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Derived from the Latin word urbanus (meaning characteristic of, or pertaining to, the city), urban essentially holds that same connotation to most people. Yet varying criteria exist among the 195 countries in defining urban. These criteria include administrative function (national or regional capital), economic characteristics (most residents in non-agricultural occupations), functional nature (a developed infrastructure), and population size or density. Administrative function is used solely in 89 countries and in combination with other criteria in another 20. Economic is one of several criteria in 27 countries, as is functional in 19 countries; functional is also used solely in 5 countries. Population size or density is the sole criterion in 46 countries and in combination in another 42. No definition exists in 24 countries, while Guadeloupe, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Monaco, Nauru, and Singapore designate their entire populations as urban.
Such differences make cross-national comparisons difficult. For example, the lower-range population limit for an urban area ranges from 200 in Iceland to 10,000 in Greece. A universal standard, perhaps the midpoint of 5,000 inhabitants, would be inappropriate in populous countries such as China or India, where rural settlements with no urban attributes at all could easily contain such large numbers. Using each country’s own criteria, the United Nations Population Division (2008) identified 47 percent of the world’s population as urban. Significant variations existed: Africa, 36 percent urban; Asia, 37 percent; Europe, 71 percent; Latin America and the Caribbean, 75 percent; North America, 79 percent. The lowest (10 percent) was in Burundi, while the highest (100 percent) were in the six countries previously identified.
German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies (1887) described the contrasting elements of urban and rural life from a cultural perspective. His concept of gemeinschaft (community) characterized the small village and surrounding area where people united by close ties of family and neighborhood shared traditional values and worked together for the common good. In contrast to this ”we-ness,” gesellschaft (association or society) denoted the ”me-ness” of the city of a future-oriented heterogeneous population, leading Tonnies to pessimistically view the city as characterized by disunity, rampant individualism, and selfishness, even hostility. This typology of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft had a lasting influence on other urban sociologists.
Emile Durkheim (1962) also had an enduring effect. His emphasis on contrasting social bonds offered another perspective on urban and rural distinctiveness. He suggested that urban social order rested on an organic solidarity in which individual differences, greater freedom, and choice thrive in a complex division of labor where inhabitants are interdependent. Rural life, on the other hand, is organized around mechanical solidarity, with social bonds constructed on likeness (common beliefs, customs, rituals, and symbols), where inhabitants are relatively self-sufficient and not dependent on other groups to meet all of life’s needs.
These twofold typologies dominated for much of the twentieth century with most studies, based on a spatial emphasis on the central city, examining different variables in comparison to non-urban areas. In recent decades, however, changing settlement patterns and the evolution of a global economy reduced the analytical value of this simplistic urban-rural dichotomy.
The post-World War II suburban boom in developed countries initiated an exodus from cities and a growing preference for that lifestyle. At first, suburbs were mostly bedroom communities on the cities’ outskirts, where inhabitants typically lived in one-family houses, but worked, shopped, and enjoyed leisure activities in the city. By ringing the central cities, the suburbs reinforced the original conception of urban in a spatial context, and were essentially viewed as residential appendages to the cities. That changed with the development of suburban office and industrial parks, shopping malls, megastores, hospitals, and places of worship. As the suburbs became more self-sufficient, the definition of suburban changed into that of a third entity, an alternative to urban and rural.
Even so, larger cities still extended their sphere of influence beyond their boundaries, particularly in such areas as culture, fashion, media, professional sports, sightseeing, and tourism. The term metropolitan denotes that reality throughout the world, as does the US Census Bureau term metropolitan statistical area (MSA). The official US urban population thus includes not just those living in cities, but also in urbanized areas with populations of 2,500 or more, as well as in urbanized zones (unincorporated communities of less than 2,500, but on the fringes of metropolitan areas).
Sometimes metropolitan areas overlap each other in their spheres of influence, creating what Jean Gottman (1961) conceptualized as a megalopolis, citing the region extending from Boston to Washington. The Census Bureau identifies 18 such regions in the US and calls them consolidated metropolitan statistical areas (or CMSAs).
Disparities in urban definitions and the blurring of urban and non-urban elements led social scientists into new theoretical approaches. Convergence theory argues that technology will lead cities and communities everywhere to develop similar organizational forms. In contrast, divergence theory posits that increasingly dissimilar organizational forms will emerge because of differences in (1) cultural values and histories; (2) timing and pace of urbanization; (3) form of government and planning approaches; and (4) hierarchy of countries in the global economy. Another perspective, postmodern theory, rests on the premise that cities develop in ways that are no longer rational or manageable. Instead, global capitalism serves as the underlying rationale for actions by increasingly fragmented urban power structures. The economic welfare of cities now results from causes existing beyond their boundaries. This interplay of global, national, regional, and local forces is an additional complicating factor in explaining what we mean by urban.
Urban still remains subject to varying interpretations, with or without a spatial premise; with a local, regional, national, or global perspective; and with either a positive or negative emphasis. Regardless of theoretical or conceptual approach, the term nonetheless remains mostly suggestive of its Latin origins: that of particular qualities associated with people and patterns indeed found in cities.
- Durkheim, IE. (1962)  The Division of Labor in Society. Free Press, New York.
- Gottman, J. (1961) Megalopolis. Twentieth Century Fund, New York.
- Parrillo, V. & Macionis, J. (2009) Cities and Urban Life, 5th edn. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
- Tonnies, F. (1963)  Community and Society. Harper & Row, New York.
- United Nations Population Division (2008) World Urbanization Prospects: 2007 Revision. United Nations, New York.