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What is Rural?

Store fronts on a rural main street:  Copyright iStock photos

What is Rural?

The Oxford dictionary defines rural as "in, relating to, or characteristic of the countryside rather than the town."  Ideas and definitions relating to the term rural are diverse. The federal government classifies areas and population for statistical, programming, and funding purposes.  Federal agencies rely on various definitions depending on their programming goals.  When applying for grants and funding or conducting research one should refer to the rural definiton provided by the agency or organization.  The rural definitions, laid out by the U.S. Census Bureau is often the baseline for other definitions of rural.  

The Census Bureau defines rural as "any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area".  It's definition of rural is closely tied to it's urban definition. There are two types of urban areas: 

  • "Urbanized Areas" - population of 50,000 or more
  • "Urban Clusters" - population of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000
    • "Nonmetro" does not mean rural

For more information visit:


1 "Defining the "Rural" in Rural America: The use of different definitions of rural by Federal agencies reflects the multidimensional qualities of rural America." USDA, Economic Research Service. Amber Waves, June 2008.

U.S. Census Bureau Rural American Interactive Map Accessed:12/3/2019:

Other Tools and Data Sources for Defining Rural

  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture 

  2. What's Rural. National Center for Education Statistics.

Define Rural for Health Programs

1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration 

2. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Office of Rural Health What is Rural? “At this time, the Department of Veterans Affairs utilizes the US Census Bureau’s definition for “Urban”, “Rural” and “Highly Rural”.

    • Urban Area: Census Bureau-defined urbanized area, which is any block or block group having a population density of at least 1000 people per square mile.
    • Rural Area: Any non-urban or non-highly rural area.
    • Highly Rural Area: An area having < 7 civilians per square mile.”

3. Eligible Rural Areas Search Tool. Rural Health Care Program. Universal Service Administrative Company.

4. Am I Rural? Rural Health Information Hub:

5. Rural Populations and Health Care Providers: A Map Book. Randy K. Randolph, Katherine Gaul, Rebecca T. Slifkin. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center, Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, University of North Carolina, 2002. 1 v. (various paging) [PDF file]

Define Frontier

 According to the Economic Research Service, "The term "frontier and remote" is used here to describe territory characterized by some combination of low population size and a high degree of geographic remoteness." Identifying frontier areas help service providers identify the populations needs and the resources available to those areas.

1. National Center for Frontier Communities

2. Frontier And Remote (FAR)

Rural America Values & Character

1.The Face of Rural America. The 1976 Yearbook of Agriculture. United States Department of Agriculture. p. 288 [PDF File] National Agricultural Library Rural Development Publications Digital Collection. 

2. "The Role of Amenities and Quality of Life in Rural Economic Growth." Deller, Steven C. , Tsai, Tsung-Hsiu , Marcouiller, David W. , English, Donald B.K. London ; New York : Routledge, 2010. Routledge explorations in environmental economics ; 21 p. 83-102. Permanent Handle. National Agricultural Library Digital Collection.

3. Rural Depopulation in a Rapidly Urbanizing America. University of New Hampshire. Carsey Institute. Last viewed May 2019.

4. "Rural Values." Douglas E. Bowers . U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service: Washington, DC. Rural Development Research Report No. (RDP - Vol. 12 No. 1) August 1997 : 21 p.

5. Rural America at a Glance. 2013 Edition. by Lorin Kusmin. Economic Information Bulletin No. (EB-24). Rural American at a Glance Series. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, November 2013. 6 p.

6. Preserving Rural Character Through Agriculture: A Resource Kit For Planners. University of New Hampshire (UNH) Cooperative Extension for the NH Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture. 2000. 67p. [.PDF 1.39MB]

Revised and updated by Jamie Flood, December 2019.  Original edition: 2006 by Patricia La Caille John.