Needed for 2022 population, housing census: Definition of urban, rural areas

Thursday December 02 2021
Census pic

An aerial view of a section of Dar es Salaam’s central business district. PHOTO | FILE

By J.M. Lusugga Kironde

Tanzania is preparing to conduct a National Population and Housing Census (PHC) in August 2022 - preparations for which were launched in May 2021 by President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Generally, a population and housing census is the official enumeration of all persons living in a country, as well as all houses (occupied and unoccupied) in the country at the time of the census.

The enumeration implies the collection, compilation, evaluation, analysis, publication, and dissemination of demographic, social and economic statistics relating to the population and housing.

PHC is a national exercise conducted across Tanzania every 10 years. The last census was held in 2012. Thus the 2022 census will be the sixth in the series beginning after the “birth” of the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964. Other censuses took place in 1967, 1978, 1988, 2002 and 2012.

The census is a special exercise aimed at establish the total population in a country, by age and gender, place of residence and status of education, employment status, birth status and mortality and housing status. These basic data determine the real needs of citizens including groups with disabilities; women, children, the youth and the elderly; thus facilitating the development of policies and development plans according to the need and environment.

An important aspect that needs to be established is the proportion of people living in urban areas. The 2012 PHC had it that 29.6 percent of Tanzania’s population was urban; and 70.4 percent was rural. Yet there exists no universal definition of what constitutes an “urban” area, and countries alternately apply criteria related to settlement size, population density, or economic activities.


An analysis of various countries shows that different criteria and methods are used by governments to define what is “urban”. Some 105 countries base their urban data on administrative criteria limiting it to the boundaries of state or provincial capitals, municipalities or other local jurisdictions; 83 other countries use this as the sole criterion to distinguish urban from rural.

Thus, the classification is sometimes based on the whims of the administrators and what they decide, many times on political considerations, as what should be an urban area.

Some 100 countries define urban areas by population size or population density with minimum concentrations ranging broadly from 200 to 50,000 inhabitants. 57 countries use this as their sole criterion. It can therefore be noted that, while in country A, a settlement of 200 people would be an urban area, in country B, a settlement must have 50,000 people to be classified as urban.

Some 25 countries specify economic characteristics as significant; though not exclusive, in defining an urban area.

Typically, the proportion of the labour force employed in non-agricultural activities, is used as a major criterion to grant an urban status to a settlement. 18 countries count and the availability of infrastructure in their definitions. These include paved streets, water supply systems, sewerage systems or electric lighting. If this latter criterion was applied to Tanzania or other African countries, most of our urban areas would be disqualified. 25 countries provide no definition of “urban” at all, while 6 countries regard their entire population as urban.

It is important that countries have an objective and practical definition of what is “urban”. In Tanzania, the Ministry of Lands - through its National Human Settlements Development Policy of 2000 and the Urban Planning Act of 2007 - has numerous categories of “urban”. The ministry responsible for Local Government has urban areas classified as “City, Municipality” and “Town.” It has also got a category of a “Township.” There are no objective criteria of this classification - and, in some cases, political whims carry the day!

The National Bureau of Statistics has its own perspective applied during census undertakings. More than one criterion is used to define urban areas. All regional and district headquarters are considered urban. Some wards adjacent to urban areas are classified as urban if it they have urban characteristics, i.e, they exceed a minimal level of size-density criterion and/or: “have specialist functions, generally of non-agricultural kinds, with many of their occupants in non-agricultural occupations; and many of their buildings used for non-domestic purposes (i.e. used as shops, garages, places of entertainment, factories, workshops, and so on).

The size/density criterion is vague since no official value of size or density exists. Besides, there are wards (within or without district or regional headquarters) which are defined as mixed rural and urban. The final decision as to whether a certain ward is urban or rural is left to the wisdom and discretion of Regional/District census committees.

One outcome of the 2022 Census should be a consistent and workable definition of what an urban area is.