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.