Chapter 2: Urbanization and Population Redistribution

In Chapter 2, “Urbanization and Population Redistribution,” we discuss how urbanization is conceptualized and measured. We discuss the different ways in which rural is understood and the various ways it is measured, including metropolitan vs. nonmetropolitan classifications. This chapter restates that in almost all statistical systems, rurality is treated as a residual, or the territory left over after urban areas have been classified. This chapter also examines the causes of urban population concentration, ranging from natural increase to advancements in technology. By examining the forces responsible for its increase in both developed and developing societies, we seek to illustrate the uneven nature of urbanization and the conditions under which counter-urbanization may occur.

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Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

1. The text notes that in nearly all statistical systems used for classifying urban and rural places, rural is treated as a residual category—the territory remaining once all urban and peri-urban places have been measured. What are the implications of this for understanding rural paces and for interpreting statistical data related to rural people and communities?

2. The abundance of measures to determine rural and urban areas can get very confusing, even for those who are well-versed in rural studies. Why is there a need for so many different approaches to classifying urban and rural places? Might it make sense to develop one over-arching measurement approach? What might be some of the arguments for and against a single definition to classify rural and urban places?

3. Counter-urbanization, or rural turnaround, is the process by which rural areas grow faster than urban areas, in a reversal of urbanization trends. The reasons for counter-urbanization have been complex, and in the U.S., counter-urbanization has occurred in different ways in the 1970s and early 1990s. Looking into the future, might we expect unforeseen or unprecedented events and processes that might affect the likelihood of counter-urbanization, or alternately make counter-urbanization less likely (e.g., climate change, technological advances, changes in telecommunications, fossil fuel shortages, etc.)?

4. Hope Tisdale (1942)* defined urbanization demographically as an increase in the number of places exceeding an urban population size threshold, and the continued growth of such places. How else might one determine if urbanization is occurring in a nation, state, and/or community?

*Tisdale, H. 1942. The Process of Urbanization. Social Forces, 20, 311-316.


1. Representations in Works of Art. The purpose of this exercise is to identify urban and rural themes in works of art. How are rural and urban themes represented? Split the class into small groups. Take the class to a campus museum. If there is not a museum, go to website of a major art museum. Walk through the museum together for 10-15 minutes so that students can get the lay of the land. Then, student groups should circulate on their own. Each group should identify one work that is shaped by an urban theme and one work by a rural theme. Encourage students not to restrict choice to representational pieces, or to paintings, drawings, and so forth. Sculpture, non-representational pieces, performance art are all acceptable. Emphasize that this is interpretative; there is no “right” or “wrong.” What matters is what they see in the respective works. Each group should prepare a 1-page brief describing the rural and/or urban themes they see in the works and their logic in making these observations. Include the respective work’s artist, date made, location in the museum or website, and a photo of the piece, if allowed. In the next class, each group should present their report and engage in discussion. Note that a variant of this exercise is proposed in the supplemental materials for Chapter 4 (Understanding Community in Rural Society).

2. Census Data Extraction & Analysis [Part I]. The ways in which rural places are classified matters for understanding phenomena like urbanization. Using U.S. Census data, determine the total percentage of the population living in the nonmetropolitan U.S. in 2000 and 2010. What does data suggest about urbanization in the U.S. during this time period? Now look at the total percentage of the population living in the rural U.S. in 2000 and 2010. To what extent do these different classifications lead to different interpretations of urbanization in the U.S.?

We suggest that you record these data in a table similar to the one here.

As shown in your analysis, a large percentage of the rural population is located in metropolitan counties and conversely a substantial share of the urban population is located in nonmetropolitan counties. What do you think these places are like? What do you think people do to make a living in urban-nonmetro or rural-metro places?

