Partnering towards an integrated definition of rural and urban areas

A harmonized definition of rural areas consistent with an urban definition is important for making cross-country comparisons of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and for meeting the associated rural policy objectives.

Leveraging the work already dedicated to the SDGs, such definitions may also support national processes thus ensuring efficient use of limited resources.

The Global Strategy to improve Agricultural and Rural Statistics (GSARS) and FAO have joined forces with the European Commission, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Eurostat and the World Bank to develop and jointly test integrated global definitions of rural and urban areas based on population size and density and built up area global grids. The partnership builds on the work presented to the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) and the Inter Agency and Expert Group on Food Security, Sustainable agriculture and Rural Statistics (IAEG-AG) in March 2018. It also draws on the conclusions reached at the Expert Group Meeting on Improving Rural Statistics, hosted by the Global Office of the GSARS and FAO in January 2018.

The proposed definitions rely on a consistent, flexible and cost-effective methodology that characterizes coherently the continuum of urban and rural territories and that extends the degree of urbanization concept developed by the European Commission, Eurostat and the OECD. By strengthening the perspective on the rural component, the GSARS and FAO actively contributed to the design of a refined conceptual schema. The operational part of this schema is based on a global model, the Global Human Settlement Model Grid – SMODv910A – which implements a multiple-hierarchical classification. It is derived from population and built-up areas grids developed by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. The model is composed of three thematic levels, which are hierarchically nested. Each level entails an increasing degree of categorization of the 1-km resolution population grid. At the top level, Level 1, the schema and model subdivides each cell of the 1 km global grid in a) Rural grid cells, b) Urban clusters and c) Urban centers. At the intermediate Level 2, the categorization distinguishes between “Mostly uninhabited, rural” vs. “Dispersed rural areas” vs. “Villages” in the rural domain, and between “Towns” vs. “Suburbs” in the urban clusters domain. Level 3 further characterizes the rural and urban dimensions with a 14-class categorization.

The partner organizations are now actively collaborating to develop joint protocols to pilot test the applications of the urban and rural Level 2 definitions in eight countries (Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa and USA).

The pilots are conceived as desktop exercises to investigate a) the applicability of international definitions of rural and urban areas based on best available data;  and b) to assess countries’ opportunities, capacities and constraints to report a subset of core SDG indicators using the proposed definitions and existing data and sources in the countries. Field test protocols, country statistics, maps and fact sheets to support the countries in these pilots are currently under preparation. Results from these pilots will be made available in the last quarter of 2018. The final report on rural/urban definition that takes into account the test results will be presented to UNSC and IAEG-AG in the first quarter of 2019.