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Ronda, Spain
Main street in Bastrop, Texas, a small town

A town is a community of people ranging from a few hundred to several thousands, although it may be applied loosely even to huge metropolitan areas. Generally, a "town" is thought of as larger than a village but smaller than a "city." The words "city" and "village" came into English from Latin via French language|French. "Town" and "borough" (also "burrow," "burgh," "bury," etc.) are of Dutch language|Dutch/German language|German root, burg being a fortified settlement and tuin being, literally today, a garden, or enclosed piece of land.<ref>The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition, Erin McKean (Editor), 2096 pages, May 2005, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-517077-6</ref>


Origin and use around the world

In Old English and Old Scots, "Town" (or "toun," "ton," etc.) originally meant a fortified municipality, whereas a borough was not fortified. But that distinction did not last long, and "Edina Burgh" or "Edinburgh" - modernly called a "city" - was a fortified "town" from its founding.

In American English, a town is usually a municipal corporation that is smaller than a city but larger than a village. In some cases, "town" is an alternate name for "city" or "village" (especially a larger village). Sometimes, the word "town" is short for "township."

In general, towns can be differentiated from townships, villages, or hamlet (place)|hamlets on the basis of their economic character, in that most of a town's population will tend to derive their living from manufacturing industry, commerce, and public service rather than primary industry such as agriculture or related activities.

A place's population size is not a reliable determinant of urban character. In many areas of the world, as in India at least until recent times, a large village might contain several times as many people as a small town.

The modern phenomenon of extensive suburban growth, satellite urban development, and migration of city-dwellers to villages have further complicated the definition of towns, creating communities urban in their economic and cultural characteristics but lacking other characteristics of urban localities.

Some forms of non-rural settlement, such as temporary mining locations, may be clearly non-rural, but have at best a questionable claim to be called a town.

The distinction between a town and a city similarly depends on the approach adopted: a city may strictly be an administrative entity which has been granted that designation by law, but in informal usage, the term is also used to denote an urban locality of a particular size or importance: whereas a Middle Ages|medieval city may have possessed as few as 10,000 inhabitants, today some consider an urban place of fewer than 100,000 as a town, even though there are many officially designated cities that are very, very much smaller than that.


In Australia, the status of a town is formally applied in only a few states. Most states do define cities, and towns are commonly understood to be those centres of population not formally declared to be cities and usually with a population in excess of about 250 people.

The creation and delimitation of Local Government Areas in Australia|Local Government Areas is the responsibility of the state and territory Governments. In all states and the Northern Territory each incorporated area has an official status. The various LGA status types currently in use are:

  • New South Wales: Cities (C) and Areas (A)
  • Victoria (Australia)|Victoria: Cities (C), Rural Cities (RC), Boroughs (B) and Shires (S)
  • Queensland: Cities (C), Shires (S), Towns (T) and Island Councils (IC)
  • South Australia: Cities (C), Rural Cities (RC), Municipalities/Municipal Councils (M), District Councils (DC), Regional Councils (RegC) and Aboriginal Councils (AC)
  • Western Australia: Cities (C), Towns (T) and Shires (S)
  • Tasmania: Cities (C) and Municipalities (M)
  • Northern Territory: Cities (C), Towns (T), Community Government Councils (CGC) and Shires (S).



In Austria designations are similar to those in southern Germany with a trichotomy in Gemeinde, Markt and Stadt.


File:Salins les Bains 2.JPG
The town of Salins les Bains, France
From an administrative standpoint, the smallest level of local authorities are all called “communes”. However, some laws do treat these authorities differently based on the population and specific rules apply to the three main cities Paris, Lyon and Marseille. For historical reasons, six communes in the Meuse département still exist as independent entities despite having no inhabitant at all.

For statistical purposes, the national statistical institute (INSEE) operates a distinction between urban areas with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants and bigger communes, the latter being called “villes”. Smaller settlements are usually called “villages”. In any case, the French language does not commonly make a difference between towns and cities.


Germans do in general not differentiate between city and town. The German word for both is "Stadt" as it is in many other languages that do not make any difference between the Anglo-Saxon concepts. A town with more than 100,000 inhabitants is called a Großstadt, which is the most adequate equivalence for city. In Germany also the historical importance, the centrality and the population density of an urban place might be taken as characteristics of a "city". The contrastive word for a village as a smaller settlement is Dorf.

In southern German states the word Markt or Marktflecken designates a town-like residential community between village and city.


