Urban Gazette on Redefining Urban

Redefining Urban

Why define Urban?

Population census and other government surveys rely on country’s official definition of urban for data collection. This data is then used to develop policies. For example governments, as a strategy for equitable employment, use data on ‘urban and ‘rural’ populations to determine job quotas. Multiple socio-economic indicators also rely on these datasets to assess development.

Pakistan’s official definition of Urban

Past: Censuses 1951, 1961 and 1972 Until 1981, all areas with a population of 5,000 or more and all municipal and town committees were urban. There also existed the provision to include any other area that exhibited urban characteristics.

Present: Census 1981 till date Since 1981, urban areas are defined by administrative criterion, i.e. only the people residing in metropolitan and municipal corporations, municipal committees and cantonments are urbanized. All the ‘residual’ are rural populations.

Why is the current definition flawed?

Administrative boundaries exclude urban forms and citizenry, since cities have expanded beyond these official limits. Areas which urban planners would call peri-urban, those huge fringes of settlements that are located outside the official boundaries of cities, are being called ‘rural’, although they are as urbanized as the rest of the city (Zaidi, 2017).

Due to the administrative criteria, places which would earlier have qualified as urban, are being ignored. In 1951 census 51.5 % and in 1961 census 65.2 % of all urban areas did not have administrative status (Ali, 2013). 361 places with a population of 5,000 or more that were considered rural in the 1998 census had significant urban characteristics; if their population were considered urban, this would add another 6.5 per cent to the 1998 urban population of Pakistan (Arif, 2003).

How rest of the world defines Urban

Our research team conducted an analysis of 169 countries’ official definitions of urban. These countries were divided into 3 categories, developed on the basis of their definitions’ criteria. Fig vii is a mapped representation of our findings. Most of the countries define Urban using a Multiple-Criteria definition that takes the region’s socio-economic, demographic and physical characteristics into account. Some of these definitions also acknowledge the area’s administrative status in addition to other characteristics. Following is a list of the most commonly practiced criteria.

Types of Urbanization

Governments worldwide are classifying settlements based on their type and degree of urbanization. For example, France has devised 3 categories, i.e. urban centers, peri-urban rings and multipolar municipalities. Similarly, India has statutory towns ,outgrowths and census towns and USA has urbanized areas and urban clusters (see fig vii. for definitions of these terms). Reza Ali also proposed 2 distinct categories i.e. Urban area (a Pakistan census defined urban place of at least 100,000 residents, its suburbs, linked built-up and surrounding areas, provided they have a minimum density of 500 persons/sqkm) and Urbanizing areas (areas with a town of 50,000 or more residents, a population density more than 250 persons/sqkm (overall) and 400 persons/sqkm in the town and within 75-minute driving distance of an above defined urban area). Despite the difference in names and classification metrics, the purpose of these categorizations is the same, to differentiate high-density, economic engines from areas that are still in the process of realizing their urban potential. The socio-economic, infrastructural and institutional character and built landscape of these places differ from each other significantly. To ensure that appropriate policies are devised to meet their distinct needs, they must be acknowledged as separate forms of urbanization. Following is the most widely practiced classification.

Urban Centers

Settlements with a densely populated core, provided they meet the overall population and job density criteria, have a significant majority of population engaged in non-agricultural economy and offer suitable urban infrastructure, institutions and amenities to their residents.

Peri-Urban Areas

Viable settlements that are contiguous to an urban center, have a significant percentage of their labour force working in that urban center, have a surplus of in-situ workplaces and possess suitable social and physical urban characteristics.

Urban Clusters

Stand-alone settlements situated within the maximum commuting distance from an urban center, given that they meet the minimum population, population and job density and urban infrastructure criteria, with a significant percentage of their labour force working in nearby urban centers and possess a surplus of in-situ workplaces.

All three of these regions lie within the spectrum of ‘urban’, while all other settlements are considered rural.

Agglomeration Index: Beyond census data

Hirotsugu Uchida and Andrew Nelson’s agglomeration index, published by the World bank in its World Development Report 2009, identifies urban concentration based on three factors: population density, population of a large urban center, and travel time to that urban center. The index relies on both census data and data developed using satellite imagery, like GIS data on off-road surfaces derived from land cover and data on population and population density derived from ORNL’s LandScan* and Columbia University’s GRUMP (Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project) human settlement database. This use of digital technologies helps increase precision in results obtained.


1. Adopt a multi-criteria definition of ‘Urban

The official definition of urban should be based on socio-economic, demographic and physical characteristics of an area, not its administrative status. The definition must analyze an area’s population size and density, prevalent economic sectors, job density, quality of infrastructure and amenities, existence of or proximity to an urban core, land use, housing typology and social characteristics to determine if it is urban. The definition may also acknowledge administrative boundaries, if updated.

2. Update administrative boundaries

Administrative boundaries of MCs should be updated to include their contiguous urban built-up area i.e. Peri-Urban areas.

3. Define types of Urban

Urban areas should be categorized based on settlements’ type and degree of urbanization. The above explained classification i.e. Urban Centers, Peri-Urban Areas and Urban Clusters is a comprehensive nomenclature.

4. Use spatial data to identify Urban areas

In addition to census data, remote sensing* technology should be used for spatial understanding of settlements. For example, Urban Unit’s research on contiguous built-up areas conducted using land cover (see page 2) and population density derived from LandScan can help analyze settlements’ characteristics country-wide.