“Urban clusters” = a small town outside of an urban area

In looking at Census definitions for urban areas, I found this definition for what many Americans would consider small towns:

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.

From a certain perspective, this all makes sense. When we think of cities, we think of places with larger populations and the Census sets this boundary at 50,000 people. At the same time, “urban clusters” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “urban areas.”

An additional complication in all of this is that Americans might legitimately see themselves as small town residents within an urban area. For example, the Chicago region may have over nine million residents but more than two-thirds live outside of the city and many live in communities under 60,000 people. The cultural attachment is “small town” is important: it often implies a tighter-knit community, a certain quality of life (particularly avoiding big city problems), and smaller units of government that are more responsive to local residents.

My recommendations would be:

1. Find a replacement term for “urban cluster” that is more palatable.

2. We need a better way to differentiate between small town feel and actual small towns. Leaders in Naperville often claim it has features of a small town even with a population of over 140,000.

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