Rural Health Research Center Center for Workforce Studies Regional Information Center

About Us

What is rural?

Terms such as rural and urban are often tossed around casually and are imprecise; there is not general agreement as to what “rural” means. Related terms such as “frontier,” “farm,” “non metropolitan,” “remote,” and “isolated” are similarly imprecise and subjective. There is a common tendency to think of rural and urban as endpoints along a two-dimensional continuum, yet the concepts associated with rural are much more complex. Populations living in different parts of the United States have very different ideas about what constitutes rural. For instance, an isolated rancher in Montana may understand rural very differently than a farmer in Pennsylvania. Defining “rural” is complicated by the varied nature of rurality across places like Alaska, Arizona, Missouri, North Dakota, Maine, and Alabama. Similarly, academics in different disciplines such as economics, anthropology, sociology, geography, demography, and agricultural biology have different reference systems upon which to base their varied views of what “rural” means. Politicians and other policy makers also have different perspectives of rural based on their constituencies and backgrounds. Discussants sometimes contradict each other because their information is based on different definitions of rural (e.g., the Census Bureau rural definition versus the Office of Management and Budget Non Metropolitan definition).

At best the concept of rural is complex, multifaceted, and often vague. Add to this limitations on data availability in combination with use of different constituent units (e.g., counties, Census tracts, ZIP code areas, blocks) and it is not surprising that confusion and disagreement often prevail. Because the concept of rural is multidimensional and its definitions are tied to specific views and tasks, no one definition of rural can satisfy all users and purposes. For public policy and research purposes, the definition of rural being applied should be clearly identified and justified. For most public policy purposes, definitions should meet certain criteria, such as being systematic and objective.

The RUCAs are designed to provide a definition of rural and urban based on the Census Bureau’s carefully constructed definitions of Urbanized Areas and Urban Clusters, which are based on complex criteria including population density and population work commuting patterns. Thus, the RUCA taxonomy is based on the size of cities and towns and their functional relationships as measured by work commuting flows. Within this framework, they have been devised for many different applications. There are 33 separate codes to allow demographers, health care researchers, policy makers, and others to aggregate these codes according to their needs. Generally, it is expected that the codes will be aggregated; the large number of different codes allows great flexibility in these aggregations. For example, the RUCAs can be used to target a federal health care program to the most appropriate subpopulation. Because the codes are based on Census tracts, they are geographically more specific than larger county-based definitions and avoid the problems associated with the heterogeneity of these large units (i.e., problems of under and over bounding the actual boundaries of cities and towns). To make the codes more useful for health care applications, a ZIP code version of the RUCAs was developed and is available on this web site. For additional information see, Hart LG, Larsen EH, and Lishner, DM. “Rural Definitions for Health Policy and Research.” American Journal of Public Health 2005; 95(7): 1149-1155. Link to Pub Med.