Rural Center Expands Its Classification of North Carolina Counties

Thursday, July 9, 2015
Steven Pennington

The North Carolina Rural Center has expanded its system for classifying counties to include a distinction for suburban counties. The Rural Center has long grouped counties into two buckets: rural and urban. But this latest move represents a recognition that North Carolina is no longer simply a rural or urban state. Here’s the new Rural Center’s county map:

Fourteen counties have been placed in this new group — five formerly considered “transitional rural,” and nine characterized as urban. The Rural Center will now use the following definitions in classifying counties:

Rural: 80 counties with population densities of 250 people per square mile or less, according to 2014 U.S. Census population estimates. These counties are home to a little more than 4 million people (41 percent of the state population). The center’s definition of a rural county remains unchanged.

Regional cities or suburban counties: 14 counties with population densities between 250 and 750 people per square mile. These counties account for 2.4 million people (25 percent of the state population).

Urban: Six counties with population densities between 750 and 1,933 people per square mile. These counties account for 3.3 million people (34 percent of the state population).

Rural communities play a huge role in North Carolina’s economy. Based on the Rural Center’s new county distinctions, 30 percent of North Carolina’s jobs in 2014 were in rural counties (according to QCEW), despite these counties’ low population densities. And, according to 2010 Census data, North Carolina has the second-largest rural population in the nation.

But definitions of “rural” and “urban” differ greatly across state and federal government agencies. For instance, the Census Bureau avoids county distinctions in determining rural status, instead defining “urbanized areas” based on population and density of development (all nonurbanized areas are considered rural). The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) develops metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) based on population and commuting patterns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “nonmetro” counties as those including open countryside, rural towns, and separation from larger labor market areas.

LEAD will continue to address economic and workforce trends and opportunities in rural and urban areas of our state in future articles.