The Difference Between a City and a Town

What Does it Take to Be an Urban Population?

Towns vs. Cities

ThoughtCo / Ashley Nicole Deleon

Do you live in a city or a town? Depending on where you live, the definition of these two terms may vary, as will the official designation that is given to a certain community. In general, though, cities are larger than towns. Whether any given town is officially designated with the term "town," however, will vary based on the country and state it is located in.

The Difference Between a City and a Town

In the United States, an incorporated city is a legally defined government entity. It has powers delegated by the state and county, and the local laws, regulations, and policies are created and approved by the voters of the city and their representatives. A city can provide local government services to its citizens.

In many places in the U.S., a town, village, community, or neighborhood is simply an unincorporated community with no governmental powers.

  • County governments typically provide services to these unincorporated communities.
  • Some states do have official designations of "towns" that include limited powers.

Generally, in the urban hierarchy, villages are smaller than towns and towns are smaller than cities, though this is not always the case. 

How Urban Areas Are Defined Throughout the World

It is difficult to compare countries based on the percentage of urban population. Many countries have different definitions of the population size necessary to make a community "urban."

For example, in Sweden and Denmark, a village of 200 residents is considered to be an "urban" population, but it takes 50,000 residents to qualify as a city in Japan. Most other countries fall somewhere in between.

  • Cities in Canada have a minimum of 1,000 citizens.
  • Cities in Israel and France have a minimum of 2,000 citizens.
  • Cities in the United States and Mexico have a minimum of 2,500 citizens.

Due to these differences, we have a problem with comparisons. Let us assume that in Japan and in Denmark there are 100 villages of 250 people each. In Denmark, all of these 25,000 people are counted as "urban" residents, but in Japan, the residents of these 100 villages are all "rural" populations. Similarly, a single city with a population of 25,000 would be an urban area in Denmark but not in Japan.

Japan is 92% urbanized and Belgium is 98% urbanized. Unless we are aware of what size of a population qualifies an area as urban, we cannot simply compare the two percentages and say, "Belgium is more urbanized than Japan."

The following table includes the minimum population that is considered "urban" in a sampling of countries throughout the world. It also lists the percent of the country's residents which are "urbanized." Not surprisingly, some countries with a higher minimum population have a lower percentage of ​urbanized population. In addition, the urban population in almost every country is rising, some more significantly than others. This is a modern trend that has been noted over the last few decades and is most often attributed to people moving to cities to pursue work.

Country Min. Pop. 1997 Urban Pop. 2018 Urban Pop.
Sweden 200 83% 87%
Denmark 200 85% 88%
Canada 1,000 77% 81%
Israel 2,000 90% 92%
France 2,000 74% 80%
United States 2,500 75% 82%
Mexico 2,500 71% 80%
Belgium 5,000 97% 98%
Spain 10,000 64% 80%
Australia 10,000 85% 86%
Nigeria 20,000 16% 50%
Japan 50,000 78% 92%

Additional References

  • Hartshorn, Truman A. Interpreting the City: An Urban Geography. 1992.
  • Famighetti, Robert (ed.). The World Almanac and Book of Facts. 1997.
View Article Sources
  1. World Urbanization Prospects 2018.” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2018.

  2. Urban Population (% of Total Population).” The World Bank.