Defining what rural means without using the word ‘zucchini’

UPDATE: Note comments here and also responses on Facebook.

I heard two new definitions of “rural” this week.

1) (From a woman) If you can’t buy panties and you have no stoplights in your county, you’re living in a rural place.

2) Rural is where you lock your car in order to prevent your neighbor from filling it with zucchinis.

There must be a million of those out there (send ’em if you’ve got ’em). But after spending three or four days at the Minnesota Rural Health Care Conference in Duluth and the National Rural Assembly in St. Paul, it remains obvious that the demographers and number crunchers don’t have this pinned down.

Kenneth Johnson, demographer at the Carsey Institute in Durham, N.H., said 16 percent of the nation is rural, which he defined as non-metro. No sooner did he get that thought out than someone disagreed and said the figure really was more like 20 percent.

The Census Bureau has been changing its definition but more or less says that whatever is not urban is rural. If you want to get into the debate, go here.

In Minnesota, ever since somebody thought up the concept of metro versus Greater Minnesota, people have been complaining about how inadequate it is to designate the 80 counties outside the Twin Cities area “rural Minnesota.”

It matters because people are passionate about defending rural values and seeking ways to support them financially and otherwise. If more people are considered rural, they have more clout at the statehouse and in Washington, D.C.

Is Duluth rural? St. Cloud? Most of us would say no. So you see more studies and reports that deal with that by creating “micropolitan” areas. To take one example, the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter last year tweaked its annual report on Internet use by breaking down “Greater Minnesota” into “rural” and “metropolitan and micropolitan” counites:

micropolitan counties.JPG

A micropolitan county has a central city with at least 10,000 residents.

Better. It puts places like Marshall (Lyon County) and Duluth (St. Louis County) in a middle ground between rural and Twin Cities metro.

But it still leaves you with what I’ve come to think of as the Cook problem. With 574 residents in northern Minnesota, it pretty much fits anybody’s definition of rural. But because it’s in St. Louis County, it sometimes falls into a metro, and thus urban category. Not so satisfactory.

All of which brings me to RUCA (Rural-Urban Commuting Area) codes. These are based on commuting patterns at the census tract level and they allow the creation of four categories — urban, large rural, small rural and isolated.


It’s a much more nuanced map. You can see northern St. Louis County is no longer “urban,” but divided into large rural, small rural and even isolated.

The bottom line is that there isn’t one definition that fits all. State demographer Tom Gillaspy says your definition probably should depend on what the need of the moment is and proceed from there.

That brings me back to the zucchini definition, tossed out at the National Rural Assembly by Ron Phillips of Wiscasset, Maine. Anybody have a better one?

  • Rural is: When you can eat, several times a week, a spaghetti and meatball dinner complete with garlic bread, cole slaw, coffee, and a “sweet” (sit down or take out) for $7 because a benefit is being held for a friend, family member, or neighbor who just got diagnosed with cancer, was in an accident, lost their home or business to fire, or has gone missing.

  • Amy Warman

    Rural means you cannot get Pizza delivered to your house.

  • andrea

    Rural is: When providing your home phone you only give the last four digits because everyone has the same prefix.