What is the difference between a city, a town and a village?

Leeds, a city in Yorkshire (photo-painting by digitalrob70 - CC-BY)

Leeds, a city in Yorkshire (photo-painting by digitalrob70 - CC-BY)

There are many definitions of what constitutes a “city”. The distinction between a city, a town and a village varies from country to country, and throughout history. Here are just a few of those definitions.

In the United Kingdom, the monarch declares that a town has become a city. However, a few cities were grandfathered in because they were known as such before the monarch got involved. The traditional notion was that a city should be a cathedral town (and it’s the Church of England cathedral that would have been of interest to the monarchy), but this is not a strict test.

Every now and then (such as to commemorate some special event), the monarch lets it be known that some new cities are going to be announced. The town councils of candidate cities then spend a lot of their taxpayers’ money lobbying for city status to be awarded to their town. In 2002, to mark the year of her jubilee, Queen Elizabeth II “upgraded” Lisburn, Newport, Newry, Preston and Stirling to cities.

A town is colloquially expected to have a weekly market (and permission for these too was historically granted by royal charter). Without a market, it was just a village. But even a village is expected to have a post office (or, before the postal era, a church). Anything too small to support a church or post office is a hamlet.

People often refer to a city as including its suburbs. In common speech the city of London would include the City of Westminster, the City of London proper, and the many suburbs that form the built-up area. When needing to refer to the city without its suburbs, the term “city centre” is used, or “town centre” for a town.

In Australia, on the other hand, the city without its suburbs is often called the central business district. Residents of the suburbs might say they are “going in to the city” when they are going to the CBD, but residents of rural areas would mean the city as a whole if they used that phrase. A “city” such as Sydney actually includes a number of officially-designated cities such as the City of Sydney, the City of North Sydney, the City of Leichhardt, the City of Penrith and so on.

Beyond Sydney we have the City of the Blue Mountains, which demolishes any rigorous meaning of the word “city” by assigning it to a loose collection of towns and villages that spread across the mountains, interspersed with large areas of wilderness.

In New Zealand it’s straightforward because any urban area with a population over 50,000 is defined by the government statistics department as a city rather than a town.

Within the United States the terminology varies from state to state. In North Dakota every incorporated locality is defined as a city, including the City of Maza with its five inhabitants. In California, on the other hand, the terms “town” and “city” are legally synonymous, whereas in Illionis a city must have a population of 2500 or more.

Ultimately, all the official proclamations amount for little, because people tend to refer to big conurbations as cities, smaller conurbations as towns, and cute conurbations as villages. And that’s good enough for the Google English Dictionary, which says simply “A city is a large town.”

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