Urban Planning vs. City Planning: Differences Explained

Published Categorized as Infrastructure
Urban Planning vs City Planning

City planning and urban planning share many commonalities. Both aim to improve the physical built environment and social landscape through strategic planning and policy, with urban planning focused on larger, more mature cities.

Both urban and city planning have the same objectives, priorities, and focal areas of development. Yet, differences exist in terms of the regulatory authorities, policies, local laws and admin depts, and the scope of specific projects.

This article will discuss how urban and city planning should not differ other than the project scope and goals. Such differences are inevitable as urban or city planning for two towns or cities will have varying objectives. However, other differences exist due to more disparate ground realities.

Urban Planning vs. City Planning: Principal Differences

The varying classifications and differences in governance are at the crux of the following principal differences between urban planning and city planning.

Difference      Urban PlanningCity Planning
Area  Urban area or clusterIncorporated city 
ScopeTown, City, Statistical area, District, County, Metropolis, Interstate or Tri-State area, and MegapolisEntire city or any of its parts
RegulationsLocal regulations of Municipality, City, and County. State, Interstate/Tri-State Commission, & Federal lawsCity laws, Local regulations, State legislature policies, and Applicable federal environmental codes

The US was founded and is governed by the principles of federalism.

The principal differences between urban planning and city planning stem from the fact that the 50 states and the federal district have varying subdivision methods, local laws, and governance systems.

Take the example of counties, which typically include urban and rural regions, from cities to small towns. Within the subdivision of a state, a county is a smaller area but still larger than a city, town, or village.

Most states have counties, except for Connecticut and Rhode Island. Louisiana has counties, but they are called parishes. Alaska has counties, too, but they are known as boroughs.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey have boroughs, but they are not the same as counties. New Jersey boroughs are much smaller than a typical county. Towns or townships are eligible to be incorporated per the amended Borough Act of 1987 of the New Jersey State Legislature.

New York City is a unique case. It is neither a typical city nor an independent city-county. NYC has five boroughs, officially classified as counties:

  • Bronx County
  • Kings County, including Brooklyn
  • Queens County
  • Richmond County, including Staten Island
  • New York County, including Manhattan

New York has 57 other counties throughout the state apart from these five boroughs-counties in NYC. They generally have both urban and rural areas.

Hence, their developments require both urban and rural planning.

The five New York City counties are urban, which means they merit urban planning. Since NYC is not a usual city but a megacity and a metropolitan area, any development calls for an urban plan.

A typical city plan relevant for a smaller statistical area is insufficient for NYC or its boroughs/counties.

Scope of Urban Planning vs. City Planning

The United States Census Bureau has a simple distinction between urban and rural areas. Any region that is not classified as urban is a rural area.

The bureau defines urban using two classifications:

  • Urban or urbanized area: This is a region home to 50,000 people or more.
  • Urban cluster: This is a region with a population of less than 50,000 but more than 2,500.

Currently, the country has 486 urban or urbanized areas and 3,087 urban clusters.

All major cities are urbanized areas much larger than urban clusters. Hence, every city plan is a form of urban planning. However, an urban cluster is not necessarily a city, so if an urban cluster is a town comprising villages and smaller settlements, then rural planning is equally essential.

Regions Eligible for Urban Planning

Every urbanized area and cluster classified by the United States Census Bureau is eligible for urban planning. In other words, any area with a population of over 2,500 calls for urban infrastructure, planning, design, and development.

Local governments, administrations, and the citizenry opt for a combination of urban and rural planning for counties, municipalities, and towns comprising urban and rural areas.

Here is the complete list of regions eligible for urban planning:

  • Town
  • Municipality
  • Borough
  • City
  • Statistical Area
  • County
  • District
  • Micropolitan Area
  • Megacity or Metropolitan Area
  • State
  • Interstate Areas
  • Megalopolis

Areas Eligible for City Planning

Like states and counties, cities in the United States are subdivided in various ways.

A city may have wards, precincts, or neighborhoods. A big city may have a well-demarcated central business district or downtown, uptown, inner-city, industrial hub, special economic zone, and suburbs.

A large city, also known as a megacity or metropolis, can have multiple commercial and industrial hubs, various types of residential neighborhoods, several economic zones and other corridors, and expansive suburbs.

Any city larger than a metropolis becomes a metropolitan area.

The city serves as the principal center of the metropolitan statistical area, and the expanding region may transcend state borders. Such megacities or metropolitan areas become a shared interstate region, and in some cases, tri-state areas.

An exceptional expansion of a city or cities transcending counties and state borders leads to a megalopolis. A megalopolis has a few large cities, many medium and small cities, several towns, and some overlapping urban and rural areas. The Northeast Megalopolis is a fitting example, as it comprises over nine major cities on the Eastern Seaboard.

Here is the complete list of areas eligible for city planning:

  • City Neighborhoods
  • City Wards
  • City Precincts
  • City Boroughs
  • Commercial Hubs
  • Industrial Areas
  • Economic Zones
  • Transport Corridors
  • Business Centers
  • Principal City

Any region beyond the local city administration calls for urban planning in the same county. A metropolitan area combines urban and city planning, while a megalopolis calls for a broader approach, combining city, urban, semi-urban, and semi-rural planning.

Objectives of Urban Planning vs. City Planning

The objectives of urban and city planning have many overlaps. The concepts, designs, and strategies devised by both have the same main priorities.

However, there are some finer differences due to the specific nature of the objectives. City planning is a subset of urban plans, which means that urban planning objectives can be more generic, comprehensive, diverse, or specific, depending on project demands. City planning is rarely generic.

