preferred by the USDA because clustering of people, even in isolated counties, and suburbanization further blur the line of what is rural.

Today, tracts are used by the Census Bureau to define urbanized areas (with populations over 50,000) and urban clusters (with populations between 2,500 and 50,000).5 Areas adjacent to these densely populated areas with at least 500 persons per square mile are also included in the urban category.6 By exclusion, this leaves 97.4 percent of the land and 19.7 percent of the population classified by the Census Bureau as rural.7 The two other widely-used definitions of rural come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of Management and Budget.8 The OMB uses “core based statistical areas” to differentiate between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas on the county level (based on how far they are from the Census Bureau’s urbanized areas).9 The USDA further subdivides the OMB nonmetropolitan areas using “rural-urban continuum codes,” which create 6 nonmetropolitan subgroups based on their adjacency to nonmetropolitan areas and size of towns within those areas.10 At least for Census 2000, both OMB and USDA consider 74.5 percent of the land area and 17.4 percent of the population as rural.11 The USDA has other measures of rural, such the inclusion of rural-urban commuting areas (RUCAs), which changes those numbers slightly to 78.8 percent of the land area and 19.6 percent of the population as rural.12

Other government agencies, from the Administration on Aging to the Department of Defense, employ their own definitions of rural. Each agency has its own unique way of drawing the line between what is rural and what is not, with the results ranging between 70 and 90 percent of the land and 10 to 22 percent of the population.13 As a result, a dizzying array of rural definitions can be found.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) alone employs at least seven different definitions of rural. The Rural Assistance Center (itself part of HHS) even hosts a website called “Am I rural?” to help people figure which criteria they meet.14 Entering a zip code produces a chart showing which of the many Health and Human Services’ programs one may qualify for, such as the Rural Health Clinics Program and the Rural Access to Emergency Devices Program, as well as which other definitions of rural apply, such as Census, USDA, and OMB. 15

Some geographers within the USDA argue that the presence of so many rural definitions is a rational response to the heterogeneity that exists within America’s rural landscapes and their populations.16 And there certainly are practical advantages to having different definitions to suit different problems.17 The multiple definitions of rural are, at bottom, political. For while the word “rural” may evoke “idyll,” it also connotes “underserved,” justifying programmatic expansion by agencies and Congressional committees with the freedom to develop their own definition of rural.

Because of these differences in political purpose, none of these many definitions of “rural” seemed appropriate for the purposes of the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West which seeks to provide insights into the state of rural America from a host of different perspectives. As a result, an innovative, less political way of defining “rural” was chosen, based on nighttime satellite imagery.  This approach uses the intensity of nighttime lights to differentiate where populations are concentrated and where they are not, and results in smoother boundaries around these areas as a result of the elimination of political boundaries such as county lines, zip codes, and census tracts. 18 The geographers and scientists who developed this methodology found a high correlation when they compared this approach to census data on density.19 The measure was later refined by applying a gradient to illuminated areas to differentiate between urban (high intensity light) and exurban (less intense but still clustered), as well as rural (once again, all the rest).20

From Sutton et al, 2006

By this definition, 84 percent of the land area and 3 percent of the population is rural (note that these percentages are for the conterminous U.S., while the percentages listed earlier for the Census, OMB, and USDA definitions included Alaska and Hawaii).

The refinement and definition of the map created by using nighttime satellite imagery paints what appears to be a far more realistic picture of population distribution. By comparison, here are maps of Census Bureau, USDA, and OMB definitions:

United States Census Bureau21


United State Office of Management and Budget rural area map22



United States Department of Agriculture23

In the Rural West Initiative’s visualization “An Animated View of Demographic Change: 1850-2008,” one can see how the Census definition (which appears in gold) compares to the nighttime satellite imagery (two shades of grey) when overlaid on population density (by county) from 2000.



With the exception of some large counties with large cities in them in the Southwestern part of the country, one can see that there is far less dark blue (densely populated areas) left visible in the satellite map. To see the difference even more starkly, it is possible to use the visualization to overlay the two definitions:



Despite the efforts of the Country Life Commission and countless others since 1909, few of the most pressing issues facing rural America seem to have changed over the last 100 years. Understanding the variety of definitions of “rural” and having an objective spatial definition of what is rural is a crucial step to understanding the rural West, and beginning to understand why so many of these problems persist, and how our understanding of them might be refined.


1 Photo credit: US Department of Agriculture, Image # K7862-1, “Small farm near Ames, Iowa,,”  photo by Scott Bauer.

2 Michael De Alessi, Rural West Initiative ESSAY, 2010.

3 United States Census Bureau, 1880 Census of the Population (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1880).

