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City proper is a "locality with legally fixed boundaries and an administratively recognized urban status that is usually characterized by some form of local government", or the area within the city limits. City proper is not limited to a city, it can describe the complete area of any locality that fits the definition. The United Nations sometimes use the definition "the city proper is the single political jurisdiction which contains the historical city centre."
City proper is one of the three basic concepts used to define urban areas and populations. The other two are urban agglomeration, and the metropolitan area. In some countries, city limits that act as the demarcation for the city proper are drawn very wide, in some very narrow. This can be cause for recurring controversy.
In its strict sense, city proper is used as a technical term in demography, the statistical study of human populations. Under the title "World Urbanization Prospects", the United Nations issues every two years estimates and projections of the urban and rural populations of all countries of the world. The book defines the population of a city proper as "the population living within the administrative boundaries of a city." The book continues to say that "city proper as defined by administrative boundaries may not include suburban areas where an important proportion of the population working or studying in the city lives."
In demography, city proper is one of the three basic concepts used to define urban areas and populations. The other two are urban agglomeration, and the metropolitan area. In addition, there are Census Statistical Areas and permutations thereof.
A United Nations University working paper titled “Urban Settlement” reviews the most commonly used data sources, and highlights the difficulties inherent in defining and measuring the size of urban versus rural populations. It says: “The city proper is determined by legal and administrative criteria, and typically comprises only those geographical areas that are part of a legally defined, and often historically-established administrative unit. However, many urban areas have grown far beyond the limits of the city proper, necessitating other measures. An urban agglomeration is the de facto population contained within the contours of a contiguous territory inhabited at urban density levels without regard to administrative boundaries’. Urban agglomerations are thus determined by density: the agglomeration ends where the density of settlement drops below some critical threshold. A still more comprehensive concept is the metropolitan area.”
In short, there is no "right" way to define a city or municipality. "City proper" is one of the different ways.
The term is a combination of "city" in the sense of "an incorporated administrative district", and "proper" in the sense of "strictly limited to a specified thing, place, or idea" or "strictly accurate". In encyclopedias, the term "city proper" is often used as an example to illustrate the meaning of the word "proper" in the sense of "tightly defined".
Especially when translated from the English or back, "city proper" sometimes takes on different meanings in different parts of the world. Some languages have no equivalent.
The United Nations Demographic Yearbook is compiled using questionnaires dispatched annually to more than 230 national statistical offices. These questionnaires ask for the country-specific definition of urban areas, rural areas and city proper. In its glossary, the Yearbook defines "City proper" again as "a locality defined according to legal/political boundaries and an administratively recognized urban status that is usually characterized by some form of local government". In its data however, the United Nations Demographic Yearbook affords the individual countries considerable leeway over the definition of "City proper". The table titled "Population of capital cities and cities of 100 000 or more inhabitants" provides several country-specific definitions for "city proper" that diverge from the provided definition:
These definitions are those given for the purpose of the United Nations Demographic Yearbook. One should not assume that these necessarily are the prevailing definitions in their respective countries.
Even in the English speaking world, there can be considerable confusion about the term "city proper". Official city websites sometimes claim that "the city proper is the area of the city where the population is the most densely populated" - which is a common misconception. Even noted demography experts, such as Richard L. Forstall, Richard P. Greene, and James B. Pick, authors of the paper "Which Are The Largest? Why Published Populations For Major World Urban Areas Vary So Greatly" (which is the basis for List of metropolitan areas by population), can get confused about the usage of "city proper". On page 2, they give "city proper" an "administrative definition". On page 5, they imply that the administrative boundaries define the "city proper". Yet on page 14, they make "city proper" a smaller subset of the administrative areas of the cities of Tokyo, Mexico City, and Chicago, and imply that "city proper" and "administrative area" can be different. When articles are translated from other languages, "city proper" is often misused for the city center. One should not automatically assume that "city proper" always refers to "administrative area". Caution should be exercised if the text was translated from another language.
In some countries, city limits that act as the demarcation for the city proper are drawn very wide, or very narrow. This can be cause for recurring controversy.
List of cities by surface area lists little known cities that are larger than many countries. By area, the city of Altamira, Brazil (population 84,000) is bigger than Greece. The City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder (population 32,000) covers more area than Hungary, Portugal, Austria, or Ireland. While these examples cause limited debate, cities in China are a source of continuing disagreement.
The Chinese city of Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia is recognized as the largest city in the world by area. According to the "Urban Settlement" working paper, "in 1986, to cope with growing administrative demands at the local level, China essentially reclassified counties as cities in order to allow local city governments to control the surrounding areas". The authors state that "the Chinese city of Chongqing is another case in point. Even though the municipal district of Chongqing has a total population of more than 30 million inhabitants, fewer than 6 million actually live in Chongqing city proper. Depending on which classification is used, Chongqing is sometimes listed as the world's largest city and, in other cases, does not even appear in the top rung of urban population rankings". (Note the context of "city proper".)
Yunyan Yang describes the problems one is faced with when interpreting population data of Chinese cities proper, using the example of Wuhan. "Misconceptions and Complexities in the Study of China's Cities: Definitions, Statistics, and Implications", an article that appeared in the Journal of Eurasian Geography and Economics, illustrates and clarifies factors leading to misunderstanding and misconceptions regarding the number of inhabitants of China's major cities. (In their paper, the authors use "city proper" in the context of "city districts", and not as the larger administrative area.)
On the other side of the extreme is Metropolitan Lagos. This city has a population of nearly 8 million according to the latest census - which is debated. Official data by the Lagos State estimate the population of Metropolitan Lagos at more than 14 million. However, there is no Metropolitan Government. The Municipality of Lagos was disbanded in 1976 and divided into several Local Government Areas. As a result, the most populous city in Africa, and one of the most populous and fastest growing cities in the world can be missing from lists of cities proper. A similar situation exists in Australia, where large cities are divided into much smaller Local Government Areas.
As long as "city proper" is used as defined above, size and population density have no bearing on the meaning of the term. "City proper" is just one of several ways of describing a city, in this case using administrative boundaries. The drawing of administrative boundaries remains within the purview of a sovereign state.