What is the difference between a town, city, borough, or township?
June 14, 2006 7:02 AM   Subscribe

What is the difference between a town, city, borough, or township?

I am not sure if the difference is just a legal one, population, or what the separations are.
posted by aurigus to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Depends on the state. Usually an issue of population and incorporation.
posted by klangklangston at 7:10 AM on June 14, 2006


If you scroll down to the bottom of this Wikipedia article, there's a list of 'country subdivisions.'

(When I went to college in PA and had to do taxes for the first time, it confused the heck out of me, because they asked for my 'school district', whereas I knew I lived in the village of so-und-so in the township of barely-larger-area. I had a local explain it to me, but this is much more comprehensive. )
posted by cobaltnine at 7:16 AM on June 14, 2006


The wikipedia entry on borough shows how complicated it can get.
posted by smackfu at 7:16 AM on June 14, 2006


First Google result of "What's the difference between a town and a city?"
posted by hermitosis at 7:17 AM on June 14, 2006


Here is a particular example. I live in Pennsylvania (USA). The (town) I live in is technically a Borough. The population of the Borough is 17,000, which I would think is enough to be a city. It is also the county seat.

Which, I just noticed, that Wikipedia article on Boroughs features a picture from the Borough I am talking about! I am just confused as to why they would not become a city, or if an area even needs to become a city.

Is PA just a weird area for this sort of thing? I know we are one of 4 commonwealths in the US, where everyone else is officially a state.
posted by aurigus at 7:31 AM on June 14, 2006


A township has nothing to do with population, it is an arbitrary division of area that is 4 miles by 4 miles (in Michigan) and tessellated across a state.
posted by 517 at 7:39 AM on June 14, 2006


As I remember, PA has four types of local government: borough, municipality, township and city. I don't think that it has anything to do with population size, it's has to do with the structure of the government as defined in the municipal charter.
posted by octothorpe at 7:39 AM on June 14, 2006


517, you are incorrect. In Michigan, a township has to do with incorporation, not area or population. Townships are the areas outside of cities that are incorporated as townships, which pay a lower tax rate and buy services from the city.
posted by klangklangston at 7:48 AM on June 14, 2006


U.S. here: depending on the state they may have different powers -- taxing authority, services they're expected to provide, legislative and law enforcement powers etc. It all has to do with how the division is chartered -- in some states the founding documents go back hundreds of years.

Just for illustration, here are a couple of examples of how complicated it can get here in the Northeast. What follows is mostly right:

Here in CT the entire state is subdivided into towns, and within these towns there are cities, villages and boroughs. In some places like Bridgeport the city is coterminous with the town and the town government is essentially vestigial. Villages are geographical subdivisions of towns but that have no official/corporate existence apart from the town -- it's basically a nickname for part of a town. Boroughs are semi-autonomous divisions of towns that have limited authority on certain issues -- there aren't too many boroughs in CT. Also, CT has no county government; counties are merely geographic place names.

In NY, the entire state is subdivided into cities and towns. Some cities (e.g., the City of Rye) are surrounded by towns they were formerly part of but seceded from. Villages are distinct subdivisions that (theoretically at least) can include land from different towns. When I was growing up the Village of Mount Kisco was partly in the Town of Bedford and partly in the Town of New Castle; folks across the street from each other might have had the same police respond to a problem and have the same sanitation truck pick up their garbage but pay taxes to different entities, be subject to some different laws, etc. -- you get the idea. Later those sections composing the Village of Mt. Kisco seceded from their respective towns to form the Village-Town (or is it Town-Village?) of Mt. Kisco, which made life for those folks simpler.

NY villages have different powers and responsibilities from Towns and Cities; not all land in NY is in a village. The equivalent of a CT Village is called a "Hamlet" in NY state -- a hamlet is just a name for a geographical location (usu. a town population center) with no independent authority. NY State also has strong county governments which have responsibilities distinct from the Town/City and Village divisions (except in NYC -- see below.)

There are only 5 boroughs in NY state -- together they form NY City and each is an administrative subdivision of the larger NYC government. NYC is a strange entity in that it extends over 5 counties (basically the same as the boroughs) but in the case of the City the county government is weak or non-existent and the boroughs take up some of that slack. The NYC government does the rest for all 5 boroughs.

And I'm sure things are different in NJ, PA, VT, NH, MA, ME, etc.

This stuff dates back to colonial times so it's incredibly arcane. I believe things are much simpler once you get west of Pennsylvania.
posted by Opposite George at 8:06 AM on June 14, 2006


In Virginia, everything is subdivided into counties, and each county has certain responsibilities for all of the unincorporated areas of its land area -- stuff like schools, police (through sheriff's office), roads.

Within counties, there are unincorporated jurisdictions ruled by local boards. That's what Reston is, for example. These juristictions are more like homeowners associations than anything -- they may levy a small tax for upkeep of parks and other public spaces and they may set zoning standards, but that's pretty much limits.

Then there are towns, which have elected city councils. They tend to levy taxes, are responsible for taking on some of the duties normally run by the county -- like local roads and limited policing. Generally town police work with county sheriff's deputies. Towns don't have their own school districts, generally serve smaller populations, and leave a lot of governing to counties.