In India, under most state laws, no village or settlement can be classified as a town unless its population crosses 20,000 inhabitants. On the basis of population and other issues, the state government notifies a larger community (over 10,000) as a notified area, and its administration is under the locally elected notified area committee. A settlement over 20,000 population would be classified, with a charter from the state government as a town, with a town area committee. Some laws distinguish only towns and villages from each other, but by usage, settlement with larger populations, such as those having a municipal committee or municipal corporation would be called cities. The recent Census of India classified all settlements above 5000 population (subject to some other rules) as urban areas for the sake of census. [1]


In the Netherlands there is no distinction at all between "city" and "town", both translate as "stad". Before 1848 there was a legal distinction between stad and non-stad parts of the countries, but nowadays the word has no legal meaning any more. About 220 places got "stad rights" and are still called so for historical and traditional reasons, but the word is used too for large urban areas, which never got such rights. The contrastive word for a village as a smaller settlement is dorp.


Similarly to Germany, in Poland there is no difference between city and town. Polish word for city is miasto and the only difference between a very big village (in Polish wieś) and a small city is the administrative status of the latter one. Many Polish villages are older than some relatively young cities. For example wieś :pl:Mstów (województwo śląskie)|Mstow is nearly 100 years older than the closely located town of Czestochowa.



Sweden cancelled the official legal term Town (in Swedish: Stad) in the year 1971. Only the word Municipality (in Swedish: Kommun. In US English approximately County (United States)|County) was used, making no legal difference between Stockholm and a countryside municipality. Before that there were a number of terms like "stad"/Town, "köping"/large village etc. The definition of Town (stad) was that it was given such a title. Since the 1980s some municipalities (13 out of 290) call themselves town (stad) meaning the same thing as municipality. This has no legal or administrative significance whatsoever, and they have to use the word "kommun" in laws. In other cases the seat of the municipality is called "town". There is no difference between city and town, both translates to stad in Swedish.

United Kingdom

England and Wales

File:Rugby town centre.jpg
A traditional English town centre at Rugby

In England and Wales, a town traditionally was a settlement which had a charter to hold a market or fair and therefore became a "market town". Market towns were distinguished from villages in that they were the economic hub of a surrounding area, and were usually larger and had more facilities.

In modern usage the term town is used either for old market towns, or for settlements which have a Town Council, or for settlements which elsewhere would be classed a city, but which do not have the legal right (by Letters Patent) to call themselves such. Any civil parish|parish council can decide to describe itself as a Town Council, but this will usually only apply to the smallest "towns" (because larger towns will be larger than a single civil parish).

Not all settlements which are commonly described as towns have a "Town Council" or "Borough Council". In fact, because of many successive changes to the structure of local government, there are now few large towns which are represented by a body closely related to their historic borough council. These days, a smaller town will usually will be part of a local authority which covers several towns. And where a larger town is the set of a local authority, the authority will usually cover a much wider area than the town itself (either a large rural hinterland, or several other, smaller towns.

Alternatively there are also "new towns" which were created during the 20th century, such as Basildon, Redditch and Telford. Milton Keynes was designed to be a "new city" but legally it is still a town despite its size.

Curiously some settlements which describe themselves as towns, are smaller than some large villages (e.g. Kidlington, Oxfordshire) larger than some small towns (e.g. Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire).

The status of a city is reserved for places that have Letters Patent entitling them to the name, historically associated with the possession of a cathedral. Some large municipalities (such as Northampton) are legally boroughs but not cities, whereas some cities are quite small — such as Ely or St David's for instance.

It appears that a city may become a town, though perhaps only through administrative error: Rochester, Kent|Rochester (Kent) has been a city for centuries but, when in 1998 when the Medway district was created, a bureaucratic blunder meant that Rochester lost its official City status and it is now technically a town.

It is often thought that towns with cathedral|bishops' seats rank automatically as cities: however, Chelmsford, England|Chelmsford remains a town despite being the seat of the Diocese of Chelmsford. St. Asaph, which is the seat of the Diocese of St. Asaph, is another such town. In reality, the pre-qualification of having a cathedral of the established Church of England, and the formerly established Church in Wales or Church of Ireland, ceased to apply from 1888.

The word town can also be used as a general term for urban areas, including cities. In this usage, a city is a type of town — a large one, with a certain status. For example, Greater London is a city, but is sometimes referred to affectionately as "London town". (The "City of London" is the historical nucleus, informally known as the "Square Mile", and is a London borough in its own right). Also, going from the suburbs to central London is to "go into town".

