Is North Carolina Rural or Urban?

Thursday, November 19, 2020
aerial view of countryside and town

Considered a rural state for most of its history, North Carolina has become increasingly urban. But does that mean we are an urban state and our rural areas are waning? Not exactly.  

The urbanization of North Carolina holds true regardless of how one defines rural and urban. One definition of urban and rural is simply the population living within incorporated villages, towns, or cities (municipalities) - defined here as “urban” – and the population living “out in the country” or in unincorporated areas –  defined here as rural.

Under this definition, North Carolina transitioned to a majority urban state during the 1990s. The 2000 Census found that 50.4 percent of the North Carolina population lived in incorporated municipalities. 

Three additional definitions of urban/rural often cited include: (1) densely populated areas of at least 2,500 people (urban) and all other areas (rural) - US Census Bureau; (2) metropolitan counties (urban) and nonmetropolitan counties (rural) - US Office of Management and Budget; and (3) counties with densities of 250 people per square mile or more (urban) and all other counties (rural) - North Carolina Rural Center. 

As of July 1, 2019, the population balance had shifted further in favor of urbanization. The majority of North Carolina’s population (57 percent or 5.9 million people) lived in urban areas.  While the majority lived in urban areas, there was still a sizeable population living in unincorporated areas (4.6 million people). The level of urbanization by county also varies significantly – from counties having no municipal population to those where urban areas were home to almost all of the county residents.   

Where North Carolinians Live in Town

Physical barriers, historical patterns of settlement, and industrialization shape today’s urbanization (See Figure 1). The most urban counties form an urban crescent in the Piedmont (an area anchored by Wake, Forsyth, and Mecklenburg Counties). The most rural (as measured by the percent of the population living in unincorporated areas) remain in the areas along the northern coast in the Outer Banks and in the mountains in the far west.  

NC counties by percent living in municipalities

The largest populated county in the state is also the most urban - 95 percent of the population of Mecklenburg County lived in Charlotte or another incorporated municipality within the county (see Table 1).  The next most urban was Durham County – at 86 percent (273,628 people). 

Counties where more than 50% live in a municipality

…And Where they Don’t

Although more North Carolinians live in municipalities, the overwhelming majority of our counties remain rural in nature.  At the end of the decade, the majority of the population living within 80 of our 100 counties lived in unincorporated areas and in almost a third (32 counties), at least 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas (Table 2).  

Counties where more than 80% of population lives in unincorporated area

All of the population of Currituck, Hyde, and,with the exception of 44 people living within Elizabeth City, Camden Counties lived in unincorporated areas. In addition, in 20 counties, there were no incorporated places of 2,500 people or more (a threshold traditionally used by the US Census Bureau and others to define urban places).  

So, while North Carolina is a more urban state than it was 10 years ago, majority of our counties remain characteristically rural. The state will continue to be challenged by balancing the demand for transportation, education, health and other services in growing urban counties while maintaining the needs of a diverse and extended rural population and areas.    

Author: 
Dr. Michael Cline