City planning is restricted to the immediate local and pressing objectives. A city plan may not directly or indirectly affect people living in the surrounding regions, both urban and rural.

An urban plan and the resulting developments may straddle cities and urbanized areas and connect to rural regions. Hence, urban planning may have to conceive any contemporary and sustainable infrastructure or facility deemed necessary.

Yet, both urban and city planning have to accomplish their primary objectives in a specific manner.

Urban Planning Objectives

Urbanized or modern infrastructure and facilities require urban planning.

The list includes:

  • Sanitation
  • Transport 
  • Utilities
  • Telecommunications
  • Residential developments
  • Public and private infrastructure
  • Business and commercial hubs
  • Industrial zones
  • Special corridors

Each of these objectives may be a standalone project. Urban planning is also necessary for districts, such as:

  • School district
  • Community college district
  • Utility district
  • Hospital district
  • Public transport or transit district.

City planning is not applicable for single-purpose or special-purpose districts. Similarly, urban planning is not appropriate for rural regions, even if it is a district.

A relevant example is an irrigation district.

Despite the modernization of irrigation, agriculture, dairy, livestock, and most other rural industries, the distinct challenges require a different approach. The central concepts of urban planning are not ideal for rural planning.

City Planning Objectives

All city planning objectives are decided by the local populace’s needs, business, trade and commerce, industry, other economic activities, and any special priority.

Urban planning is more focused on modern public infrastructure. City planning aims for state-of-the-art developments, too. However, a city plan must simultaneously prioritize the local population’s interaction with such infrastructure or facilities.

Let’s consider the example of a transit corridor. A transport corridor connecting a city with roads and highways statewide and beyond requires an urban plan, but it does not need a city plan.

A beltway or ring road within the boundaries of a city cannot do with just an urban plan. The beltway’s planning, design, and construction must account for the direct impact on the local populace, especially those living in and around the identified route.

Also, the beltway plan must factor in the potential changes to the cityscape and indirect implications of the development. The urban planning for an intercity, intrastate, interstate, or nationwide highway has a very different approach.

Regulatory Authorities for Urban Planning vs. City Planning

The type and scope of a project decide the applicable regulatory authorities for both urban and city planning. However, urban planning may transcend cities, counties or districts, and states with more regulations and administrative or supervising authorities.

Take the example of a tri-state area.

Any substantial development in a tri-state area will naturally involve the local administrations or governing bodies of all the three states, counties, and primary and secondary cities. Many tri-state areas are metropolitan regions involving multiple cities.

The United States has around twenty tri-state areas. Several of these areas include entire counties, including some non-city urban areas and rural regions. City planning is not applicable in such cases.

City planning is generally regulated by:

  • The mayor
  • The council, and other elected representatives
  • The relevant administrative departments of the municipality in conjunction with committees comprising public officials, private citizens, business associations, industry bodies, or trade organizations.

These groups may also regulate and influence urban planning when it involves their city. Otherwise, urban planning is regulated by the governor, the legislature, elected representatives, commissioners of relevant departments or agencies, and in rare cases, the state senators.

The local trustees and elected representatives have a more influential role in towns and other urbanized clusters. Yet, such urban plans must abide by the state, county, district, and other local laws, policies, and environmental regulations.

Specialized Urban Planning vs. City Planning

Specialized urban and city planning are necessary for many projects. For instance, a new galactic city needs a complete plan for the entire development. Likewise, a mining town needs a different urban plan, even for renewal or revitalization.

The United States has 384 metropolitan and 543 micropolitan statistical areas. More than 300 cities have a minimum population of 100,000, while 10 cities have more than 1 million residents each.

There are around 19,500 incorporated cities, towns, and villages in the country. Almost 76% of these incorporated places have a population of less than 5,000.

Since less than 19% of the national population lives in rural areas, most of the incorporated places with 5,000 or fewer people are towns. All such towns call for bespoke urban planning to meet specific and special needs.

Similarly, there are many types of cities, depending on the leading industrial and economic activities. Port cities demand specialized city plans, while coastal cities without a commercial port have unique necessities.

Landlocked cities or eco-sensitive statistical areas also merit special projects.

Similarities Between Urban Planning and City Planning

Both urban and city planning have the same objectives:

  • Ease of living
  • Essential utilities
  • Modern civic infrastructure
  • Sustainable development
  • Reliable public facilities
  • Backup and contingency
  • Industrial growth
  • Economic viability

Urban and city planning have too many overlaps to be segregated as two niches. Every possibility within the ambit of city planning is a type of urban plan. The latter is broader, of course.

However, both urban and city planning is complicated.

Let’s consider the power grid example. An urban plan for a power grid spanning a large region is much more extensive due to its scale and complicated because of the quantum of real-time electricity transmission.

A city plan dealing with the power supply lines within its boundaries may appear to be relatively more straightforward and confined to a much smaller area. However, challenges arise out of the required intricate network or intra-city grid.

Then, there are coexisting junctures of public and private infrastructure.

Planning vs. Design | Urban Area or Cluster vs. City

Urban or city planning should not be equated with the actual design. Both urban and city planning is more technical than creative or artistic.

The focuses are:

  • Laws
  • Regulations
  • Environmental and building codes
  • Data
  • Analysis
  • Safety
  • Sustainability
  • Policymaking

An urban or city design focuses on the implementable plan, the blueprint, financial estimate, project schedule, and active onsite involvement during development. Urban and city planning are macro strategies, and an urban or city design is about micro plans.


Urban and city planning are interdisciplinary fields, combining policies, architecture, civil engineering, transportation, utilities, environmental science, and economics. Many urban and city planners develop specializations as influenced by the complexity of the macro process.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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