  • See Also
    • List of towns in England
    • List of towns in Wales

United States

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The tiny farming community of Wyatt, Indiana.
In the United States of America, the meaning of the term town varies from U.S. state|state to state. In some states, a town is an incorporated municipality, that is, one with a charter received from the state, similar to a city. In others, a town is unincorporated.

The types of municipalities in U.S. states include cities, towns, boroughs, villages, and townships (in the sense of Township (Pennsylvania)|Pennsylvania townships and Township (New Jersey)|New Jersey townships; for the meaning in other states, see civil township), although most states do not have all five types. Many states do not use the term "town" for incorporated municipalities. In some states, for example Wisconsin, "town" is used in the same way that civil township is used in elsewhere. In other states, such as Michigan, the term "town" has no official meaning and is simply used informally to refer to a populated place, whether incorporated or not.

In the six New England states, a New England town|town is a municipality and a more important unit than the county. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and 7 out of 14 counties in Massachusetts, in fact, counties only exist as map divisions and have no legal functions; in the other three states, counties are primarily judicial districts, with other functions primarily in New Hampshire and Vermont. In all six, towns perform functions that in most states would be county functions. The defining feature of a New England town, as opposed to a city, is that a town meeting and a board of selectmen serve as the main form of government for a town, while cities are run by a mayor and a city council. For example, Brookline, Massachusetts is a town, even though it is fairly urban, because of its form of government.

In Administrative divisions of New York|New York, a town is similarly a division of the county, but with less importance than in New England. Of some importance is the fact that, in New York, a town provides a closer level of governance than its enclosing county, providing almost all municipal services to unincorporated areas, called Administrative divisions of New York#Hamlet|hamlets and selected services to incorporated areas, called Administrative divisions of New York#Village|villages. In New York, a town typically contains a number of such hamlets and villages. However, due to the independent nature of Incorporated Villages, they may exist in two towns or even two counties. Everyone in New York State who does not live in an Native Americans in the United States|Indian reservation or a city lives in a town and possibly in one of the town's hamlets or villages. (Some other states have similar entities called townships.) In New York, "town" is essentially short for "township."

In Pennsylvania, there is only one municipality which is incorporated as a "town": Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania|Bloomsburg. Most of the rest of the state is incorporated as townships (there are also boroughs and cities), which function in much the same way as the towns of New York or New England, although they may have different forms of government.

In Virginia, a town is an incorporated municipality similar to a city (though with a smaller required minimum population), but while cities are by Virginia law independent of counties, towns are contained within a county.

In Nevada, a town has a form of government, but is not considered to be incorporated. It generally provides a limited range of services, such as land use planning and recreation, while leaving most services to the county. Many communities have found this "semi-incorporated" status attractive; the state has only 20 incorporated Cities in Nevada|cities, and towns as large as Paradise, Nevada|Paradise (186,020 in 2000 Census), home of the Las Vegas Strip. Most county seats are also towns, not cities.

In California, the words "town" and "city" are synonymous by law (see Cal. Govt. Code Secs. 34500-34504). There are two types of city in California - charter and general law. Cities organised as charter cities derive their authority from a charter that they draft and file with the state, and which, among other things, states the municipality's name as "City of (Name)" or "Town of (Name)." Government Code Sections 34500-34504 applies to cities organised as general law cities, which differ from charter cities in that they do not have charters but instead operate with the powers conferred them by the pertinent sections of the Government Code. Like charter cities, general law cities may incorporate as "City of (Name)" or "Town of (Name)." Some cities change their minds as to how they want to be called. The sign in front of the municipal offices in Colma, California, for example, reads "City of Colma," but the words engraved on the building above the front entrance when the city hall was build read "Town of Colma." There are also signs at the municipal corporation limit, some of which welcome visitors to the "City of Colma" while older, adjacent signs welcome people to the "Town of Colma." Meanwhile, the village does not exist in California, either in colloquial speech or as a municipal corporation. Instead, the word "town" is commonly used to indicate any unincoporated community that might otherwise be known as an unincoporated village. Additionally, some people may still use the word "town" as shorthand for "township," which is not an incorporated municipality but an administrative division of a county.


  1. The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition, Erin McKean (Editor), 2096 pages, May 2005, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-517077-6

See also

Look up Town in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  • List of towns
  • Company town
  • Town Hall
  • Township
  • Town square
  • Town privileges
  • Town charter
  • Townland
  • Town limits
  • Site

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