What’s the Difference Between a Town and a City — An Urban Area and a Rural Area?

Do you think you think you know the answer?

A friend recently challenged me with this question. He chose to ask it of me because he knew that I had taught geography for several years. Even so, I felt that I had to check my facts before responding and, in so doing, I broadened my own understanding on the subject a bit. He, like many Americans, thought that the official difference between a town and a city had to have something to do either with population size or with geographical area. Well, it doesn’t.

Strange as it may seem, geographers don’t classify more-densely populated areas as cities or towns. They are all called urban areas as opposed to rural areas. That’s because there is no universally accepted criteria based on either population size or square miles/ kilometers. Rural areas are less densely populated, offer fewer services, and are generally devoted to economic activities such as farming and ranching. In the U.S., according to About.com – geography, an urban area is one that has a population providing services that numbers at least 2,500. Smaller populations pro- viding services are called villages. This differs from country to country, of course. In Japan, an urban area must have a population of at least 30,000.

In England, from which we Americans originally adopted our sense of such things, a city was a town with a cathedral. All other densely populated areas were simply called towns. But they are all towns in today’s “United Kingdom,” including (in all Britishers’ eyes) the mother town of them all, London Town.

I think what most people in the U.S. understand to be a city today is a larger urbanized area that has government buildings like county seats do here in Texas. Cities in the U.S. usually have a university or two in lieu of community colleges. They very often have museums and other cultural centers too like zoos and the like. In the vernacular of a place, however, it is quite acceptable for people to refer to their urban area as either a town or a city. It’s all perception.

Metropolitan areas like Dallas, Texas are agglomerated urban areas with peripheral zones not themselves necessarily urban in character, but closely bound to the urban center by employment or commerce. A metroplex is when metropolitan areas grow large enough to merge, as in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. A megolopolis is when many metropolitan areas merge, as on the east coast of the U.S. with BosWash, a huge urban area incorp- orating the cities of Boston, New York and New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

My wife and I lived for several years in Springfield, VA — Virginia still calling itself a “Common Wealth” in the old English tradition.  Springfield had a population then of over 30,000, yet it was classified by Fairfax County not as a city or a town, but simply as a “populated place.” It had homes, churches, a post office, a county health department office, buildings housing police and fire depart- ments, and even a huge shopping mall containing a drivers’ licensing office for the county, but it had no government separate from Fairfax County. Vienna, also in Fairfax County, was char- tered and had an elected school board making decisions for a separate school district servicing its population. Therefore, it was considered a city.

DeSoto, Texas, with an estimated population in 2005 of 38,580, calls itself a city and even won national distinction in 2006 as an All-American City. Yet it is not a county seat. It has no zoo or museum that I know of, unless one considers my wife’s office in our home with all her nursing memorabilia a museum. Neither does DeSoto have a cathedral. But I won’t argue against its right to call itself a city. Round Top, Texas, with an estimated population of 25, considers itself to be the smallest city in Texas, being an incorporated township, but the “city fathers” of Impact, Texas disagree. They claim to be the smallest. Neither, however, even qualifies by official numbers to be an urban area. So, go figure — the answer you get pretty much seems to depend on where you are when you ask the question.

I invite your comments pro or con.

Published in: on July 23, 2008 at 3:20 pm  Comments (31)  

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31 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. so,, the differences about city & town is about number of population??
    and it is vary on each country,,
    is it also deal with function of the town?

    cause in my country indonesia,, city classification,, is the trigger of debate

  2. dear Opa,
    Few days ago i had a question about ‘what is the difference between city and town’.
    My English teacher, who is happen to be an Englishman, said that in UK they define it by the appearance of a cathedral. But he said ‘i dont know about America or Australia. There must be some other things to define a city/town’
    (i live in Indonesia, and there is one word in Bahasa for both city and town: KOTA)

    the question keeps buzzing in my mind. i searched in the net, and found out that there are many other people who also are confused, just like me

    anyway, i prefer to use the terms urban and rural area.
    they show the difference clearly. the density, economy, government, public services in urban area are totally different from those in rural area.

  3. There are dozens of cities in the UK without a cathedral so it is not a prerequisite to becoming a city. The UK is strange in that Bolton with a population of 250,000 is a town while Inverness with a population of 50,000 is a city and doesn’t to my knowledge have a cathedral ! 5 or 6 years ago towns were invited to apply to become cities and only so many were accepted, the criteria appeared to be having a certain population, a cathedral or a university. The town of Preston (pop. 180,000) changed it’s college to a university a couple of years earlier and so won the right to become a city without a cathedral.

  4. absolute disgrace who do u think u are to talk about beauty of this place meet me on the corner of richmond hotle 30/5 and we can discuss our differences

  5. It is my understanding that the difference between a town and city is not dependent on the population size but the system of government within that city or town. A city has governmental powers (through its citizens) whereas a town does not. A town depends on its county or state for governmental roles.

  6. Your understanding is one of the many. There is, however, no precise definition that applies everywhere. According to various references available on-line, it is, more often than not, the population size that distiguishes a village from a town, a town from a city.

