Defining Rural: A Look at Two Popular Definitions

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This article was written and contributed by Zachary Kennedy, Community & Economic Development Specialist, U of I Extension

Many people think of "rural" as farmland, low population density, and open idyllic landscapes. To be certain, there are many ways to define rural, and there are degrees of rurality. For communities and their leaders, the definition of "rural" can be quite important. Some federal grant and loan programs, as well as funds from non-government organizations, are available specifically to rural areas. While there is a multitude of ways to define rural, there are two important and most frequently used definitions when considering funding eligibility targeted for rural areas.

U.S. Census Bureau Urban and Rural Classification

The U.S. Census Bureau classifies rural areas in a subtractive manner. Specifically, rural areas and rural populations include any territory or populations not included within an "urban area." The Census Bureau identifies urban and rural areas every ten years as a part of the decennial census. According to the 2010 Census, 59.5 million, or 19.3% of Americans, live in rural areas. The U.S. Census Bureau provides the following detail on how urban and rural areas were defined for the 2010 Census:

The Census Bureau's urban-rural classification is fundamentally a delineation of geographical areas, identifying both individual urban areas and the rural areas of the nation. The Census Bureau's urban areas represent densely developed territory, and encompass residential, commercial, and other non-residential urban land uses.

For the 2010 Census, an urban area will comprise a densely settled core of census tracts and/or census blocks that meet minimum population density requirements, along with adjacent territory containing non-residential urban land uses as well as territory with low population density included to link outlying densely settled territory with the densely settled core. To qualify as an urban area, the territory identified according to criteria must encompass at least 2,500 people, at least 1,500 of which reside outside institutional group quarters. The Census Bureau identifies two types of urban areas:

  • Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people;
  • Urban Clusters (UCs) of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.

"Rural" encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.


To see if your community is considered rural by the U.S. Census Bureau, check the list available at the link below. This is a list of urbanized areas and urban clusters sorted by state. A community is considered rural by this definition if it is not on this list:

2010 Urban Areas

The Census approach to defining rural provides detail at the local level. Urban and rural areas are delineated using census blocks, which are the Census Bureau's smallest unit of geography. The result is a spatially detailed determination of areas considered rural and urban. Boundaries of urban/rural areas can be found in the reference maps available here:

2010 Census Urban Area Reference Maps

At the same time, the Census data doesn't provide any variation in the degrees of rurality; an area is simply rural or not. This is addressed by the second definition of rural presented in the next section.

For a more detailed look at how Census defines rural, visit this interactive story map:

Rural America

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural-Urban Continuum Codes

USDA's Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCC) is another commonly used classification for delineating rural areas. Unlike the Census definition, the RUCC are a county-based definition. USDA assigns counties a code ranging from 1 (most urban) to 9 (most rural). These codes are determined by building upon the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) metropolitan area definitions. OMB's metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas are county based and consider population and economic factors. The RUCC codes take this metro and non-metro classification a step further. The following is from USDA's Economic Research Service and provides more detail on RUCC:

The 2013 Rural-Urban Continuum Codes form a classification scheme that distinguishes metropolitan counties by the population size of their metro area, and nonmetropolitan counties by degree of urbanization and adjacency to a metro area. The official Office of Management and Budget (OMB) metro and nonmetro categories have been subdivided into three metro and six nonmetro categories. Each county in the U.S. is assigned one of the 9 codes. This scheme allows researchers to break county data into finer residential groups, beyond metro and nonmetro, particularly for the analysis of trends in nonmetro areas that are related to population density and metro influence. The Rural-Urban Continuum Codes were originally developed in 1974. They have been updated each decennial since (1983, 1993, 2003, 2013), and slightly revised in 1988. Note that the 2013 Rural-Urban Continuum Codes are not directly comparable with the codes prior to 2000 because of the new methodology used in developing the 2000 metropolitan areas. See the Documentation for details and a map of the codes.

An update of the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes is planned for mid-2023.


To see the classification for your county, download the latest RUCC from USDA here:

2013 Rural-Urban Continuum Codes

RUCC accounts for varying degrees of rurality. However, unlike the Census definition, RUCC do not allow for granularity. The county is the smallest unit of geography in this classification scheme. This is problematic for counties with areas that could by common understanding be considered "urban" and areas that could be considered "rural." Further, because adjacency and inclusion in an OMB (US Office of Management and Budget) defined metropolitan area is a major factor in assigning codes, it may lead to a classification of a county as urban that would be considered rural by most people. For example, Jersey County, Illinois has a RUCC code of "1," which is the most urban classification, due to its inclusion in the Greater St. Louis Metropolitan Area as defined by OMB. However, Jersey County had a total population of only 22,985 people at the 2010 Census, with 13,922 or 61 percent of the county's population, living in rural areas by the Census definition.

Find the Definition that Meets Your Needs

There are many ways to define "rural." Several classification techniques consider a multitude of factors, and the different definitions are not always in agreement. This is reflective of the fact that rural areas vary widely themselves, so it is difficult to come up with a single, all-encompassing definition. For grant purposes, refer to the request for proposals or other grant documentation for guidance on the proof of eligibility requirements. If you are defining rural for another planning purpose, consider multiple definitions. And for more information, check the National Agricultural Library at USDA.