Census Bureau Proposed Criteria for Urban Areas

Since the 1950’s, many federal and state agencies have relied on the Census Bureau’s determination of urban areas to deliver funds, set standards and accomplish goals and objectives. The Census Bureau re-evaluates urban determination criteria with each Census year to ensure fair standards. On February 19, 2021, the Census Bureau published a notice in the Federal Register of newly proposed criteria for determining urban areas under the 2020 Decennial Census. The seven proposed changes are to: 

Adopt a Housing Unit Density Threshold for Qualification of Census blocks: A Census block would be deemed “urban” based on the number of housing units per square mile rather than population density. This is, in part, a response to the introduction of differential privacy methodology, which started with the 2020 Census. The housing unity density threshold would be 385 housing units per square mile to determine if a census block qualifies for inclusion in an urban area.  

Qualify Urban Areas Based on a Minimum Threshold of 4,000 housing units or 10,000 personsAn Urban Area minimum housing threshold, coupled with a population threshold of 10,000, would better align with urban and rural definitions used by other federal agencies and with the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) definition for a micropolitan statistical area. The current urban area threshold is 2,500 persons, which has been in place since 1910 

Cease Distinguishing Different Types of Urban AreasAny area that meets the new requirements would fall under a single definition of “urban area”. Census-defined urban areas are currently either considered “urban places” with populations between 2,500 and 50,000 or “urbanized areas” with populations greater than 50,000.  

Adjust Maximum Distance of JumpsReducing distance that qualified urban area boundaries may include densely noncontiguous developed areas to 1.5 miles. This would mitigate the overextension of urban area territory. The “hop” and “jump” along non-qualifying census blocks that connect qualifying census blocks was introduced during the 1950 Census and has evolved throughout the decades. The current “jump” distance is 2.5 miles.  

No Longer Include the Low Density Hop or Jump “Corridor” in the Urban Area: “Hopped and jumped” low-density census blocks would not be counted as part of the urban area or its population. The current method results in the inclusion of connecting corridors that are rural and inconsistent with the qualified urban areas. The proposed change would, however, result in noncontiguous urban areas.  

No Longer Include Low-Density Territory Located Within Indentations Formed During the Urban Area Delineation Process: The cessation of including non-qualified low-density indentations in qualified urban area territory would further the Census Bureau’s goal to curb the over bounding of qualified urban areas. Modern mapping and visualization methods provide that smooth boundaries are no longer factors to consider when determining urban area boundaries.  

Split Large Agglomerations of Densely Settled Territory: Adopt a data-driven approach to identify urban agglomerations and independent urban areas based on worker flow (commuting) data from the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics (LEHD) Program. The current methodology for making determinations to merge adjacent urban areas or split urban agglomerations uses two separate measures and is therefore inconsistentAdditionally, under the current approach, agglomerations have the potential to lack adequate amounts of useable data due to their immense scale. 

The Census Bureau is accepting public comments on the proposed urban area criteria listed above electronically through May 20, 2021. We encourage regional stakeholders with potential to be impacted by the proposed criteria changes to provide their input along with any additional information requests to Vincent Osier, Geographic Standards, Criteria, and Quality Branch, Geography Division, U.S. Census Bureau at geo.urban@census.gov. 


Census Bureau Proposed Criteria for Urban Area Resources: 

Urban Areas for the 2020 Census-Proposed Criteria  

National Association of Regional Councils (NARC)