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Classification of Urban, Suburban, and Rural Areas in the National Crime Victimization Survey

NCJ Number
Date Published
December 2020
10 pages
Jeffrey H. Anderson

This report explains the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS’) new (2020) classifications of “urban,” “suburban,” and “rural” areas for the 2019 and future versions of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) to provide a more precise description of where criminal victimizations occur.


BJS’ new NCVS definition of “urban” is based on the concept that “urban” places are densely populated and are at the center of a major metropolitan area or some combination of these. The primary city in a large “urbanized area” qualifies as “urban” if it meets the weighted-housing-unit-density threshold of 3,000 housing units per square mile. BJS has also adopted, with one noted exception, the Census Bureau’s definition of “rural” to replace the historical NCVS definition of rural. The Census Bureau provides specific boundaries around “urban areas,” using set criteria, classifying every area outside of those boundaries as “rural.” The BJS’ definition of “rural” differs from the Census Bureau’s definition is that “urban’ is somewhat different. BJS classifies areas that are neither “urban” or “rural” as “suburban.” Suburban areas are characterized by lower density, a larger ratio of single-family homes to apartments, and layouts based primarily on automobile transportation. They typically do not have urban centers but have centers with smaller populations. BJS uses weighted housing-unit density in its new NCVS definitions, because that measure provides a better indication of the degree of urban density than conventional population density measures. Housing unit density is the number of housing units per square mile in an area. Examples are provided to compare the old and new definitions. 4 tables and 2 figures

Date Created: December 29, 2020