The nation’s urban population increased by 6.4% between 2010 and 2020 based on 2020 Census data and a change in the way urban areas are defined, according to the new list of urban areas released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Despite the increase in the urban population, urban areas, defined as densely developed residential, commercial, and other nonresidential areas, now account for 80.0% of the U.S. population, down from 80.7% in 2010. This small decline was largely the result of changes to the criteria for defining urban areas implemented by the Census Bureau, including raising the minimum population threshold for qualification from 2,500 to 5,000. The rural population — the population in any areas outside of those classified as urban — increased as a percentage of the national population from 19.3% in 2010 to 20.0% in 2020.
This is not a sign of substantial urban to rural migration – these shifts in proportions are largely the result of changes to the criteria.
Consistent with previous decennial censuses, changes were made to criteria classifying urban areas following the 2020 Census. Key changes to the Census Bureau’s urban area concept and criteria include:
- The use of housing unit density instead of solely population density. The minimum population threshold to qualify as urban increased from 2,500 to 5,000 or a minimum housing unit threshold of 2,000 housing units.
- The jump distance was reduced from 2.5 miles to 1.5 miles for 2020. Jump distance is the distance along roads used to connect high-density urban territories surrounded by rural territory.
- No longer distinguishing between urbanized areas and urban clusters. All qualifying areas are designated urban areas.
As a result of these changes, 1,140 areas containing approximately 4.2 million people, classified as urban in 2010 are now rural.
Due to urban growth, urban areas have grown denser, changing from an average population density of 2,343 in 2010 to 2,553 in 2020. Additionally, 225 urban areas qualify based on the 2020 housing unit threshold that would not have qualified based on the new population threshold alone.
Based on 2020 Census data, the Census Bureau identified 36 new urban areas that were classified as rural in 2010.
The nation’s most densely populated urban areas of 200,000 or more people are:
- San Francisco—Oakland, CA (7,626 people per square mile)
- Los Angeles—Long Beach—Anaheim, CA (7,476 people per square mile)
- San Jose, CA (6,436 people per square mile)
- New York—Jersey City—Newark, NY—NJ (5,981 people per square mile)
- Honolulu, HI (5,886 people per square mile)
The New York-Jersey City-Newark, NY-NJ, area remains the nation’s most populous urban area, with a population of 19,426,449. The Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA, area is the second most populous (12,237,376), followed by the Chicago, IL-IN area (8,671,746). These areas have been the three most populous since the 1950 Census, when urban areas were first defined. However, at that time, Chicago was the second largest. Los Angeles became the second most populous urban area in 1960, and the order has not changed since.
Among urban areas with populations of 1 million or more, the Austin, TX area grew at the fastest rate, increasing by 32.8%, followed by the Raleigh, NC, area, at 25.1%, and Orlando, FL, at 22.7%. The Austin, TX, area also had the highest rate of land area change from rural to urban, increasing by 18.5%.
For any given urban area, population increase may be attributed to a combination of internal growth, outward expansion to include new growth, and outward expansion encompassing communities previously existing outside the urban area.
Regional and State Patterns
Of the nation’s four census regions, the West Region remains the most urban, with 88.9% of its population residing within an urban area, followed by the Northeast Region, at 84.0%. The South and Midwest regions continue to have lower percentages of population living in urban areas than the nation, with rates of 75.8% and 74.3%, respectively.
Of the nine census divisions, the Pacific Division in the West Region remains the most urban, with 91% of its population residing within urban areas. The East South-Central Division in the South Region remains the least urban, with only 59.2% of its population living within urban areas.
Of the 50 states, California was the most urban, with 94.2% of its population residing within urban areas. Nevada followed closely with 94.1% of its population residing in urban areas.
The states with the largest urban populations are:
- California (37,259,490)
- Texas (24,400,697)
- Florida (19,714,806)
Vermont was the most rural, with 64.9% of its population residing in rural areas.
The states or territory with the largest rural populations are:
- Texas (4,744,808)
- North Carolina (3,474,661)
- Pennsylvania (3,061,630)
- Ohio (2,798,349)*
The Census Bureau also defined the urban and rural areas in Puerto Rico. The territory’s urban population declined from 3,493,256 people in 2010 to 3,018,908, now accounting for 91.9% of the total population of 3,285,874 (down from 93.8%)*. The rural population in Puerto Rico increased between 2010 and 2020, both in number — from 232,533 to 266,966 — and as a percentage of the total population, from 6.2% to 8.1%. Of the 26 urban areas in Puerto Rico, San Juan, with a population of 1,844,410, remains the largest.