What Is the Difference Between a City and a Town?

What Does it Take to Be an Urban Population?

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Do you live in a city or a town? Depending on where you live, the definition of these two urban areas may vary, as will the official designation that is given to a certain community. 

In general, though, we can assume that a city is larger than a town. Whether that town is an official government entity will vary based on the country and state it is located in.

What Is 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 most 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 but each country has its own definition of a city and an urban area.

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 30,000 residents to make a city in Japan. Most other countries fall somewhere in between.

  • Australia and Canada have a minimum of 1000 citizens.
  • Israel and France have a minimum of 2000 citizens.
  • The United States and Mexico have a minimum of 2500 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 78% and Denmark is 85% urbanized. Unless we are aware of what size of a population makes an area urban we can not simply compare the two percentages and say "Denmark 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."

Notice that some countries with a higher minimum population have a lower percentage of urbanized population.

Also, note that 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.

CountryMin. Pop.1997 Urban Pop.2015 Urban Pop.
Sweden20083% 86%
Denmark20085% 88%
South Africa50057%65%
Australia100085%89%
Canada100077% 82%
Israel200090% 92%
France200074%80%
United States250075%82%
Mexico250071%79%
Belgium500097%98%
Iran500058%73%
Nigeria500016%48%
Spain10,00064%80%
Turkey10,00063%73%
Japan30,00078%93%

Sources:

Hartshorn, Truman A. Interpreting the City: An Urban Geography. 1992.

Famighetti, Robert (ed.). The World Almanac and Book of Facts. 1997.

World Bank Group. Urban Population (% of total). 2016.