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What's an urban area?

Dateline: 06/09/97

It is difficult to compare countries based on the percentage of urban population since many countries have different definitions of what size population is necessary to make a community "urban."

In Sweden and Denmark, a village of 200 people is counted as an "urban" population but it takes a city of 30,000 in Japan. Most other countries fall somewhere in between. Australia and Canada use 1000, Israel and France use 2000 and the United States and Mexico call a town of 2500 residents urban.

Due to these differences, we have a problem with comparisons. Let us assume that in Japan and in Denmark there are 100 villages of 250 people each. In Denmark, all of these 25,000 people are counted as "urban" residents but in Japan, the residents of these 100 villages are all "rural" populations. Similarly, a single city with a population of 25,000 would be an urban area in Denmark but not in Japan.

Japan is 78% and Denmark is 85% urbanized. Unless we are aware of what size of a population makes an area urban we can not simply compare the two percentages and say "Denmark is more urbanized than Japan."

Below is a table with some countries, the minimum population which makes an area urban and the percent of the country which is "urbanized." Notice that some countries with a higher minimum population have a lower percentage of urbanized population.

CountryMin. Pop.Urban Pop.
South Africa50057%
United States250075%

Hartshorn, Truman A. Interpreting the City: An Urban Geography. 1992.
Famighetti, Robert (ed.). The World Almanac and Book of Facts. 1997.

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