Is NC Urban? Or Rural? Understanding the new Census definitions

Making Sense of the New "Urban Area" Definitions
US Census Bureau Alters What It Considers Urban Areas

The US Census Bureau recently released new definitions of urban areas. What does this change mean for North Carolina?

Author: Michael Cline, North Carolina State Demographer

You may have seen the recent news about the US Census Bureau redefining urban and rural areas. What do these definitions of rural and urban mean for North Carolina?

So, what is an urban area? 

Do you live “in town” or do you live “out in the country?” This is what the US Census Bureau is trying to show with this particular definition of urban and rural areas. It disregards legal boundaries such as city limits. For this definition, urban areas are any densely settled areas consisting of 2,000 or more housing units or 5,000 or more people. All other areas are considered rural (see Redefining Urban Areas following the 2020 Census for more details).

Prior to 2020, the Census Bureau relied solely upon population density and defined areas of 2,500 people or more as urban.  

So, How Many People Live in Urban Areas? 

The US Census Bureau reported that there were 6,964,727 people living in 87 urban areas in North Carolina, or about two of every three North Carolinians. These urban areas ranged in size from less than 5,000 people to over 1 million people. A little over 80 percent of all urban areas are smaller than 100,000 people and 33 percent have populations of less than 10,000. There were 115 urban areas solely or partially located in North Carolina in 2010 under the old definitions. 

Number of Urban Areas in North Carolina by Urban Area Size 

Urban Area Size Number Percent of All Urban Areas
5,000 9 10.3%
5,000-9,999 20 23.0%
10,000-19,999 17 19.5%
20,000-49,999 21 24.1%
50,000-99,999 4 4.6%
100,000-249,999 6 6.9%
250,000-499,999 8 9.2%
500,000-999,999 0 0.0%
1 million + 2 2.3%


NC Home to Two New Large Urban Areas; Second Fastest Growing Urban Area 

The Raleigh urban area was the second fastest growing urban area of a million or more people – growing by 25.1% over the last decade. This growth was only surpassed by Austin, Texas (growing by 32.8% during the same period).  At 1,106,646 people as of April 1, 2020, Raleigh is the second largest urban area in North Carolina – the first being Charlotte. At 1,379,873 people, the Charlotte urban area remains the largest urban area partially or fully located within North Carolina. There were 1,359,439 people living in the North Carolina portion of the Charlotte urban area in 2020.  

There are 18 large urban areas wholly or partially located in North Carolina in addition to Charlotte and Raleigh (See our North Carolina's Large Urban Areas table below). These are urban areas of 50,000 or more people.

The newest large urban areas include Clayton (51,898) and Pinehurst-Southern Pines (50,319). Change in these urban areas were due both to tremendous population growth as well as change in the way that the US Census Bureau defines urban areas

Wait, But I thought North Carolina was a Rural State? 

At 3,474,661, North Carolina had the second largest rural population in the nation, even as our urban population rapidly grew. In 2020, about one in every three people in North Carolina were living in a rural area, about the same as lived in rural areas in 2010 as they were defined for each decade. In 2010, when urban areas had to include at least 2,500 people, there were 3,233,727 people living in rural areas. 

Is an Urban Area the Same as a Municipality? 

No. In North Carolina, cities, towns, and villages can be legally incorporated by the state as a municipality. We (and the Census Bureau) provide statistical data for municipalities in many reports, including our latest population estimates: Municipal and Non-Municipal Population | NC OSBM.

But municipalities can be tiny (our smallest, at 13 people in 2020, being Fontana Dam) and the settlement density not large enough to be considered urban. Using the Census Bureau’s urban area definition, there are unincorporated communities that are considered urban (like Lake Royale) and many neighborhoods around Charlotte (as an example) that are part of the Charlotte urban area even though they are not included within Charlotte’s corporate boundary. 

Is This the Only Urban Definition? 

No. The Census Bureau’s urban definition is one of many urban designations. We have sometimes used incorporated municipalities to define urban. Sometimes we rely on the North Carolina Rural Center’s definition, which uses county population density to define urban, regional city/suburban, and rural counties. Sometimes, we and others define urban areas as counties within metropolitan statistical areas  – while all other counties considered rural.

These new 2020 urban areas will be used to define metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas (or Core Based Statistical Areas). Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) will be designated by the fall of 2023.

You can use the Rural Health Information’s “Am I Rural?” tool to discover how your location is defined as rural or urban using different criteria (note that the 2020 definitions have not yet been added). 

Is There Any Other Significance for These Definitions? 

While the US Census Bureau defines urban and rural areas for statistical purposes, other federal agencies and state programs may use urban and/or rural definitions in formulas used to distribute federal and state funds.

For instance, the Federal Transit Administration allocate funds based upon three major categories of geography: (1) urban areas of 200,000 or more; (2) urban areas of 50,000 to 199,999; and all other areas. The eligibility for several rural housing and other programs also depend upon these definitions where any area not considered urban, is rural. 

For more information 

The US Census Bureau will publish the related geography shapefiles for urban areas in January 2023. The 2010 urban area shapefiles can be accessed at NC OneMap

North Carolina's Large Urban Areas in North Carolina 

Urban Area Population Housing Units Land Area (Sq. Mi.) Water Area (Sq. Mi.) Population Density
Charlotte, NC-SC ** 1,359,439 567,807 642.29 10.24 2,116.56
Raleigh 1,106,646 455,527 554.82 5.36 1,994.61
Winston-Salem 420,924 187,144 310.79 2.11 1,354.37
Durham 396,118 173,410 183.36 1.31 2,160.39
Greensboro 338,928 148,331 169.31 2.17 2,001.85
Fayetteville 325,008 137,211 195.92 2.05 1,658.85
Asheville 285,776 138,374 248.58 1.90 1,149.61
Concord 278,612 111,573 200.06 0.51 1,392.66
Wilmington 255,329 126,576 142.25 4.49 1,794.97
Hickory 201,511 89,412 221.34 2.08 910.43
Gastonia 176,897 76,009 124.58 1.33 1,419.96
High Point 167,830 71,478 100.79 1.64 1,665.08
Burlington 145,311 61,970 92.02 0.79 1,579.16
Greenville 120,150 58,789 66.38 0.35 1,810.09
Jacksonville 111,224 40,962 75.65 0.68 1,470.15
Rocky Mount 63,297 30,235 44.95 0.08 1,408.02
Goldsboro 54,456 25,498 53.16 0.16 1,024.38
Clayton 51,898 19,895 36.26 0.16 1,431.20
Pinehurst/Southern Pines 50,319 25,063 47.56 1.37 1,058.11
Myrtle Beach--North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC ** 23,593 20,777 30.72 1.59 768.11

Click on the column headers in the table to sort the data in the column.

** Population shown for North Carolina portion of urban area only.

See the full list of North Carolina's urban areas on LINC (Log Into North Carolina).