What Is a Census-Designated Place?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A Census-designated place (CDP) is a categorization used by the United States Census for the purpose of collecting and tabulating data. Census-designated places are locally recognized communities with population clusters which lack legal status such as incorporation within the states where they are located. An example of a Census-designated place might be a small group of houses well outside any neighboring city, town, or village in a rural area where 150-200 people live together. There are no firm population thresholds for a CDP; generally, they have populations of around 3,500.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

Several characteristics differentiate a Census-designated place from other “places” or centers of population. The first is the lack of incorporation. The second is a lack of municipal government and services. While a Census designated place may be a thriving community, it doesn't have elected officials, a police force, and similar services, instead relying on services provided to the region in general. For instance, law enforcement might be performed by county sheriffs. Because CDPs are not officially recognized, their boundaries are determined by Census officials who rely on information from local residents and neighboring officials. They cannot be located inside incorporated places, and in some states, they cannot directly border incorporated places, either.

Local residents also use a specific name to refer to a Census-designated place, and this name may be recognized by the postal service for delivery purposes, and published in documents regarding that place. Road signs and other signage would also include the local name for the CDP, and the name must be distinct from the names of neighboring incorporated places. Determining that a location should be treated as a Census-designated place does not confer any legal status, with the term being used primarily for the convenience of the Census. A CDP may be located just outside a municipality, or it may be quite remote, depending on the region.

The Census has been gathering information about “unincorporated places” since the mid-1800s, when Census-takers first began to recognize that such places often had a standing in regional communities, even if they weren't incorporated and legally recognized. Definitions of such locations varied, as did trends about collecting data, until 1950, when the United States Census officially started including “unincorporated places” and later “Census-designated places” in its data collection.

Demographic data about these places and their residents can be obtained from the United States Census. Especially in rural areas, such information can be very interesting, as it can reveal radical differences in socioeconomic status and race between small communities which might not otherwise be counted.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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