An urban area is characterized by higher population density and vast human features in comparison to areas surrounding it. Urban areas may be cities, towns or conurbations, but the term is not commonly extended to rural settlements such as villages and hamlets.
Urban areas are created and further developed by the process of urbanization. Measuring the extent of an urban area helps in analyzing population density and urban sprawl, and in determining urban and rural populations.
Unlike an urban area, a metropolitan area includes not only the urban area, but also satellite cities plus intervening rural land that is socio-economically connected to the urban core city, typically by employment ties through commuting, with the urban core city being the primary labor market. In fact, urbanized areas agglomerate and grow as the core population/economic activity center within a larger metropolitan area or envelope.
In the US, Metropolitan areas tend to be defined using counties or county sized political units as building blocks. Counties tend to be stable political boundaries; economists prefer to work with economic and social statistics based on metropolitan areas. Urbanized areas are a more relevant statistic for determining per capita land usage and densities.
They vary somewhat amongst different nations. European countries define urbanized areas on the basis of urban-type land use, not allowing any gaps of typically more than 200 m, and use satellite imagery instead of census blocks to determine the boundaries of the urban area. In less developed countries, in addition to land use and density requirements, a requirement that a large majority of the population, typically 75%, is not engaged in agriculture and/or fishing is sometimes used.
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In Australia, urban areas are referred to as "urban centres" and are defined as population clusters of 1000 or more people, with a density of at least 200/km2.
In Canada, an urban area is an area that has a density of more than 400 per square km2 and more than 1000 people. If two or more urban areas are within 2 km of each other, they are merged into a single urban area. The boundaries of an urban area are not influenced by municipal or even provincial boundaries.
In China, an urban area is an urban district, city and town with a population density higher than 1,500/km2. As for urban districts with a population density lower than that number, only the population that lives in streets, town sites, and adjacent villages is counted as urban population.
In France, an urban area is a zone (aire urbaine) encompassing an area of built-up growth (called an "urban unit" (unité urbaine) - close in definition to the North American urban area) and its commuter belt (couronne périurbaine). Although the official INSEE translation of aire urbaine is "urban area", most North Americans would find the same as being similar in definition to their metropolitan area.
Statistics Norway defines urban areas ("tettsteder") similarly to the other Nordic countries. Unlike in Denmark and Sweden, the distance between each building has to be of less than 50 m, although exceptions are made due to parks, industrial areas, rivers, and similar. Groups of houses less than 400 m from the main body of an urban area are included in the urban area.
The Philippines has twelve metropolitan areas as defined by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) are Metro Angeles, Metro Bacolod, Metro Baguio, Metro Batangas, Metro Cagayan de Oro, Metro Cebu, Metro Dagupan, Metro Davao, Metro Iloilo-Guimaras, Metro Naga, Metro Olongapo. The most densely populated urban area in the Philippines is Metro Manila.
In Poland, official "urban" population figures simply refer to those localities which have the status of towns (miasta). The "rural" population is that of all areas outside the boundaries of these towns. This distinction may give a misleading impression in some cases, since some localities with only village status may have acquired larger and denser populations than many smaller towns.
Urban areas in Sweden (tätorter) are statistically defined localities, totally independent of the administrative subdivision of the country. There are 1940 such localities in Sweden, with a population ranging from 200 to 1,252,000 inhabitants.
The United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics has produced census results from urban areas since 1951, since 1981 based upon the extent of irreversible urban development indicated on Ordnance Survey maps. The definition is an extent of at least 20 ha and at least 1,500 census residents. Separate areas are linked if less than 200 m (220 yd) apart. Included are transportation features. The 20 largest urban areas are Greater London Urban Area, West Midlands Urban Area, Greater Manchester Urban Area, West Yorkshire Urban Area, Greater Glasgow, Tyneside, Liverpool Urban Area, Nottingham Urban Area, Sheffield Urban Area, Bristol Urban Area, Greater Belfast, Brighton/Worthing/Littlehampton, Edinburgh, Portsmouth Urban Area, Leicester Urban Area, Bournemouth Urban Area, Reading/Wokingham Urban Area, Teesside, The Potteries Urban Area and Coventry/Bedworth Urban Area
In the United States there are two categories of urban area. The term urbanized area denotes an urban area of 50,000 or more people. Urban areas under 50,000 people are called urban clusters. Urbanized areas were first delineated in the United States in the 1950 census, while urban clusters were added in the 2000 census. There are 1,371 urban areas and urban clusters with more than 10,000 people.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines an urban area as: "Core census block groups or blocks that have a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile (386 per square kilometer) and surrounding census blocks that have an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile (193 per square kilometer)."
The concept of Urbanized Areas as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau is often used as a more accurate gauge of the size of a city, since in different cities and states the lines between city borders and the urbanized area of that city are often not the same. For example, the city of Greenville, South Carolina has a city population under 60,000 and an urbanized area population of over 300,000, while Greensboro, North Carolina has a city population over 200,000 and an urbanized area population of around 270,000 — meaning that Greenville is actually "larger" for some intents and purposes, but not for others, such as taxation, local elections, etc.
The largest urban area in the United States is that of New York City, with its city proper population exceeding 8 million and its metropolitan area population almost 19 million. The next four largest urban areas in the U.S. are those of Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia. About 79 percent of the population of the United States lives within the boundaries of urbanized area as of April, 2000 . Combined, these areas occupy about 2 percent of the United States. The majority of urbanized area residents are suburbanites; core central city residents make up about 30 percent of the urbanized area population (about 60 out of 210 million).
In the U.S. Department of Agriculture's natural resources inventory, urban areas are officially known as developed areas or urban and built-up areas. Such areas include cities, villages, other built-up areas of more than 10 ac (4 ha), industrial sites, railroad yards, cemeteries, airports, golf courses, shooting ranges, institutional and public administration sites, and similar areas. The 1997 national resources inventory placed over 98,000,000 ac (40,000,000 ha) in this category, an increase of 25,000,000 ac (10,000,000 ha) since 1982.