Data Instructions:

To determine total, rural only, urban only, metropolitan, and nonmetropolitan populations in the U.S. for 2000 and 2010, follow the steps below:

  • i. Navigate to the U.S. Census American FactFinder by going to
  • ii.On the American FactFinder main page, locate the heading “What We Provide” on the left side of the page. Locate “Decennial Census” and click “Get Data.”
  • iii.Select “Geographies” located on the left sidebar. A popup window should appear.
  • iv.On the “Select Geographies” page, select “Name” on the second tab at the top.
  • v.On the left side of the name page under “Geography Filter Options,” scroll down and select the checkbox “Show Geographic Components (e.g., urban, rural).”
  • vi.In the “Geography Results” section to the right, you will see a long list of geographies covering multiple pages. At the top of the list, you should see “United States” and “United States – Urban.” Select the two categories’ checkboxes and click “Add.” You should now see the two geographies under “Your Selections” at the top left of your window.
  • vii.To find the other geographic components, you will need to repeat these steps with: “United States–Rural,” “United States–In metropolitan statistical area (MSA)/consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA),” and “United States–Not in metropolitan statistical area (MSA)/consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA).” You can use the search bar at the top, or you will find “United States–Rural” on page 2, “United States–In MSA/CMSA” on page 3, and “United States–Not in MSA/CMSA” on page 4. Select the respective checkboxes and click “Add.” You should now see all geographies under “Your Selections” at the top left of your window.
  • viii.Select “close” on the top right of the “Geographies” selection box.
  • ix.At the top of the list, you should see “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000” (2000SF1 100% Data). Clicking on the link will generate a table that shows the total population for urban, rural, metro, and nonmetro in 2000, as well as those populations broken down by a variety of demographic and household characteristics. Make a note of this data in your table.
  • x.To obtain the 2010 data, repeat the same procedure, but instead of selecting “Decennial Census,” select “American Community Survey.” Be sure to select the same geographies: United States, United States–In metropolitan statistical area, United States–Not in metropolitan statistical area, United States–Rural, United States–Urban. Do not forget to select the checkbox “Show Geographic Components (e.g., urban, rural).” All selections should be on the first page. Make sure you click “Add”. You will see a list of results in descending chronological order.
  • xi.To view the 2010 data, locate the “Show Results From” box on the top right corner of the “Search Results” box. Click the dropdown menu and select “2010” for 2010 data.
  • xii.The 2010 ACS 5-year estimates will be the first result. Click on the link named “Age and Sex” to access the data needed to complete your table.

2. Census Data Extraction & Analysis [Part II]. Pick two states to compare. One should be relatively urban-centric and one should be relatively rural in its settlement structure. Based on the 2000 and 2010 data, how have urbanization processes differed across the two states? How do these state-level data compare to the national level figures? Based on the readings from the chapter, how can we understand what might be happening in these spaces?

Depending on your needs, you may want a comparison table similar to the one here.

Data Instructions:

  • i. Follow steps i-v from Part 1.
  • ii. Under “Select Geographies,” enter the name of the first state you would like to compare in the search box.
  • iii. Locate the same geographic components as you did above and click “Add”:
    a. Enter State Name–Urban
    b. Enter State Name–Rural
    c. Enter State Name–In MSA/CMSA
    d. Enter State Name–Not in MSA/CMSA
    Note: If you are using the “search” function, you must clear the filter before entering a new search phrase.
  • iv. Select “Close” on the top right of the “Geographies” selection box.
  • v. At the top of the list, you should see “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000” (2000SF1 100% Data).
  • vi. Complete the same search as above for the second state you would like to compare.
  • vii. Follow steps x-xii from Part 1 using the same search criteria as above to gather 2010 data.

3. Census Data Extraction & Analysis [Part III]. Using the same two state comparison above, examine the landmass that is urban and that is metropolitan. Download the maps as PDFs. What do you observe?

Data Instructions:

  • i. On the main American FactFinder page, locate the section “Reference Maps.”
  • ii. Click the drop-down menu and select the first state you are interested in. Click “Go.”
  • iii. Make sure the top left box named “Your Selections” is empty.
  • iv. You can then select geographies to appear on the map. Note that “Core-Based Statistical Areas” are metropolitan areas. You are unable to select rural, but you can select “Urban.”
  • v. You can download the maps you create using the toolbar on the right side of the map.

For all Census Data Extraction activities, supplement the data analyses outlined above using the most recent American Community Survey (ACS) estimates. If you have worked through the exercises to this point, you should be able to figure out how to extract these most recent ACS data.