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The University of Alabama

Alabama: Rural or Urban? ‘It Depends,’ According to UA Analyst

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama, when it comes to land area and population, is a study in contradiction.

“Is Alabama an urban state or a rural state?” asks Annette Watters, manager of the State Data Center at The University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce.

“It depends. It’s easy to look around and feel confident that we are a rural state. In fact, 95.64 percent of the land area of Alabama has rural status.

“But, most of the people live in our urban areas. High-population density is one of the criteria for determining urban status. In fact, 59 percent of the population of Alabama lives in urban settings, and 41 percent lives in a rural area. “

Watters’ comments are based on data from the 2010 census released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau about urban and rural areas and how their status is determined.

For example, Watters said, a town that has 2,500 people or more is part of the urban landscape.

“Some people who live in small towns and think they are in a rural area may actually be urban dwellers, by federal definitions,” Watters said.

“So, if you look at Alabama by population, we are an urban state. If you look through the lens of land area, we are a rural state.”

That generalization holds true for most states. Only Maine, Vermont, West Virginia and Mississippi have a greater percentage of rural population than urban population.

And, no state has most of its territory taken up by urban places, according to Watters.

“Even the most densely settled states and the ones with the largest populations have more rural than urban territory,” Watters said. “For instance, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey are small states that contain big cities. They are America’s most intensely urban states. But at least 60 percent of the land area in those densely settled states is rural. As in all states, most of the people live in the cities, and very few people live in the parts that are not cities.”

Watters noted that Alabamians may think of New York as the most densely urban state in the nation, but it is not. New York State has 91 percent of its land area in rural territory but 88 percent of its population in an urban area. New York State is a rural state, with one big city. Georgia has a similar story. Ninety-two percent of Georgia’s land area is rural, but the state has one notable very large city. Seventy-five percent of Georgia’s population lives in an urban setting.

Alabama has seen a steady trend for decades toward becoming more urban and less rural. In 2000, 55 percent of Alabama’s population lived in urban areas. In 2010 that was 59 percent.

“Rural areas remain attractive for their beauty and their heritage,” Watters said. “But, the expectation is that more and more people will continue to choose city life over country life.”

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.