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What’s the difference between a town and a city?

Ben Steelman

In North Carolina, there isn’t any, really.

Some states make technical distinctions between towns and cities, or among towns, cities and villages, each with different powers and population levels.

North Carolina law, however, does not distinguish between municipal corporations, according to The N.C. League of Municipalities, a non-partisan association representing town and city governments in the state.

Whether a municipality is a town or city depends on what it’s called in its charter, which is granted by North Carolina’s state legislature, the General Assembly. That means it’s up to the legislators and the locals.

City/town populations in North Carolina are literally all over the map, according to Margaret Christensen, public affairs director for the League of Municipalities. For example, Wilmington, which had just short of 101,000 residents in July 2007 (according to state govnerment figures), is a city; however, Cary, with a 2007 population of 132,000, is a town. Boiling Spring Lakes, with a population of 4,115, is officially a city (again, these are 2007 figures), while Carolina Beach, with 5,974 year-round residents, is officially a town. Go figure.

At last count, by the way, North Carolina has a total of 548 incorporated municipalities — 19 of which are in Brunswick County.

According to Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, the largest town in the U.S.A. might be Hempstead, N.Y., with 755,000 residents. (The same article, however, lists Cary, N.C., as “the largest town in the United States,” which shows the limits of relying on Wikipedia.) The smallest city in the U.S.A. might by Maza, N.D., with a population of 5 (but then, all municipalities in North Dakota are, technically, “cities”).

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One Response to “ What’s the difference between a town and a city?”

  1. On July 1, 2009 at 10:31 am Heinz Ruppmann wrote:

    The Town of Hempstead, NY is unlike any town in NC. Like NC, New York is divided up into counties. Unlike NC, NY counties are divided up into cities and townships. The towns may also include one or more incorporated villages. The exception is NYC which includes 5 counties. Hempstead is part of Nassau County on Long Island and is so populous because it borders Queens County in NYC. Hempstead also includes 21 villages.

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