Cities are another matter altogether. They're wholly independent of counties, govern larger population areas, and take on a much larger share of governing responsibilities. Cities have their own school districts, complete poilce forces, and roads.

A fun example of the independence of cities is Fairfax. The city of Fairfax is the county seat of Fairfax County (which is much larger, geographically, and surrounds the city. The city of Fairfax has its own distinct school system (though mostly that means the city school board contracts with Fairfax County's school system to provide education). The city also has its own law enforcement and other services.

In Oregon and Washington, everything is also divided into counties, but there are just cities and unincorporated areas. Most social services are provided at a county level in these states, with counties also providing sheriff-level law enforcement.

Cities in Oregon and Washington oversee public works infrastructure (like sewers, water, etc.) for their residents, provide additional law enforcement, and generally have park departments. Outside of cities, people either live in sewer/water/whatever taxing districts or have wells and septic tanks.

School districts in Oregon and Washington are not bound to cities or counties. Instead, there are distinct school districts which each have their own boundaries and property tax collections. Tax collections are overseen at the county level, so a school district that crosses over county boundaries will get revenue from two different county departments.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:33 AM on June 14, 2006


Klang,

If you would like to see the township grid in Michigan go here (pdf). You can also read What is a township?

The township grid was laid out in the 1800's there was a change in their definition in 1947, as you can see in the link, that has to do with the incorporation and governing powers but it did not change the fact that they were based on area and not population.

MSU also has a great explanation of the history of the township system in Michigan.

I was incorrect though, they are based on 6 miles square and not 4.
posted by 517 at 8:34 AM on June 14, 2006


Something I neglected to mention: Cities in CT tend to operate on a different government model (Mayor/City Council) than towns (Board of Selectment/Representative Town Meeting.) There are some pretty big towns -- Greenwich with 60k population comes to mind; Fairfield's another one -- still using the RTM model. Think the Gilmore Girls times 100.

Oh, and if you dig deep enough for the motivation in modern NY Village and City incorporation debates it often has to do with keeping tax money concentrated in a particular area. This leads to interesting apparent discrepancies such as most of the City of Rye being significantly less urban (and significantly higher-income) than much of the Town of Rye from which it seceded. The Village of Port Chester in the Town of Rye is closer to what most folks picture a city as being than the City of Rye is.
posted by Opposite George at 9:20 AM on June 14, 2006


Interesting all, thank you for your detailed responses! Needless to say it looks like this differs from state to state and is based on models handed down from the past.

When it comes down to it, it seems like the local government decides whether it would be best to create one of these subdivisions. However, I am still not sure "who", if anyone, approves these towns. Could I move out to a rural area with a couple of friends and incorporate/create our own city?
posted by aurigus at 9:24 AM on June 14, 2006


When it comes down to it, it seems like the local government decides whether it would be best to create one of these subdivisions. However, I am still not sure "who", if anyone, approves these towns. Could I move out to a rural area with a couple of friends and incorporate/create our own city?

Again, depends on the state. What state are you in?
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:36 AM on June 14, 2006


Sorry, just noticed you are in PA. Mea culpa...!
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:37 AM on June 14, 2006


Yep.
posted by Opposite George at 9:37 AM on June 14, 2006


Oh sorry -- PA I don't know. See when the latest charter was approved in the state to get an idea if political subdivisions are still being formed there.
posted by Opposite George at 9:39 AM on June 14, 2006


Or bring the crew up to Vermont and try taking over Glastenbury (pop. 6), Somerset (pop. 5), or Warners Grant (pop. 0).
posted by Opposite George at 9:49 AM on June 14, 2006


Is PA just a weird area for this sort of thing? I know we are one of 4 commonwealths in the US, where everyone else is officially a state.

The only commonwealth in the US is Puerto Rico. Massachusetts, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania are the four states that refer to themselves as commonwealths, but it means nothing. Just a title.
posted by Number27 at 10:38 AM on June 14, 2006


In New Jersey, there is no such thing as a town, but only townships, cities, and boroughs, the three classes of muncipalities.

Legal differences between the three classes are trivial (one interesting one is that all cities have non-partisan government whereas boroughs and townships have partisan government) and while there are characteristic tendendencies (most of the older and/or larger municipalities are cities) there are no consistent differences in geography (size, population, population density).

In terms of history, it is often the case that a borough is territory which broke off from, or urbanized earlier than, a larger township. In many cases, boroughs are the more urbanized / dense "hole in the donut" of a township which mostly or entirely surrounds it. (Metuchen, Raritan, Fanwood, and Princeton are examples of boroughs fitting that pattern.)
posted by MattD at 12:48 PM on June 14, 2006



Number27 wrote:

the four states that refer to themselves as commonwealths, but it means nothing. Just a title.

It used to stand for something. It stood for placing the wealth of the commons an equal priority to the wealth of the individual. It's a term Republicans in this country have bastardized into the equivalent of socialism/communism. I believe it was Bill Moyers who said "equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of any democracy". You are making an understatement to say that it means nothing now, and that is a sad thing.
posted by any major dude at 1:00 PM on June 14, 2006


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