  7. The only difference between the city and the town is that in the city there is an absolute level of socio political and economic development without some element of social vices while in the town there is a high degree of population and with high level social disturbances as a result many people living there.

  8. Gee, thanks for clearing that up…

  9. Hi Opa, (nice looking Web page)

        To clarify and correct, due to Duncan Nicol’s uninformed statements, the UK’s prerequisite designating a Town as a City ‘is’ normally that there is, or was (don’t forget how old the UK and England are), a Cathedral unless, in only a few examples, the Monarch grants a charter to raise the status and this has only been in the past 200 years or so. One of those cases is Southampton where the Queen granted a charter due to the growth of the importance of the Town in the shipping world and in the country’s economy.

    The association between having a Cathedral and being called a City was only established for England and Wales in the early 1540s by King Henry VIII.

    Inverness most certainly has a Cathedral as you can see on their web site at http://www.invernesscathedral.co.uk. Preston was a city long before the college became a univerCity (; and, not only has a large Cathedral (seats over 63,000), it’s the 3rd largest place of Christian worship in the World.

    Bolton is a suburb of Manchester so you can’t really have a City within a City

    And now for a bit of trivia – what’s the smallest City in England ?

    I’ll be back for the answers – Nick. . . 🙂

  10. i am Bangladeshi girl.last few days i am searching the same question.in our country there is another bangoli word “MOFOSHOL” we think it most near to urban area but not called it as a city.
    these words still confusing to me……

  11. Thank you for your comment. Yes, it is confusing. The distinction between a city and a town depends on local understandings. For example, my family and I lived for years just outside our nation’s capital in Fairfax County, Virginia. Our address was in “Springfield” Virginia. But because Springfield had no local government, no mayor or city council, it was referred to as simply a populated place. Perhaps Mofoshol has that meaning in your country.

  12. All your answers and contributions are okey but I yet see no clear distinction between a city and a town.

  13. There is none. That’s the whole point 🙂

  14. Stirred a few responses, but still no one answered &quote; what’s the smallest City in England &quote;

    Nick. . .

  15. I’m sorry, Nick. I thought I had responded. It’s London, actually.

  16. Correct 🙂

    The City of London is only one square mile.

    I was hoping to get more people guessing thus keeping this topic ‘rolling’ – It was worth a try.. 😉

    Nick. . .

  17. Sounds like an opportunity for political improvement. How long could it take the congress and senate to create a bill that would establish countrywide definitions for villages, towns, first,second and third class cities? An internet campaign to resolve this issue could become pivotal in an election year following a nationwide census.

  18. Really? Don’t you think we have more pressing matters to resolve?

  19. Agreed, Opa.

  20. Absolutely, there is clear diffrence between a city and town. A city is atributed with lot of buildings, good Schools, House of worship, large market, basic social amenities, infrastructures, political government and many more. A Town could be a village or a smaller community with lesser popullation to that of a city. A town is an undeveloped area where people will always want abtian from due to the high rate of porverty and unmeaniful life that is associated withh.

  21. Not always, Jerry.

  22. Well I have always thought a community, might have a church but not much else and a small population, a town would have a postoffice, a church or two, a school system, a fire dept, and water office with a population ranging from a few hundred to thousands and most would have a grocery store of sorts, some have police depts of their own, some don’t and depend on county services. Cities are large densely populated areas with access to secondary education, major medical services, Huge shopping Malls, theaters, etc…so basically if you have a post office you would be classified to be at least a town. no post office then you are a community…

  23. Yeah, that’s pretty much the way it is here in the U.S.A., Nancy. But what happens after we loose half or more of our post offices? We go back to the only definition that works in all cases. A populated place is whatever the population of the place wants to call it.

  24. In the US, a city is incorporated and has a government. A town is not incorporated. Size, population or density of population, has nothing to do with the classification, but in spite of the official definition, I think of my self as living near a town (14000 population) even though my “town” is really an incorporated city.

  25. Sam, I am just now reading your response dated 11/30/12. Yours was a much more eloquent response to what I had tried to articulate several years ago (10/31/09). Nicely done, ma’am/sir!

  26. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who had been conducting a little homework on this. And he actually ordered me breakfast due to the fact that I found it for him.. lol. So allow me to reword this.. Thank YOU for the meal!
    ! But yeah, thanks for spending some time to talk about this issue here on your web site.

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  30. I am an English teacher in Spain and I have problems teaching the distinction between City and Town. I lived in the USA for 5 years in the City of West Lafayette, Indiana. According to American standards today I live in a city of 35,000 inhabitants with its own government. But according to British standards this is a town (it has no cathedral, no university).In Spain it was the monarch who decided to grant the title of city, town or village. My “city” has been a city since 1525 AD. Madrid, the capital of Spain, is only a”village and court”, Still, we tend to city anything larger than 20,000 inhabitats. We just specify it is a “small city”.

  31. I always thought a city had a hospital… a town no

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