What is “rural”?

One of the challenges in labeling places rural is that different people have different definitions of what rural means. Rural can refer to an economy and way of working. The agriculture, forestry, and mining sectors dominate rural economies. Rural can refer to a way of living. Instead of apartments, condos or subdivisions, rural households live miles from neighbors and services. Rural is also used to describe a culture and aesthetic. Some say there are “rural approaches” to building community.

Defining rural can be a challenge. Urbana, Ohio is in a rural county, but some may consider the town not really rural.

Urbana, Ohio in a rural county, but some may not consider the town  rural.

These different uses of the term “rural” might lead some to label places like Urbana, Ohio, a rural place and yet others to say Urbana lacks a true “rural” character. The question becomes consequential when a definition of “rural” determines the allocation of state and federal resources meant to help different kinds of places address challenges unique to rural settings. Andrew Isserman, a researcher and professor, reasoned, “Getting rural right is in the national interest. When we get rural wrong, we reach incorrect research conclusions and fail to reach the people, places and businesses our governmental programs are meant to serve.”

At the RuFES Action Network we use Isserman’s Rural Urban Density Code to explore rural data and communicate our results. It’s a strong classification system because unlike some, it starts with a definition of rural. It also adds mixed classifications acknowledging that counties are political jurisdictions that can contain both rural and urban places.

The Rural Urban Density Code

Rural counties have a

  1. population density of less than 500 people per square mile, and
  2. 90 percent of the county population is in rural areas or the county has no urban area with a population of 10,000 or more.

Urban counties have a

  1. population density of at least 500 people per square mile, and
  2. 90 percent of the county population lives in urban areas, and
  3. the population in urbanized areas is at least 50,000 or 90 percent of the county population.

If a county is neither urban nor rural, the county is mixed-rural if its population density is less than 320 people per square mile. It is mixed-urban if its population density is equal to or greater than 320 people per square mile.


Rural Urban Density Codes for the Lower 48. Data and graphic compiled by Jason Gray and Travis Green using 2010 Census Data.

Read the full paper published in International Regional Science Review introducing the Rural Urban Density Code.


  1. […] those applicants, 40% were rural and mixed-rural working families, who together claimed credits totaling $24 […]

  2. […] living in rural and mixed-rural counties claim $24 billion in Earned Income Tax Credits annually*. In total, 6.1 […]

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