4 The first use of small, delineated areas in the census occurred in the 1890 Census, but only for a small number of large metropolitan areas. Interest grew slowly but steadily in zeroing in on finer details in the Census, and the Bureau first published criteria for creating census tracts in 1934, and began releasing census tract data for cities with a population great than 50,000 in the 1940 Census, but full coverage for the country was not complete until 1990. See United States Census Bureau, “History: Tracts and Block Numbering Areas,” (1995), and John B. Cromartie and Linda L. Swanson, “Census Tracts More Precisely Define Rural Populations and Areas,” Rural Development Perspectives (March, 2001), 11(3): 31-39.

5 United States Census Bureau, “Census 2000 Urban and Rural Classification” (nd).

6 Areas with a density of 500 people per square mile but not adjacent to urban areas are not considered urban in the Census definition.

7 See U.S. Census Bureau, “United States -- Urban/Rural and Inside/Outside Metropolitan Area,” Census 2000 Summary File 1, Matrix P1, and Rural Policy Research Institute, “Federally Used Rural Definitions,“ (updated April 3, 2007).

8 John Cromartie and Shawn Bucholtz, “Defining the ‘Rural’ in Rural America,” Amber Waves (June 2008), 6(3): 28-34, and Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), “Federally Used Rural Definitions,” (updated April 3, 2007).

9 See Federal Register 65: 82228-38, “Standards for defining metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas”  (2000), Washington, DC: Office of Management and Budget. See also Office of Management and Budget, “Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas” (nd), and Rural Assistance Center, “Federally Used Rural Definitions” (nd),

10 See Butler, M. A., and C.L. Beale, “Rural-Urban Continuum Codes for Metro and NonMetro Counties, 1993” (September, 1994), Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Also USDA, “Measuring Rurality,” (nd), and Rural Assistance Center, “Federally Used Rural Definitions” (nd).

11 RURPI, 2007.

12 RURPI, 2007.

13 Rural Assistance Center, “Federally Used Rural Definitions” (nd).

14 Rural Assistance Center, “Am I rural?” (nd).

15 For an discussion of the impact of rural definitions on health policy, see Andrew F. Coburn, A. Clinton MacKinney, Timothy D. McBride, Keith J. Mueller, Rebecca T. Slifkin, and Mary K. Wakefield, “Choosing Rural Definitions: Implications for Health Policy.” Rural Policy Research Institute Health Panel Issue Brief #2 (March 2007), and Thomas Ricketts, Karen D. Johnson-Webb, and Patricia Taylor, “Definitions of Rural: A Handbook for Health Policy Makers and Researchers.Technical Issue Paper prepared for the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (June 1, 1998).

16 Cromartie and Bucholtz, 2008.

17 Andrew M. Isserman, “In the National Interest: Defining Rural and Urban Correctly in Research and Public Policy,” International Regional Science Review (October 2005), 28(4): 465 – 499.

18 See Paul Sutton, “Modeling Population Density using Nighttime Satellite Imagery and GIS” Computers, Environment and Urban Systems (1997), 21(3/4): 227-244, Paul Sutton, Dar Roberts, Chir Elvidge, and Henk Meij, “A Comparison of Nighttime Satellite Imagery and Population Density for the Continental United States.” Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing (1997), 63 (11):  1303-1313.

19 Ibid.

20 See Paul Sutton, Tom Cova, and Chris Elvidge, “Mapping Exurbia in the conterminous United States using Nighttime Satellite Imagery.” Geocarto International (June 2006), 20(2): 39-45, and Paul Sutton, Andrew R. Goetz, Stephen Fildes, Clive Forster, and Tilottama Ghosh, “Darkness on the Edge of Town: Mapping Urban and Peri-Urban Australia Using Nighttime Satellite Imagery.” The Professional Geographer (2010), 62(1): 119 – 133.

21 Map Source: The Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina, “Urbanized Areas 2000”, (nd).  Hawaii and Alaska removed from original.   

22 Map Source: The Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina, “OMB Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs), November 2008.” Hawaii and Alaska removed from original.  Notes: “Core Based Statistical Area” (CBSA) is the OMB's collective term for Metropolitan and Micropolitan statistical areas. OMB has not defined an affirmative title for areas outside CBSAs.

23  Source: Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, 2003, “prepared using data from the Census Bureau.”

Citation for this essay: Rebecca LaGrandeur and Michael De Alessi, "What Is Rural?" from the Rural West Initiative, April 2010, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University,